October 2009 - For Pamela Olin, her MIG welder and plasma cutter might as well be paintbrushes. An artist by trade, she uses welding as a means to create eye-catching sculptures both large and small. And, with the advent of a new Intro to Welding for Women class at Harper College, Palatine, Ill., she has the opportunity to teach her art and welding philosophies to a new generation of female welders.
"I want to get women comfortable in the shop environment and impress upon them that they can do anything they set their mind to," says Olin. "I believe that when you're comfortable and you know what to expect--sparks, noise, dirt--you can get down to the business of learning."
Presented through Harper College’s continuing education department, the creative welding course--dubbed Zen and the Art of Welding--had an original goal of 10 students. It surpassed that figure handily: 67 people have signed up, and multiple classes have been added.
"It just got a phenomenal response," says Olin. "It got to the point that at the last two art fairs of the summer, I had students finding me and introducing themselves to me because they had heard about the class.
"Clearly there was a need," she adds.
Olin’s enthusiasm for her art is clearly contagious. Through her work and now through this course, she’s learned how to make welding an attractive pursuit for women who assume it’s a down-and-dirty man’s job.
"I was working at the Harper shop doing an independent study ... and I noticed that there were only two other women in all of the classes, so naturally we started talking about learning to weld and the issues these women encountered," says Olin. "When I found myself explaining how to handle the torch flame like an eyeliner brush--and the women really got it then--it occurred to me that women need the information in a different format to really understand some of the concepts. Guys have a very different frame of reference, so they don't always know how best to communicate ideas to women."
Speaking of guys, Olin’s students aren’t solely female. At least six men from the college’s regular welding certification classes have signed up to learn how to use their skills more creatively.
However, women have the added benefit of learning the nuances of a pursuit not normally presented to them as a viable career option.
"Learning to work with steel in a predominately male occupation gives a woman an incredible sense of power and control," says Olin. "These are sorely lacking in many women’s lives and can make the difference between being able to feed their families or not. This class would also be wonderful for survivors of abuse for all the same reasons.
"In today's economy, with layoffs and overseas workers, women are looking for ways to increase their employability," she continues. "Many companies would love to employ women welders, not just because they will get funds from the government but because frequently women make better welders due to their fine motor skills and generally [having] more finesse."
Olin’s course benefits from her many years of artistic welding experience. She has a nearly 20-year relationship with Waukegan Steel Sales Inc., Waukegan, Ill., which has agreed to donate scrap to the program.
With all the pieces in place, she can now bring her message of welding as a creative, therapeutic pursuit to a segment of the population eager to learn.
"I hope to encourage women to go on to take the certification classes and become the strong, smart, motivated examples we want our daughters to see," she says. MM