Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Bigfork graduate discovers passion for welding

Bigfork Eagle | June 2, 2021 2:20 AM

Eighteen-year-old Grace Stewart wasn’t a natural when it came to welding at least, at first.

She struggled through her first shop class which was part welding and part auto mechanics that she’d signed up for with a friend. Stewart hoped to get a few life skills out of it, but instead, discovered her future career. The Bigfork High School graduate will be leaving Montana this summer to attend Tulsa Welding School this August. Once completing the seven-month trade school, Stewart plans to work for a Navy ship building company based in Missouri and one day, open a custom welding shop of her own.

While initially welding proved to be challenging, she kept at it, pushing past her frustrations until Stewart was making clean, beautiful welds. There’s a lot more to joining two pieces of metal than one might think — it’s about controlling speed, voltage, temperature and the distance between torch and the material.

“If it’s a good weld then the slag will just peel off of it and I've done that a couple times and it’s the best feeling ever,” Stewart said.

After her intro course, Stewart took an advanced welding class with James Meyer. It was there that her passion for metal fabrication was solidified. One particular project stands out in her memory — a t-joint weld for which she earned high praise from her instructor.

“Mr. Meyer told me that I was the best in the class and that was the moment I knew I wanted to do it,” Stewart said.

According to the U.S. BUreau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for welders is $44,190 with an expected job field growth of 3% over the next decade — on par with most occupations in the U.S. Stewart will be joining a traditionally male-dominated field, but she isn’t afraid to stand out.

“I was the only girl in that class and that was kind of motivating … nobody else wanted to do it,” she recalled. “I always like being unique. Plus, it’s a lot of money. The salary is very enticing.”

Part of the reason she discovered welding is Stewart’s generalist nature. In high school, she didn’t box herself into one particular interest — she’s tried her hand at a variety of hobbies and sports.

“My parents really emphasized that … they wanted me to be a well rounded person,” Stewart said.

Stewart enjoys western riding with her family and has a deep love for animals, especially goats, which she’s raised in the past.

“Goats have so much personality — they're the ultimate pet. They’re super low maintenance, you can feed them pretty much anything,” she said, noting that in retirement she could see herself living in Switzerland with a dairy goat farm.

She’s also gone on adventures with the Bigfork Cave Club and stayed active all four years of high school between swim, track and her favorite, cross-country.

“It's the most low-key, off the wall sport. It’s not funded. There’s like barely any people in it. The bus rises were great because everybody is super close,” Stewart said. But the sport was also one that challenged her. She considers cross-country the toughest of the high school sports because of the mental and physical demands necessary to succeed.

“You have to get through the mental block of not being able to breathe for a long time and you have to train so much harder and so much longer to get to where you can be in competition shape,” she said.

But for the next few months, Stewart will be preparing for a different kind of journey — learning a trade and starting life beyond high school.

“I'm incredibly excited,” Stewart said. “I need to see new things.”