Recently I participated in Career Day at a local high school (“Connecting School to the Workplace”). I don’t know how or why I was selected by the school guidance counselor, but I responded to her email in January and told her I would be happy to speak to the kids about what I do for a living.
But which profession should I talk about? I have two: engineering and welding. Since the building trades are under-represented as a desirable career, I decided to talk mostly about my experience as a welder.
For my presentation I wore my usual grinding /welding ensemble: blue denim Dickies, a black long-sleeve cotton shirt, steel-toe work boots, and accessorized with a leather apron, gloves, and a full-face safety shield.
I had 3 goals. I wanted to tell the kids how enthusiastic I was to learn how to weld and create my original metal art pieces, to describe my work experience as a civil engineer, and the risks and benefits of running my own business.
The morning of Career Day started with a cup of coffee and a cupcake in the high school gym where about 70 Career Day participants gathered before dispersing to assigned classrooms to give our presentations. I sat at a table with a hypnotist, a technical writer, and a family psychologist and we discovered we had mutual business contacts and acquaintances. (It’s a small town.)
Looking around the gym and reading through the list of presenters, I tried to match up people with their occupation. Some were pretty obvious: the executive chef dressed in his crisp white cotton jacket, the golf pro with his huge golf bag, clubs, and head covers, the park ranger in forest green chinos. Some were harder to identify: the hot air balloon pilot, FBI agent, graphic artist, the rocket scientist, a movie critic, and this intriguing occupation…….. “Farmer/Water board”. Other than an electrician, I was the only tradesperson in the mix. No carpenters. No plumbers. No sewage treatment plant workers.
The agenda was to present the same speech during two 40-minute sessions with a five-minute break in between. My audience was a mix of 9th thru 12th graders who were asked to attend 2 different sessions chosen from the list of professions.
My assigned classroom was shared with a very nice Spanish teacher who, as I was setting up my visual aids, walked around the desks spritzing Fabreze up at the ceiling.
Me: “What are you spraying?”
Spanish Teacher: “Deodorizer. This is a really old classroom and it smells because of the carpet and everything.”
I put on my leather apron and face shield, welcomed 30 students in the first session, and told them my story:
I am a business-owner. I have two companies—one, a welding workshop I set up almost 2 years ago, and the other, my structural engineering company that I started in 1984. Both businesses operate out of an office-warehouse located in a service-industrial area down the street. I am the only employee.
Welding: I told them I started my welding workshop because engineering projects had become scarce when construction slowed down at the start of the recession. My idea to make up the lost income was to weld small steel art pieces like lamps, candelabras, and furniture that incorporated oddball subject matter and sell them on the internet, via direct mailing, and at local art galleries. I described how I searched for a local welding instructor, became certified in MIG welding (vertical and overhead) within a couple of months, setup my workshop, started producing more sculpture prototypes, and secured a website name.
I mentioned there was a shortage of welders and pipefitters, that welders my age (56) were getting set to retire soon, and there weren’t enough new certified welders to take their place. The best welders “chase pipe” around the country and many command a six-figure annual income working on pipelines and oil rigs. I told them it was a myth that welding and related trades are always dirty, dangerous, and low-paying.
I told them a couple of times that welding does not require a 4-year degree, that it wasn’t hard to learn how to weld if you have the aptitude, and that I passed my first certification in one month after a few lessons.
Since welding (or auto shop class) is not offered at this high school (or any of the local high schools), I suggested the students come to a welding demonstration at my welding instructor’s shop to see first-hand how easily metal melts.
Owning a Business:
Many people have romanticized notions about owning and running their own small business: be your own boss, work when you want to, take time off whenever you feel like it.
Here’s the real deal:
1. I make all the rules and keep all the money (for a while anyway).
2. If I don’t work, I won’t have any income, so the tendency is to work all the time.
3. No boss? Every client is a boss, and each one thinks they are my only client.
4. Sick leave: See #2.
5. I have the power to choose clients and projects that interest me. I work on a different project almost everyday and I charge extra if the job needs to be done quickly. (This happens a lot in construction.)
6. There is no one but me to rely on to get the job done.
Questions: The last ten minutes of each session was reserved for questions from the kids. They were given a page with some prepared sample questions to ask the presenters.
Me: “Go ahead. Ask me anything. Try to stump me.”
Here are the questions I was asked:
What’s your email address?
How long do you have to go to school to be an engineer?
Are those steel-toed boots?
Can you weld this broken piece on my dirt bike?
What’s the most impressive structural project you’ve worked on?
Have you welded any projects around your house?
Most of the students were attentive, but they seemed unimpressed with anything I had to say. I got them to laugh a couple of times and I even hauled out my spider candleholder to show them the sort of stuff I weld. Nothing. Blank stares. Maybe I should have co-presented with the hypnotist since it appeared I had a room full of mesmerized subjects. They didn’t even ask the most obvious questions: “Why do you have “Moose” written on your apron?” or “What’s it like being the only woman on a job site?”.
At the five-minute break between sessions, I asked the Spanish Teacher why the kids were so quiet.
“They were told to be polite,” she said.
Me: “Are you going to spray the room again?”
Spanish Teacher: “No. Maybe later.”
At the end of Career Day, all the presenters were given a “You Make a Difference” certificate for participating. On the page was a quote that was more cogent than anything I said to the kids.
“Never continue in a job you don’t enjoy. If you are happy in what you are doing, you’ll like yourself; you’ll have inner peace. If you have that with physical health, you’ll have more success that you could have possibly imagined.”
Johnny Carson (1925-2005)