As one of the first students to graduate from a workforce development program funded by heavy metal band Metallica, Krista Steffens developed skills that sparked her creativity and fueled under her career.
For Steffens, who works at furniture supplier Moiron Inc. near Sparta, the motivation to become a welder was simple: She needed a raise.
“I was the only income in my household and funds were tight, so I was trying to figure out how to make a little more of a living,” she told MiBiz.
Steffens began developing new skills by staying after work for an hour every day to train as a welder. A month later, Moiron, a division of Carthage, Mo.-based Leggett & Platt Work Furniture, promoted her to a new position in the welding department, which came with the desired pay increase.
“I’ve been just going up from there,” Steffens said.
After building her chops as a hand welder at Moiron, she enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College as part of the first cohort of students in a welding program partially funded by a grant from Metallica’s All Within My Hands Foundation.
“My company showed me the basics and got me just to where I could produce a product,” she said. “The (GRCC) program taught me the fundamentals and was more in-depth.”
Recently, Grand Rapids Community College announced it will receive another grant from the band’s philanthropic arm to help more non-traditional students access the program and learn to weld.
The All Within My Hands Foundation, which was formed in 2017, provides funding for workforce training in cities where the group has toured. GRCC was one of 10 colleges selected nationwide for the initial Metallica Scholars grant in 2018 and results from that cohort “exceeded expectations,” according to a statement from the band’s drummer, Lars Ulrich.
“(The students) inspired us in more ways than we could have possibly imagined,” he said. “We’re really excited to be able to expand the initiative in its second year, assisting more students in achieving their dreams and transforming their lives in 2020.”
With its share of the first round of funding, which totaled $100,000, GRCC launched its most intensive welding program. The college already housed one of the largest welding facilities in the Midwest, but the Metallica grants help draw more attention to the programs, according to Julie Parks, executive director of workforce training at GRCC.
“It brings a whole other level of interest,” Parks told MiBiz. “Some people didn’t know we did welding at the college, and so Metallica made that prominent. There were even a couple of companies that wrote to us to say they were so excited that Metallica was funding this. I wasn’t a big Metallica fan, but there are some very loyal Metallica fans in West Michigan.”
Over the course of the past year, Parks has become a bigger fan of the band.
“I met James (Hetfield) and he likes to weld,” she said. “He totally gets skilled trades and what the opportunities are and how it can help someone maybe get out of poverty into a really good paying job.”
GRCC will use its second $50,000 grant to expand the program to more students with an emphasis on women or people of color, Parks said. The funding will cover most of the cost of tuition and equipment for the students.
“We’re just trying to expose people to skilled trades,” she said. “There are some really great jobs and there are great chances for advancement in most fields, especially for women because there haven’t been many women in those fields.”
Once on campus, students gain hands-on experience learning oxy/fuel, shielded metal, gas tungsten, gas metal, pipe welding, and robotics and prepare to work as welding technicians in manufacturing, construction and other local industries.
GRCC also has partnered with an employer-led committee of manufacturing leaders to fill in the gaps. Employers like Rapid-Line Inc., DeWys Manufacturing and Ridgeview Stamping are working with the college to provide work-based learning opportunities for student welders and hire students who complete the training program.
Welding training takes less time to complete at GRCC than traditional courses, but the program is still a big commitment, said Steffens, who is a single mom of two young children.
“It takes time,” she said. “My (welding) program was seven weeks and I was away from my family for three or four hours, twice a week, but it was worth it because it opened doors.”
Steffens is now part of an apprentice program at GRCC and is planning to continue her education and earn an associate degree from the college. In the process of learning how to weld, Steffens also found genuine enjoyment in the craft.
“You’re underneath the hood for eight, nine hours a day, so you’re kind of in your own little bubble,” she said. “Just watching the metal turn into liquid and being able to maneuver it, it’s been very intriguing.”
In her free time, Steffens welds metal flower sculptures that she sells or gives as gifts.
“It originally started out as a way to make ends meet and then it just evolved into a passion that I didn’t know I had,” she said.