By LIZ WELTER
MARSHFIELD, Wis. (AP) — Melanie Oliver defies stereotypes. She’s a petite, muscular woman who wields a welding torch with grace and pride at Felker Brothers Corp.
The company manufactures welded stainless steel pipe and tubes, including custom fabricated products, with customers worldwide.
Oliver, 32, enjoys the technical challenges of welding, which demand precision but also fit her creative nature.
“I can look at any weld and tell you if it’s mine,” Oliver told News-Herald Media.
Like a written signature, every welder has a technique that makes it their mark.
Welding is a physically demanding job that’s fulfilling and provides a sense of accomplishment, Oliver said. It’s also a job with lots of opportunities in Wisconsin. The state is a leader in manufacturing and that process often includes welders.
“We can almost guarantee a job for any of our welding program graduates,” said Walter Quaschnick, the welding program director at Chippewa Valley Technical College, which is where Oliver completed her certification.
For instance, last month an Eau Claire manufacturing company contacted the college seeking to hire 30 welders.
The demand for welders is similar in central Wisconsin, said Mark Snyder, a member of the Mid-State Technical College welding advisory board and a manager at A&B Process Systems in Stratford. The company designs and fabricates custom stainless steel equipment used in a variety of industries including food, beverage and pharmaceuticals.
Snyder started as a welder at A&B Process Systems and worked his way up to a management position.
“At A&B there’s a continual need for welders, in part, because those we have move up to higher positions (creating vacancies),” Snyder said.
Besides the growth in manufacturing spurring a need for more welders, the baby boomer generation is aging out of the workforce leaving more openings.
“Welding is a good paying job where there is room for growth and a long-lasting career,” Snyder said.
Welding isn’t a job Oliver ever thought she would be doing. After she completed her high school GED she held jobs at Grassland Dairy Products Inc., Greenwood, and Marshfield DoorSystems where she either drove a forklift or was a machine operator. When she was laid off at Marshfield DoorSystems in 2010, Oliver wasn’t sure what to do next.
“I was looking at the newspapers for jobs and I saw ads for welders,” Oliver said. “They were good paying jobs and it looked like, if there were layoffs, there was always going to be a need for welders.”
At Marshfield DoorSystems her wage hovered around $17 an hour. Now she’s making $21 an hour plus good health and retirement benefits.
Welding is a physically demanding job, which is one of the reasons she enjoys her work, Oliver said.
“I have a very bad limp from congenital hip dysplasia and because of that, nothing is going to stop me,” Oliver said. “I like to bow hunt and fish.”
Congenital hip dysplasia is caused by a misalignment in the hip joint. Her welding skill also got Oliver’s foot in the door at Felker Brothers where there are opportunities to advance.
While working full-time, Oliver will complete her associate degree in business management in December with plans to eventually complete a bachelor’s degree in business.
“I love welding but I also like the business side also. If it doesn’t work out, I have welding,” she said.
Another factor to consider is the pay she makes as a welder.
“When you look at what I make welding and the wages for people with business degrees, I make more money welding, so who knows? Maybe I’ll have my business degree and keep welding,” she said.
If Oliver completes her business education there are advancement opportunities in the company, said Carol Willfahrt, Felker Brothers vice president of human resources. Oliver has the experience and good work history that makes her a candidate for other jobs, Willfahrt said.