Work Ethic Camp welding class helps woman get back on track

Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Megan Kirkpatrick gets ready to get back to work on the welding line at Valmont. Kirkpatrick credits the Work Ethic Camp and the welding class offered at Valmont for getting her life back on track. (Lorri Sughroue/McCook Daily Gazette)

McCOOK, Nebraska -- It took a welding class offered at the McCook Work Ethic Camp for a 22-year-old to start her life over.

"Never in a million years did I think I would be where I'm at today," said Megan Kirkpatrick, who is originally of North Platte, Nebraska and now lives in McCook, where she works at Valmont Industries.

Kirkpatrick took a wrong turn earlier in life and ended up serving time in the state prison in York, Nebraska, for drug-related charges.

With the end of her sentence drawing near, she was offered the opportunity to finish it out at the Nebraska Department of Corrections Work Ethic Camp in McCook.

The WEC takes inmates from state prisons who meet certain criteria, as well as those sentenced on felony charges to intensive supervised probation. All offenders are involved in some kind of programming and employment, said Maria Bieker, Case Manager. This includes GED classes, drugs/alcohol rehabilitation, welding or other classes.

While at WEC, a friend talked Kirkpatrick into taking the welding class that's offered.

"I figured, it couldn't hurt; it sounded like fun," Kirkpatrick recalled. The classes have been offered at the WEC for about five years and include classroom instruction, written tests and on-the-job training.

It may have been fun but it wasn't easy. Kirkpatrick's prior employment consisted of "odd-and-end jobs," she said, such as fast food, with no experience in welding.

"I was horrible at it," she laughed. "I lost a lot of hair."

But something inside Kirkpatrick didn't let her quit.

After completing the welding and WEC program, and finishing the required work release in Lincoln, Kirkpatrick was paroled to "the middle of nowhere," as she called it, to her father's home in Wauneta, Nebraska.

Once there, she applied at Valmont in McCook and was hired as a welder. It was a bit of an adaptation, she admitted, working 12 hours, four days a week and driving the 70-mile round trip every day.

But it paid off -- after less than a year, she's been promoted.

Now working as a cell lead, her responsibilities include supervising others on the line, making sure quality and safety standards are met and that paperwork is completed. And as a robotic operator, she has to program 12 robots on the line.

Kirkpatrick is not the only one surprised at how far she's come. Dan Burns, one of the welding supervisors at Valmont and an advisory member for the WEC program, said he wasn't sure at first if she'd make it.

Now, "if I could get another 10 just like her, I'd be happy," he said.

Scott Smalley, WEC welding instructor, said he was skeptical if Kirkpatrick would use welding as a career.

"Skill-wise, I'm not surprised. Females typically have better eye-hand coordination and concentration, so they tend to pick up welding fairly quickly and her skills were very good," he said.

"But of all of the students in that class, I wouldn't have bet on her coming back," thinking she would stay in Lincoln. "The hardest thing for offenders to learn is accountability. Once they leave here, there is nobody telling them what to do."

For Kirkpatrick, welding turned out to be more than just a job.

"Prison was my bottom," she said. "This place gave me a chance to start over. It gives me a reason not to go back to drugs. It gave me a life."

Now that she's part of the work force, she's realizing other benefits of suiting up and showing up, such as enjoying the people she works with.

"It's pretty cool when you can look forward to work," she said, smiling.

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  • I enjoyed the article. Reminds me of my own story without the prison experience. I went into welding not knowing one thing about it. I now have twenty years plus into the predominately male structured field. Luckly I have been able to maintain employment in these hard economic times.

    -- Posted by rhirschi on Tue, May 15, 2012, at 9:57 AM
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