Thanks to new PCC Foundation scholarship, Ash Jimenez pursues welding passion
Story by Celeste Hamilton Dennis. Photos by Erin Berzel. | 2 comments
Hanging on the wall in Ash Jimenez’s kitchen is a framed photo of women welders from 1940’s Portland. It was a gift given to her last year by two couples, regulars at the bar she’d worked at, when they found out she’d be leaving to pursue a career in welding.
“The photo definitely inspires me,” she said. “To think of women 75 years ago welding and paving the way really makes me appreciate the opportunity I have before me.”
Twice a week, Jimenez heads over to Vigor Industrial on Swan Island to learn about the art of configuring joints. An occasional jewelry maker, metal is Jimenez’s go-to, making a delicate process of welding called TIG a good fit for her personality.
“I think metal is the perfect medium for its strength, beauty and resilience,” she said.
Jimenez’s introduction to welding came while she was a student at Oregon Tradeswomen, a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting success for women in the trades through education, leadership and mentorship opportunities. When she found out about a new scholarship opportunity to continue her studies at PCC, she decided to go for it.
“I’d never welded before. I didn’t know if I’d even like it, if I’d be good at it, or if I could ever do it,” she said. “Luckily I’m very stubborn so that helped.”
Jimenez is the first recipient of a new PCC Foundation scholarship created by prominent community leader and educational champion Evelyn Crowell. The scholarship supports students who are underrepresented in the trades, including women and students of color. Jimenez couldn’t be prouder to carry on Evelyn’s legacy as a trailblazer for women.
“I can’t disappoint all these people who are so proud of me,” she said.
A Crack in the Glass Ceiling
Despite the opportunity to make good money, the trades can be a tough place for women. The job retention factor is often low and female representation is slim. Women make up only 5 percent of the welding workforce in the U.S.
Jimenez, however, grew up with older brothers in a Californian town 15 minutes north of the Mexican border. Whether it was camping or climbing trees, not once did she ever believe she couldn’t do what her brothers were doing.
She sees her determination to become a professional welder as an extension of her feminist ideals—a stubbornness to prove to the world that women can do anything they set their mind to.
“I love that welding is definitely not a woman’s world,” she said. “I like knowing I’m continuing to break through.”
Jimenez is one of five women Kane Heidecker has seen graduate from welding in the six years he’s been teaching at PCC. There’s no doubt for Heidecker that Jimenez is rising to the challenge of a demanding program.
“She has a strong work ethic. She comes in and does everything she needs to do,” he said. “She’s motivated to get it done.”
Classes take place at the Vigor Industrial training facility on Swan Island—a space created through a partnership with PCC to expand training opportunities at the heart of industrial Portland. Like many of her fellow students, Jimenez takes class in the evenings after working a full-time job as a maintenance person at an affordable housing development.“Shops can be really intimidating for women, so I was really pleasantly surprised at the climate,” Jimenez said. “Everyone has been really welcoming and nice. It makes it a lot easier to ask questions.”
Passing the Torch
In the next ten years, many of Oregon’s aging welding workforce are expected to retire, leaving a gap for a new generation to step up and take their place. In the opinion of Dan Wenger, division dean of Arts & Professions, PCC is perfectly poised to fill the pipeline.
“Graduates exit the program prepared for a living-wage career as a welder and maker whose work will literally create the steel bones of our ships, barges, buildings, and bridges,” he said.
Jimenez’s ultimate dream after completing the program is to weld stainless steel fermentation tanks for brewers and winemakers. This interest in the food industry comes from her personal experience in the business and parents who own a restaurant—as well as tugging at her Mexican grandmother’s apron growing up. The kitchen is Jimenez’s favorite spot in the house; she hosts dinner parties every chance she gets.
Community is what keeps Jimenez going. Every week, she posts photos for family and friends on social media of the welding projects she’s working on. She volunteers when needed at Oregon Tradeswomen, doing everything from stuffing envelopes to helping with their program fundraisers. She has a fiance who puts up with her crazy schedule and encourages her daily.
And each time she walks by the vintage picture of women welders hanging in her kitchen, it’s a reminder that even strangers have a stake in her future.
“I can’t go back. I’ve worked too hard and changed my life,” she said. “It’s not an easy road. And it’s about to get a lot harder. But I’m in.”