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College 101

Reality Check: Bio of a Vocational Worker
Article Type: Connect

Mary Ida Graham—everyone calls her MIG for short—works six months out of the year. She isn’t a lifeguard. She isn’t a ski instructor. Mary’s a traveling welder.

Mary’s interest in welding started early, helping her mom in the shop solder circuits to make a homemade computer. She was fascinated with the way heat could join metal into anything. In high school, Mary was sure to take any shop class she could, although she often had to fight with the boys to get a spot at the arc welder.

MIG didn’t look back, taking out a student loan to pay for a 14-month certification program in welding. The certification allowed her to get entry-level gigs on some low-level construction sites. Times were difficult. Employers wanted experience. But Mary’s sights were set on pipe welding for oil companies. It took her nearly a decade of moving up the ranks, getting more and more experience and skills, until she was finally in.

Black and Crude Oil Corporation was looking for welders willing to hit the road and repair pipelines. Mary had the welding chops, so she sent in her resume and was invited to show her skills. After her “audition”—joining a 16-inch pipe at 45 degrees in 30 minutes—she was hired.

When she works, MIG’s day starts before dawn in some strange hotel room. She gets dressed and grabs her duffel bag filled with safety gear—helmet with goggles, two pairs of welder’s gloves, fire-retardant pants, and steel-toe boots. She is on site as soon as enough light is peeking over the horizon.

Her first step is always a meeting with the site supervisor, who shows her the blueprints of the oil field and helps her mark in red wax pencil the pipe joints that need strengthening. Only the most experienced supervisors can spot these stresses. But in an industry like oil, anything more serious doesn’t fly.

Mary tosses her duffel in the back of the company jeep (already loaded with the arc welder) and drives out to the first joint. It’s a ten-hour day that follows, driving along the massive pipes and welding joints to make sure the oil keeps flowing.

What definitely keeps flowing is the pay. MIG started at rock bottom a decade ago, earning entry-level pay for entry-level knowledge. She barely scraped by on 25 grand a year, paying the minimum each month on student loans. But as her skill and reputation grew, she was able to demand better wages.

Now, although she only works six months of the year (six hard months of ten-hour days, six days a week) she earns nearly a hundred grand a year. Student loans are a thing of the past, and she does what she loves.

The other six months of the year she spends traveling or doing whatever she wants, as far away from hot metal as she can get.

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