Brain Gain: Skills for Life Weld Future Careers

By Lisa Solley
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There’s no quit in Vicki Young. She’s tireless.

It’s not uncommon for the welding instructor at Eastern Gateway Community College to work 14 hours a day. 

Even on her day off she runs an open lab so students can finish welding assignments or get extra practice. “She doesn’t get paid; she does it for the students’ benefit,” says Ryan Pasco, director of energy and engineering initiatives at Eastern Gateway. “I always tell her, ‘Don’t make me carry you out of here.’ She simply loves what she’s doing.”

Young is no stranger to welding and teaching. She’s no stranger to stereotypic barriers. And she’s certainly no stranger to hard work.

She earned a baccalaureate in biology from Youngstown State University, and pursued a skilled trade to cover her bases for job opportunities. 

Being a black woman in an apprenticeship in a male-dominated trade in the early 1980s was challenging, she says. 

“I had people tell me I don’t belong in the workforce and should be at home. I had times when male co-workers would say, ‘You’re taking a job away from a man.’ It was tough at times,” she recalls.

“I have to admit that I had to eat my own words. I was one of these people that thought the people who work with their hands just couldn’t cut the mustard to work with their heads. And then I found out welding was as much of a science as biology, chemistry.”

Young knew she had found her passion with welding, and she knew she would be an instructor because she believes in passing on information.

She worked at Delphi Packard Electric until it closed. She also started the welding program at Fortis College in Ravenna in 2009. She is proud that she built that program to offering welding classes seven days a week. Fortis closed its Ravenna campus at the end of 2018 due to low enrollment. 

In 2016, Young was able to work back in her hometown when Eastern Gateway began its welding program. She struggled with the decision to leave Fortis because she considered it her baby. But then one of her friends reminded her that she could have more than one baby.  

From the time she started her apprenticeship, she had planned her path, which would lead her to where she is today – instructing. She knew that with age and changes in her body, being an instructor later in her career would put her on the path she envisioned early on. She says she put in her time working outside during inclement weather and through difficult circumstances. “Now if the students are willing to take on what I offer, that’s really appealing to me,” she says.

Anthony Simmons is one of those students. He is the first student worker in the program and is working toward an associate degree. “I love her like a mother,” he says of Young.

Several of his cousins are in the welding trade, but he had never tried it. “I was nervous and excited at the same time. I can learn a lot from her as long as I have the right mindset and stay dedicated,” he says. 

She begins her day prepping for 9 a.m. classes. She works until 9 p.m. twice a week and until 10 three nights a week.

“Once you’re doing something you really love to do, it’s not as overwhelming as it sounds,” she says. “I feel the days are going to pass whether I’m here or sitting at home on my couch. The goal is to build up the program and what we have to offer at EGCC is second to none.”

Those skills are what make her “insanely rare,” according to EGCC’s Pasco. 

“She’s talented enough that she can go tit for tat with an engineer to break down specs on a welding project and then go to a job fair and recruit students. She’s the full package,” he says. 

Pasco gets excited just talking about Young and her energy. She wears a medical boot on her left leg from an injury she suffered as she left work one evening. 

“She’s in there rolling around on an office chair from booth to booth helping students,” he says. “I don’t think she missed a day of class.”

Even on her days off, Vicki Young runs an open lab so students can finish welding assignments or get extra practice.

Arthur Daly, vice president of Eastern Gateway’s-Youngstown campus, says there aren’t too many programs that are developing students for a career and they’re getting hired before they graduate. But that’s how great the demand is for certified welders in the region.

“This is her calling. There’s no doubt about that,” he says. “She loves it.”

The Youngstown native says she leads by example. 

Classes are mandatory. She doesn’t consider her class to be just about welding, but likes to refer to it as a wellness program. She knows people need mentors and someone who can teach them life skills, especially younger students who’ve had no parental guidance. 

“I always try to keep the door open so that if there is anything you need to discuss with me, please feel free to do that; and it’s worked for me throughout the years,” she says. “Sometimes I get too much information, but that’s OK, because it’s comforting to me. That means you trust me.”

Simmons, a graduate of East High School, says that besides welding skills, Young also has taught him soft skills such as time management and work attitude. 

“The transformation has been miraculous. When I was young, I doubted I would have any type of career, and now I’m business-minded, task-oriented and I’m planning for my future,” Simmons says. “I want to be a business owner in the welding industry.”

Young smiles and says, “[That’s] what it’s all about – making change one individual at a time.”

Not much has changed since Young began her journey into welding. Women and minorities remain underrepresented in welding and other skilled trades, Young observes. “Because of that, I consider myself to be a role model. Because if I can do it, anyone can. Due to a lack of exposure, people doubt it.”  

While most students were at lunch, a grinder was howling while sparks licked the air as Robert Beckwith was busy grinding a weld. During a break, the Austintown resident says he always wanted a career where he could work with his hands. His interest in welding increased when he learned it is one of the highest-paying skilled trades. 

Beckwith started at Eastern Gateway in 2018 and is working toward an associate degree in welding. He took a year off after high school to work and save money to attend the community college.

He doesn’t hesitate to describe his instructor. 

“She’s great. If you’re willing to put in the work, she’s willing to help you whenever,” he says. “She works like crazy and knows everything about welding.”

As long as Young remains in the lab, students are welcome to come in and work on assignments or practice. She encourages students to come to the open lab because the best way to learn is through practice and critique. 

“School is where you should make your mistakes and ask questions,” she says. “Companies expect employees to have a basic skill set and knowledge.”

Jay Varguiez works in EGCC’s lab, which holds more than $1 million in equipment.

Young has taught him patience, Beckwith says, which is important in the type of welding he enjoys – tungsten inert gas – an arc welding process that uses a nonconsumable tungsten electrode to produce the weld. Nonconsumable electrodes do not melt away or become consumed during the welding process. 

The Eastern Gateway welding program offers a variety of welding techniques in a lab that holds more than $1 million in equipment at Choffin Career and Technical Center. Last year, a robotic welding arm was purchased with a $250,000 grant from the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments. Young says being able to train students on the latest technology is important to have them workforce-ready.

Pasco says he and Young are working to add more instructors so classes can be held seven days a week. 

Young’s goal is to run classes 24 hours a day. She explains that some people may want to earn a welding certificate but can’t because the work force isn’t geared for day turn only. “For people who work shifts, their world is different. Offering alternative times for those people working shifts would be a novelty that other schools are not offering,” she says. 

Eastern Gateway offers several options in the welding program. To earn an associate degree, students must complete four semesters, including core courses and welding classes. The cost is between $8,000 and $9,000. 

The school also offers a for-credit, nondegree program that lasts two semesters and can articulate toward an associate degree. Credited programs can be completed in two semesters with basic and advance tiers. Each of those courses costs about $4,000. 

Eastern Gateway also has a non-credited course that is specialized to meet the needs and requirements of local industries. All of the programs award students a certification upon graduation.

Pasco says new classes begin the second week of January and interested students should begin the process of applying for grants and scholarships ahead of time. 

Meanwhile, Young says her biggest challenge is getting enough certified students for employer demands. Last month, she says, a company made a request for 10 students. 

Being able to provide local industries with needed workers may seem overwhelming to some, but for Young, it just recharges her batteries. 

Vicki Young has no quit: “I’m going to work until I can’t do it anymore.”

Pictured: Among Vicki Young’s many students at Eastern Gateway are Adaisa Hurt, Robert Beckwith and Lamont Thomas.  

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.