Srishti Garg’s goal to become a computer engineer hasn’t changed, but she’s thinking a little differently about what she may do as a side career.
“I could see myself possibly doing this on the side,” she said Tuesday between snipping electrical wires in the Aerospace Technology Center at Calhoun Community College.
Garg, an Austin junior, is among 20 girls in ninth through 12th grade participating in the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce’s annual weeklong SWeETy (Summer Welding & Electrical Technology) Camp.
The camp is designed to expose students to electrical and welding technology, including various welding processes and wiring, said Grant Thompson, director of communications for the chamber.
In a meeting with chamber officials 14 years ago, Decatur-area industrial leaders said baby boomers were retiring and the area lacked a skilled workforce to replace them, especially welders and electricians, Thompson said.
“At the time, only about 10% of the skilled workforce was females, so we knew something had to be done,” he said.
The demand for welders and electricians is on the rise in the Tennessee Valley, especially with construction of the $1.6 billion Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA plant in Huntsville-annexed Limestone County, Thompson said. Three suppliers to the plant have announced investments totaling more than $400 million.
“The area needs skilled workers,” Thompson said.
Decatur High senior Sarah Resler signed up for the camp thinking about the possibility of landing a job at one of the plants. She’s really excited about the welding.
“This is something I can see doing for a living,” Resler said, adding that she knows welding and electrical jobs are not traditional careers for women.
But they are good-paying jobs that are not going away and do not require a four-year college degree, Thompson said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, welders made a median annual salary of $41,380 or $19.89 per hour in 2018, the latest numbers available. For electricians, the median income was $55,190 or $26.53 per hour.
Lauren Graham, an agriscience teacher at Ardmore High and camp helper, said the exposure is critical and it’s a plus that the camp is for girls only.
“They know these jobs are not what women typically do, but being just girls eliminates the competition if boys were here,” she said.
Graham was teaching students about wiring, something she learned “on the go” when she started teaching 10 years ago. She said her education pathway was in construction, and learning to do electrical work was part of the process.
“I knew a little about what electricians do, but I learned and that’s what these students are doing,” Graham said.
Garg chuckled at her comment, then said: “She’s right.”
Because of demand, the chamber expanded the camp several years ago to include a camp at Priceville High. Garg attended the camp there last year and when she’s at home she spends time trying to figure out how the house is wired.
Thompson said students will spend time learning how to weld and wire an electrical circuit.
Martha Bray, a ninth grade student who is home-schooled, said welding is challenging, but she’s heard a lot of talk about how much welders make, especially underwater welders.
“This may not be what I want to do now, but I’m getting the experience,” she said, adding that this is her second year at the camp. “I plan to come back next year.”