During the hottest week this summer while peers hit pools or beaches to cool off, eight Niles middle schoolers learned to weld July 15-19 at the Southwestern Michigan College Niles Campus.
Simon Brown, Jordan Cunningham, Alex Mccully, Ryan Murphy, Cameron Inman, Drew George, Aubrey McCombs and Jaki Weist didn’t beat the heat so much as bend it to their will, plunging pieces they created by melting metal to 3,000 degrees into water.
They had chilled bottled water to slake their thirsts. But air conditioning has its limits while wearing protective coats, gloves and hoods. Numbered stalls resemble a curtained polling place, except sparks cascade in these “voting booths,” striking the floor around their heavy work boots like ground-level fireworks.
“When you quench metal in water,” instructor Allyson Starrett explained, “bubbles wrap around and protect the heat unless you move it around in the water so it actually cools. The week of welding camp is, of course, the hottest of the summer, but it’s far cooler than an actual shop.”
Starrett has taught welding technology since 2016 at the college from which she graduated with an associate degree in industrial technology. Growing up in Van Buren County, she whet interest in her trade by attending a free career camp such as this one. “I tried occupational therapy assistant, but my brain does not work that way. I’m better at building things and telling you how they work.” Welding is also her creative outlet for artwork.
Niles High School Career and Technical Education Director Carrie George partnered with YMCA and wrote a grant to provide this camp. Welding occupied four days, with Friday devoted to a field trip to three area companies.
“(Thursday) I’m going to have shapes cut so they can weld a bird house,” Starrett said. Jaki’s two brothers studied with Starrett. “I wanted to try it,” she said. “Yesterday was my first time welding.”
Jaki was particularly intrigued by underwater welding, and Starrett likened that to a unicorn — she met one once, but they’re so rare they seem like mythical creatures. Female welders in general occur with the frequency of albino deer, she joked, but that is changing quickly as jobs are plentiful and women are finding more opportunities.
Starrett’s charges are fired up in a way that transcends hot weather. “These kids are unbelievably excited every single day,” Starrett said. “Getting them interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in middle school, they’re more confident and are already problem-solving.”
Plus, welders remain in high demand because almost every industry needs them. Salaries range from an average median of $41,380 to more than $100,000.
On Wednesday, the students received a virtual tour from Starrett’s colleague, Ferenc Sefcsic, who joined SMC in 2017. Sefcsic grew up in the Netherlands, emigrating to the United States in 1988 and lived 17 years in Arizona. Wooden shoes he wore playing soccer as a boy in Holland are displayed in his Harry T. Gast/M-TEC Building office.
“We moved to Arizona about 1997,” Sefcsic said. “I worked for a sheet-metal shop, did a five-year apprenticeship and started my own custom copper smithing business. I bought tools a little bit at a time. My big investment was a $35,000 plasma cutter. You put a sheet of metal on it, program the computer and it cuts patterns. I did a lot of decorative things. Metalworking and welding go hand-in-hand.”
Examples of his artistry include a 7-foot-tall range hood, a huge watering can sculpture in which his daughter could stand upright for a Phoenix children’s museum and 20 aluminum grocery aisle sign frames. “Metallurgy is part of SMC’s program,” he said. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have found a more ductile grade of aluminum.
“At one point, I had eight guys reporting to me to make more than 300 prison ‘burglar bars’ to prevent inmates from escaping through ductwork like in the movies,” he said. “The more educated you become, the more money you make and the less you have to learn from the School of Hard Knocks. Challenge yourself. Don’t be scared to try something new. Failure is the best way to learn. Getting uncomfortable is the only way to grow.”