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Life Spark

Welding certificate gives Kjellberg foundation for career, leadership

Sheila Kjellberg

From The Ichabod - Spring 2019

When Sheila Kjellberg first started welding, her young daughter wanted to know where her mother got those ugly boots. In her previous jobs, Kjellberg, certificate ’17, had frequently worn heels, but her new professional attire demanded a more industrial approach. Fashion aside, Kjellberg was all in – as a student in Washburn University Institute of Technology’s Accelerating Opportunity: Kansas program, she had moved two hours from home with her two small children to learn a skill and start a career.

“I was at a point where I needed to make more money,” Kjellberg said. “I started looking at programs, and I thought I’d always wanted to learn to weld. I looked at the job placement rate and realized I could make a decent living and have a skill that nobody can take away from me. So, I moved to Topeka and decided I would become a welder.”

AOK allows students to complete short-term certificate programs aligned with labor market needs. Kjellberg graduated from the nine-month welding program in December 2017, and she currently works as a fabrication tech at Vortex Custom Metal Fabrication in her hometown of Salina, Kansas.

Lester Green, instructor, Washburn Tech, said the program has tremendous success placing students in jobs – and in Kjellberg’s case, Green had no doubt she would thrive in her new career. Right from the start, Kjellberg’s outgoing, confident personality made her a standout in class – though she, like most students, came in with no welding experience whatsoever.

“She didn’t know whether she was going to like welding or not,” Green said. “But she took to the artistic side of it almost immediately. Forty-seven years ago, if someone had told me welding and artistic ability went together, I would have told them they were crazy. In that aspect, people like Sheila have taught me there is a different realm for welding.”

The artistic side of welding remains most appealing to Kjellberg. Outside of work, she has created her own brand, Lee Elaine Design, which focuses on metal sculpture and woodworking – think shiny metal flowers to hang on the wall or furniture made from slabs of walnut and cedar. In addition to providing a creative outlet, working as a welder has allowed Kjellberg, a single mother, to change her family’s narrative.

“My career since going to Washburn Tech has allowed me to provide for my family,” she said. “We have private health insurance for the first time ever, and I can provide all the necessities I was struggling to do before. I want my girls to know that they can do whatever they need to and not let the fact that it’s just the three of us hold them back.”

Kjellberg also leads by example. She lets very little stand in her way, even in the traditionally male-dominated fields of welding and construction. Green saw her succeed in less-than-welcoming circumstances when she went to work for a company while in the welding program. Washburn Tech students sometimes work part-time in their field to gain additional experience.

“I introduced her to the guy who owned the company, and the first thing he said was, ‘Why are you bringing me a girl?’” Green recalled. “I said, ‘Right now, she’s the top of the class.”

Kjellberg easily proved herself in that job, but when it comes to the pushback she has encountered, she hasn’t been entirely surprised – “I knew what I signed up for,” she said. “Obviously I went into a field that is dominated by people who definitely don’t look like me. Being a black female in a very different job atmosphere was a bit rough. But I feel like my experience is not going to be uncommon for much longer.”

Kjellberg credits the staff and instructors at Washburn Tech with offering guidance and encouraging her not to give up. Along with Green, Kjellberg had a cheerleader in Washburn Tech advisor Carol Hill, bsw '81, ma '88.

“Her strength, comfort in her own skin – and welding gear – and her ability to connect with people from all walks of life while remaining true to herself will bode well for her in any career of her choosing,” Hill said.

Hill also admired Kjellberg’s natural leadership ability.

“Sheila gently nudged some who needed motivation, encouraged those who struggled to not give up, even confronted others in a supportive way that felt more like a handshake rather than a hand up,” Hill said.

Having risen above the professional challenges she’s faced, Kjellberg said she looks forward to helping other women overcome similar obstacles. Eventually, she would like to pursue advanced degrees in business or sociology – and given her experience at Washburn Tech, she knows she can achieve these goals.

“If I put in the time and effort,” she said, “the sky is the limit.”

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Topeka, KS 66604 Phone: 785.670.4483