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Heavy-metal ready

Non-traditional students are 'powerful' in new welding program


Uniqua Sparks’ last name is fitting. While she’s welding heavy metal — mask on and fire blazing — the sparks fly.

During the process of learning to fabricate and fuse parts together, she’s developing confidence and a new passion.

“It has made me feel powerful, very powerful in this class operating this machine that is basically on fire. I feel very strong and I love it,” said the mother of three.

(Photo courtesy of GRCC) Uniqua Sparks receives her certificate of completion from Amy Mansfiled, dean of the School of Workforce Development

Sparks is a student in the first cohort of Metallica Scholars Introduction to Welding at Grand Rapids Community College. Fourteen students graduated Aug. 12 from the eight-week course held at the Tassell M-TEC, 622 Godfrey Ave. SW.

“My goal is to get a job and support my family,” she said, adding that she wants to pursue further certification in the welding trade as well.

GRCC was one of just 10 community colleges in the nation to earn the $100,000 grant from the heavy metal band. Metallica’s All Within My Hands Foundation teamed up with the American Association of Community Colleges on the project, aimed at providing workforce training for community college students and reinvesting in cities where the band has toured.

The majority of scholars in the GRCC program are women and nontraditional college students. The intensive program takes less time to complete than traditional courses, and features smaller class sizes with flexible scheduling options and career preparation assistance. Participants paid just $50.

Several women were referred to GRCC by The Women’s Resource Center and Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, and are looking for new careers and education opportunities after experiencing difficult life circumstances.

“So far I’ve just learned to be patient,” said Sparks, who enrolled in the program to start fresh after being in what she called “a rut.”

“With the welding, you have to go nice and slow, steady. It’s not a fast-paced job. You have to really take your time.”

GRCC Metallica Scholars student Teresa Collins prepares metal for welding

Women in Welding

Metallica Scholars graduates earn Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification and are ready for entry-level welding jobs, said Lannie Collard, GRCC program manager for workforce training. The hope is that employers will pay for further training. Entry-level welding jobs pay $14 to $18 per hour, and a skilled welder can make $60,000 to $100,000 per year.

There’s a big demand for welders, and skilled trade workers in general, because not enough people are trained to fill jobs. There’s a push to train women, Collard said.

“It’s something primarily men have done before, and most of those men are beginning to retire now and so it’s leaving a big gap,” she said. “Women seem to be more detail-oriented, so they tend to be great welders.”

Program instructor Abbey Hunter enjoys the craft and artistry of welding. While holding a degree in metalsmithing and art and design from Grand Valley State University, she has worked as a welder for several years. But welding was a career she never considered while growing up.

“I’ve always wanted to see more women in this industry because there’s really not a lot of us out there. There was kind of a massive void when I first started welding,” she said. “I really fell in love with the craft and I do a lot of my own welding outside of my job.”

(Photo courtesy of GRCC) Jaclyn Kwiatkowski holds up her certificate of completion

‘Make My Children Proud’

Metallica Scholar Teresa Collins has the first piece of solid steel she ever welded — a “true piece of art” that, for her, symbolizes precision and consistency. It’s now displayed in her bedroom. “Nobody appreciates it like I do,” she said with a laugh.

A “jack of all trades,” Collins said she needed to find work and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join the program. “A lot of us are newbies looking for a different avenue.

“I really needed to reinvent myself and I’ve always had an interest in welding,” she said. “I’m hoping to acquire a work position someplace to use the skills that I’ve learned, have those grow and become independent and self-sufficient.”

She looks forward to using her new skills in the workforce, adding passion to an already fiery trade.

“I like the artistic side of it,” Collins said. “Everything we are learning is an art in itself.”

Uniqua Sparks said she’s excited and overwhelmed by new opportunities. “I feel very blessed to have even been given this opportunity,” she said. “I tell my kids I am going to class for them, to give us a better life and a second chance…

“I have the opportunity to be here, to  make something of myself and make my children proud.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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