(Above) Diana E. works on a weld during one of her classes in the non-destructive testing program at Linn-Benton Community College.
Four youth at Oregon Youth Authority’s Young Women’s Transition Program are involved in a specialized welding program that’s the only one of its kind in the state.
Linn-Benton Community College in Albany offers a two-year program on non-destructive testing and evaluation, which teaches students how to determine the strength and structural integrity of parts that are meant to eventually be used for machines or buildings. The program, from which students graduate with an associate’s of applied science degree, puts its participants a cut above the rest of the field when applying for welding industry jobs.
“It comes with the responsibility that everybody depends on (these parts working), and if they fail, that’s on me,” said Diana E., who’s part of the cohort.
Companies like ATI give the program airplane parts (which often cost thousands of dollars apiece) for the students to test without destroying them.
“If something malfunctions and people get hurt, it comes back on you,” said Mazi B., another YWTP youth in the program. “You have to be honest. … For some of us, this class has helped us reassess our morals, like what to do when something goes wrong.”
The NDT program introduces students to different ways to test metals, from ultrasound to radiation to dye penetration. While the program focuses on NDT, students also take other classes, like welding and blueprint reading.
Principal Joy Koenig of Riverside High School, YWTP’s school, learned of the opportunity and approached the four young women, with the knowledge that they would be housed at YWTP long enough to complete at least one year.
“It is hard to get into,” Koenig said. “We partnered with all of OYA including (juvenile probation and parole officers) to ensure that we had the students staying long enough to complete at least the first year.”
Although they are scheduled to leave YWTP by this summer, the four all said they want to return to Linn-Benton for the second year of the NDT program.
“I thought this was an opportunity and I’d just give it a try and see if it’s something I’d want to do,” Diana said. “I really like it. It’s kind of hard, but I like the job itself and the money that it pays.”
Citlali V. is enjoying the experience and, even though she plans to complete her second year, her passion is to work with people, not tools.
“I don’t see it as a career — I see myself working with older people — but I just thought I should take advantage of what’s being offered to me,” she said. “And I’ll have an associate of applied science to fall back on.”
Mazi’s family is already involved in the welding industry, so it seemed like a natural fit to her.
“It sounded cool and interesting and I’ve figured out I’m really good at it,” Mazi said. “As I was taking the classes I decided to stick with it because it’s good money.”
Amber T. grew up around tools — her dad was a mechanic — and she admitted that she used to tinker with building things while she was getting high. When she started the welding program this past fall, the experience triggered some uncomfortable memories at first.
“But I’m working through that by gaining new experiences and triggering good memories,” she said, adding that she hopes to take her welding experience into the Army.
The four young women are the only females in their cohort of 20.
“Women can really give a lot to this field,” Diana said. “We see more details. We think a lot.”
“The industry wants women,” Amber added. “If we have these skills, they will hire us over a man.”
Mazi said they feel welcomed by their instructors and classmates.
“In our class, the majority know what we’ve gone through,” she said. “They don’t shut us down or make us feel bad for it, but they bring us up.”
The instructors have been particularly inspiring.
“(They) show us what life can be like, clean and sober,” Mazi said. “Had I not gone to college, I wouldn’t have known the life I could have without drugs.”
This has also been driven home through the program’s field trips to businesses in the industry.
“Some (employers) might not be OK with felony charges, but at the same time, they get to see that we’re getting our lives together,” Amber said.
The commitment could not be made without the support of YWTP staff, Koenig said.
“The staff for YWTP has been very dedicated and accommodating,” Koenig said. “They make sure the students can attend all their classes and provide additional time for students to do their homework.”
Diana said she hopes more OYA youth get to take part in the unique program.
“I tell them I wish you had this opportunity, too,” she said. “I want them to realize that this will change their lives.”