What started as a hobby in honor of her father has turned into a way of life for one welder at Morbark Inc.
Jessica Blake, a 32-year-old Mount Pleasant resident, is the first female welder at the company and credits her father with getting her interested in the business.
“My father was a welder,” Blake said. “He was a pipe fitter back in the day, and he was a damn good one. He passed away in 2007 after being in a nine-year coma, and I decided to start welding in my early 20s. I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps.”
Blake works at Morbark in Winn, Mich.; a company that specializes in manufacturing heavy-duty wood chipping equipment. The company was founded in 1957 by Norval Morey as a two-person operation and has since grown to employ more than 400 people and occupy a 1.1-million-square-foot complex.
Until January, Morbark had always employed an all-male staff. Blake’s hiring marked the first female welder in the history of the company.
Blake said upon being hired, she knew she’d have to prove her skills were on par with the rest of the welders.
“Going out on the floor the first day was a little intimidating,” she said. “I mean, I was walking into a company that only had male welders. There were men who had been there nearly 30 years, and they’re probably going, ‘OK, what can this woman do?’”
The intimidation went away, and Blake said she now feels at home at Morbark, thanks to Kyle Ferguson, the coworker who trained her in her first days on the job.
“Kyle made me feel at home. He helped me out and showed me the ropes. Now, I’m just like one of the boys,” she said.
Ferguson has worked at Morbark for ten years and said Blake fit in better than he was expecting.
“At first, I was scared. I didn’t want to say anything wrong around her,” he said. “We even had a big meeting before she came about watching what we say, because a lot of people talk pretty dirty out there. She seemed to fit right in, though. I was actually shocked when she started talking. I thought, ‘Oh, maybe she should have gone to the meeting!’”
Blake considers herself a “feminist pioneer” and said women working in factories isn’t anything new.
“My motto is if a man can do it, a woman can do it,” Blake said. “What do you think women were doing during World War II while the men were out fighting the war? We were the ones welding; we were the ones working in the factories.”
Since Blake’s hiring, another female welder has joined the Morbark team.
Koleen Garner, 21, can be found in the factory sporting a tye-dye hat and bright pink gloves while she welds.
When people make negative comments about her profession, Garner said the best thing to do is ignore them.
“I ignore the negativity,” she said. “I’m here to do a job, and I’m going to keep doing that job. You don’t see many girls in this industry, and that’s something to be proud of.”
Garner said she doesn’t see any difference between her work and the other welders’.
“I was always told to work hard, and welding just came naturally to me,” she said. “I don’t dwell (on the fact that I’m a woman), I just feel I fit in.”
When Blake tells people she is a welder at Morbark, she said she gets mixed reactions.
“A lot of people, when I tell them I’m a welder, they’re shocked, but also in awe,” she said. “They want to know more about it. When I tell them I work at Morbark, they think it’s cool. I totally love that.”
Ferguson said he would work with Blake and Garner again in a heartbeat.
“Gender has nothing to do with the quality of work,” he said. “Both girls are very good welders. I was actually kind of shocked. They’re doing a great job.”
Blake hopes to be an inspiration to females looking to enter a largely male-dominated industry and offers them a bit of advice.
“Make sure you have thick skin,” she said. “Don’t take any crap from the men; you’re just as good as they are. You can do anything they can do, probably better. If you have the personality and you have the toughness, you can do it. I believe any girl can do it. “
Blake said she sees welding being part of her life for a long time and hopes to open her own welding shop one day.
For now, though, she wants to leave her mark on Morbark.
“One of these days, I’m going to find a big poster of Rosie the Riveter and post it in my work area, along with a calendar of half-naked men,” Blake said. “Just so they all know I’m here to stay.”