WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Pennsylvania College of Technology students vying for gold at the SkillsUSA National Championships is common. An all-female welding team representing the school at the prestigious competition is not.
Thanks to three talented female welding and fabrication engineering technology students, it may be in the future. The trio aim to be trendsetters at the college and nationally.
“I told them that they shocked Pennsylvania when they went to Hershey and won gold. I truly believe that if they stay focused and put in the time and effort, they could very well shock the nation,” said Jacob B. Holland, the welding instructor instrumental in forming the all-female team for SkillsUSA’s welding fabrication competition.
Erin M. Beaver, of Winfield; Joelle E. Perelli, of Bath; and Natalie J. Rhoades, of Weedville, defeated all-male counterparts at the district and state levels to advance to the SkillsUSA National Championships, set for June 25-29 in Louisville, Kentucky. The annual event showcases the best career and technical education students, who compete in about 100 categories from computer programming to culinary arts.
“We’re proud of all of our 21 students who qualified for nationals by winning gold in various categories at the state competition in Hershey,” said James N. Colton II, assistant professor of welding and the college’s SkillsUSA adviser. “Including an all-female welding team in that strong group of students makes this trip to nationals extra special. It’s unique for the college and for the competition, where we expect that they will be the only all-female welding team.”
Holland said he and Colton formed the team to create a “best of the best atmosphere” in the college’s welding lab. They wanted to provide competition for an all-male trio eyeing a trip to states for welding fabrication.
“We set out looking for three females who we felt could work well together and who possessed the skill set to produce a quality product like their male counterparts,” Holland said.
Both teams used the same blueprint to fabricate a tool rack. The judges, consisting of college welding faculty, gave the district title to the all-female team and sent them to states, where their rival was an all-male lineup from Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.
“I had a gut feeling that we were going to win at states,” Rhoades said. “It felt good beating them.”
The state competition required participants to design and build a welding and fabrication cutting table, take a written test on welding basics, and deliver an oral presentation to a panel of industry judges. The winning Penn College team relied on multiple welding and cutting processes to manufacture a steel table, measuring 4 feet long, 30 inches wide and 3 feet high.
“The tables were pretty close in quality, but there were other factors that went into it like the blueprints, presentation and test,” Beaver said.
“The judges seemed pretty impressed with our oral presentation,” Perelli added.
A common love for welding developed during career and technical education courses in high school attracted Perelli, Beaver and Rhoades to Penn College. But it took the competition to bring them together.
“We kind of got recruited,” Perelli said, laughing. “We had never met each other before. We were asked individually if we wanted to be part of the team.”
SkillsUSA was new for Perelli and Rhoades, but not for Beaver, who won gold at nationals in the welding sculpture category last year after finishing second in 2016.
“We liked the fact that Erin had experience at both the state and national level,” Holland explained. “I had Natalie in class and knew she had a strong work ethic and a competitive spirit. Joelle was the wild card. I never had her in class. I asked one of her instructors about her, and he went on and on about how hard she worked and how good of a welding hand she has. It was a quick ‘yes’ from all three, and the all-female welding team was born.”
However, there were some growing pains. Unfamiliarity with one another and conflicting schedules forced them to meet at odd times to not only practice and plan for competitions but also discover individual strengths, weaknesses and personality quirks.
“It was pretty quiet at the first meeting,” Holland said. “I did most of the talking.”
Now, Beaver, Perelli and Rhoades can finish one another’s sentences. Spending countless hours practicing together outside of class and their will to win have bonded them.
“These three are fighters,” Holland said. “They have a tenacious work ethic and a drive to be successful. I love to see them put on their game faces and settle into the competition.”
For nationals, teams must design and submit blueprints for a shoe donation box, containing a tamper-proof drop-off door and a secure emptying door. The second part of the competition consists of live welding. The students will have six hours to build a rocket stove — a small portable stove primarily used for cooking — based on blueprints and materials provided to them on-site. Penn College will compete against approximately 20 other teams.
“Going against so many schools is obviously a big mental factor,” Beaver said. “As long as we keep our heads within ourselves with what we are doing, I think we’ll have a good chance.”
Regardless of the final standings, the students are grateful for the experience.
“I think having this on our resume is going to be a real winner for us,” Rhoades said.
“It’s a confidence builder. Knowing that we have the skills to do this is going to be helpful down the line,” Perelli said.
“When you’re going for a job, you often have to do a welding test, so this kind of helps with that mentality,” Beaver said.
Obtaining quality employment shouldn’t be a problem for the trio, according to David R. Cotner, dean of Penn College’s School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies. He said there is a tremendous need for skilled welders, with recent four-year graduates — both men and women — receiving starting salaries from $55,000 to $80,000.
“Women welders are in high demand. Women tend to be very detail-oriented with great dexterity,” Cotner said. “The college has a long list of successful female welding graduates, excelling in various industries. I’m very confident that Erin, Joelle and Natalie will be added to that list in a couple years.”
Beaver, a junior, and Rhoades, a sophomore, plan to work as welding engineers before considering teaching careers. Beaver also envisions expanding the welding sculpture business she created last year.
Perelli enjoys the finite aspects of welding and hopes to turn that interest into clean-room work within the pharmaceutical industry.
For now, all three are focused on practice sessions for the SkillsUSA National Championships. While their classmates are enjoying summer break, they have been welding and fabricating steel tubing and sheet and plate metal in the welding lab.
“Having these practices under our belt will be extremely helpful once we get there, at least to shake out some of the nerves,” Perelli said.
Not that they should be nervous.
“We are pretty good at what we do,” Rhoades said with a sly smile.
In addition to a bachelor’s degree in welding and fabrication engineering technology, Penn College offers associate degrees in welding technology and metal fabrication technology and a certificate in welding.
The college is scheduled to break ground this summer on an approximately 30,000-square-foot expansion to its welding instructional facility. The expansion will enable the college to increase traditional fall semester welding enrollment by about 45 students.
For information about the welding program and other majors offered b y the School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520 or visit www.pct.edu/icet.
Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education and workforce development. Visit www.pct.edu, email email@example.com or call toll-free 800-367-9222.