Female DMACC welder Swank ready to dive into job market

Jolena Swank of Woodward, standout welder in the program at the DMACC Perry VanKirk Career Academy,holds the high-end helmet she won in a welding competition at at New Way Manufacturing in Scranton. Photo courtesy DMACC

Your senior year of high school is the time to make choices about continuing your education. For Jolena Swank, a Woodward-Granger High School senior, the choice has been easy. Swank is one of the rare female students who is choosing to pursue a career in welding.

“I decided to get into welding because it’s amazing,” Swank said. “It fascinated me from the beginning.”

Swank started her welding studies in her junior year as a student at the Pella Career Academy. Before she moved to Woodward, her Pella instructor let her know about the opportunity to take classes at the DMACC VanKirk Academy in Perry.

Now that she is approaching graduation, Swank is excited about her future goals and eager to enter the workforce and apply her quite considerable skills. Over just the past month, she entered three welding competitions around central Iowa and did well in all of them.

Kyle Harding and Bob Hunt, welding instructors at the DMACC Perry VanKirk Academy, took a number of Perry students to a contest held at New Way Manufacturing in Scranton, and Swank placed fourth among the 25 participants, earning herself a state-of-the-art welding helmet for her labor.

Swank next took her talents to the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Local 33 in Des Moines, where she placed ninth out of nearly 100 competing welders. Swank said she got some help along the way from the union welders.

“The union guys were really pretty nice and helpful,” she said of the Des Moines contest. “They knew what they were doing and gave me some good advice.”

Swank’s tour of area welding contests ended at the SkillsUSA competition on DMACC’s Ankeny campus. Her goal was to beat her score from the previous year’s competition, when she placed third. Using her full suite of welding skills, including stick, MIG, TIC, arc and  oxy-acetylene welding as well as brazing, she came away with a second-place finish and a silver medal.

DMACC Perry welding instructor Bob Hunt said he is impressed with Swank’s abilities, and he noted that women often make excellent welders. Swank herself understands her unique place in a trade traditionally dominated by males.

“I believe more women should be in welding than there are now,” she said. “I believe women have every right into a man’s world and that women are as equal as men. More and more employers are looking for women.”

John Deere’s Des Moines Works in Ankeny, for example, is one of the area employers looking to hire people skilled-up like Swank. Deere has immediate openings for assemblers, electricians and welders and have gone to great lengths to recruit employees. They also boasts some the best benefits in the industry, including free life insurance, medical coverage with premiums as low as $54.81 a month, paid vacation and a pension plan.

As a qualified welder, Swank is in an enviable position for any 19-year-old. She is about to graduate and immediately enter the workforce earning more than $41,000 a year and carrying virtually no college debt. It is an attractive deal, yet the American Welding Society still projects a shortage of 400,000 welders by 2024.

To help meet these workforce needs, a partnership has been developed with DMACC’s workforce training academy at the Southridge campus in Des Moines. Eddie Diaz, director of the DMACC Perry VanKirk Career Academy, has been tasked with helping Perry-area residents take advantage of these lucrative job opportunities.

“I think DMACC President Rob Denson is focused on helping students meet the workforce needs of Central Iowa,” Diaz said. “He sees the Perry area as a place where we can provide the education and training needed for some high-demand jobs.”

Swank said she is not sure where her career will take her. She recently got a scholarship offer from the Tulsa Welding School in Oklahoma, and several employers have reached out to her with opportunities. Before she makes a decision, however, she has one more semester at the VanKirk academy in Perry.

As a graduating senior, she will take advantage of this summer’s evening welding classes at the center at no cost to her through a pilot program funded by the State of Iowa. By the end of the summer, Swank will have completed 22 of the 36 credits needed to obtain her two-year welding certificate, and she did all this as a high school student, at no cost to her and before most high school students even begin their freshman year of college.

High school students from Adel-De Soto-Minburn, Dallas Center-Grimes, Madrid, Panorama, Perry and Woodward-Granger are all able to take welding classes at the Van Kirk Academy. They are among the students, parents and teachers who recognize the growing value in pursuing a career in welding.

If you are interested in applying at John Deere or in learning more about the opportunities in welding, stop by the DMACC Perry VanKirk Career Academy or email Blanca Cortes at becortes@dmacc.edu for an appointment.

High school students and adults interested in summer welding opportunities should stop by the center and meet with Mary Ocker or email her at mjocker@dmacc.edu or visit the DMACC Perry website for more information.


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