Liz Bryant was surrounded by men when she walked into her welding classroom at Blackhawk Technical College for the first time a few years ago.
Bryant had expected that because welding is a male-dominated field. But when the teacher walked in, suddenly Bryant wasn’t worried about a gender gap.
That teacher, Bobbi Bishofberger, is the chair of the college’s Manufacturing, Apprenticeship, Technology and Transportation Division.
“She pulled up a chair and sat down on it backwards. She said, ‘Hi, I’m Bobbi. I’ll be your instructor,’” Bryant recalled.
“And I was sitting there like, ‘Wow, I’ve never really met such a badass welder before.’ I think it was more comfortable for me to have a female teaching it. I was super fortunate to have her as my first welding teacher.”
In 2017, women made up just 4.5% of welders in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Bishofberger hopes more women will be attracted to the trades.
She knew from a young age that welding would be her life’s work. She grew up racing cars and spending her free time at area racetracks with her family. Most of the maintenance work was done in the family garage.
Welding “was the one thing that my family didn’t have someone who was good at in the garage,” Bishofberger said.
“When I was in high school, I started racing, and none of us were really good at welding. So I took a class and found out it was something I loved, and I was a natural at it.”
After high school, she enrolled at Blackhawk Tech for her welding certificate. She went on to earn associate and bachelor’s degrees before heading to work in the automotive industry, where she programmed robotic welding lines for car manufacturers across the country.
When traveling got old, Bishofberger decided to get into teaching. She started at Blackhawk Tech in 2014.
“I pretty much wanted to be a teacher since my first day attending Blackhawk as a student,” she said. “It was just a cool job, and it was always like, ‘Someday down the road I’ll get into it.’ I just never thought I would do it this young.”
Bishofberger currently teaches welding blueprint reading and the mechanics of learning for welding. She also helps in the college’s welding laboratory.
The number of women in welding classes continues to rise, Bishofberger said.
“We are seeing a lot more women, especially in the welding program. When I started, there would be maybe one or two a semester, and we’re up around 10 to 15 now, so we’re really seeing an increase in the number of women in our program,” she said.
To keep that number climbing, Bishofberger said it is important that workplace equality training continues to improve in the trades. She believes sexism or gender inequality is perpetrated mainly by individuals, not the industry or companies.
“From stories I hear of inappropriate jokes and the culture of nude pictures up on the toolboxes, all that kind of stuff, I think training who’s already there on what’s respectful and how do you show respect to any gender” is the way to ensure respect for all workers, she said.
As a teacher, she tries to tailor her classes to students’ interests as much as possible.
“I hope they take away what they want to take away,” she said. “We want students to identify what skills or what field of welding they want to go into, so we want them to identify which way they want to go, and we will get you pointed in that direction, and we want to get you working as soon as possible.”
Some students say they wouldn’t be where they are today without Bishofberger.
“It’s empowering knowing there’s another woman who has been through being surrounded by a bunch of men and pushing through a stigma and is now the chair of the department. It’s easier to keep going through school, and it’s empowering to know I can do it because she did it,” said Lily Hall, an aspiring welder at Blackhawk Tech.
Bryant feels the same way, saying she chose to continue welding because of Bishofberger. She now works in metal fabrication for an independent living company in Oconomowoc.
“I think she really is the heart and soul of the place.”
Mary Ellen Bayley
Saundra C. (Jontz) Elliott
Grant M. Hirschfield
Alvina E. Hundley
Ann Shirley Patterson
Stanley C. “Stan” Scheiwe
Mary L. Tracy
Leo D. Upward
Rufus “Duck” Walker Jr.
Elaine Ann (Butterfield) Wild
Some Milton School District employees will have to wait until at least March to get the COVID-19 vaccine after many were turned away Wednesday at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center, Janesville.
Mercyhealth cut short vaccinations to preserve vaccine for current priority groups, said Don Janczak, director of pharmacy for the hospital.
Milton students had a virtual day of school Wednesday to allow school district staff to get vaccinated at Mercyhealth. It is not clear when staff turned away will be able to get vaccinated, but Janczak said it won’t be before March.
The walk-in vaccination clinic was planned to be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday to any Rock County public school employee, Janczak said.
Milton school officials said Mercyhealth had made a commitment to vaccinate all Milton school staff Wednesday.
At about noon Wednesday, hospital officials realized they were running low on doses of vaccine. They wanted to ensure the elderly and those in priority group Phase 1A—health care workers and nursing home employees and residents—could still receive second doses and that the hospital would have enough vaccine for other scheduled vaccinations, Janczak said.
Educators already in line for the vaccine received it Wednesday, but anyone arriving later was sent home with no vaccine.
“We just wanted to make sure we had adequate reserves of those (vaccines),” Janczak said.
“And we had such a strong response from the teachers and the educators, which is good. Again, the message of getting a vaccine into the arms of individuals is our goal rather than keeping it in a freezer, but we do have to be cognizant of the fact that we still have to have vaccines for the rest of our Phase 1A second doses as well as our patients. So that was the intent of cutting that short,” Janczak said.
About 850 Rock County educators received the vaccine Wednesday. Janczak said the number of people turned away wasn’t immediately available.
After health care workers were vaccinated, Mercyhealth wanted to help vaccinate as many people as possible within the rules, Janczak said.
“The plan was ‘How can we quickly identify a group of individuals that would be eligible for this vaccine that we could easily reach out to?’ We ended up working with our partners in Rock County—the school districts. So it (schools) was a group that we could easily identify and quickly vaccinate, again, with the goal of getting the vaccine out of the freezer and into someone’s arms. We shared our plans with DHS, so they knew of our plans.”
The Janesville School District received vaccines from Mercyhealth earlier this month despite the state Department of Health Services saying the vaccines should not have been offered to school employees because the state was still vaccinating its Phase 1A priority group and hadn’t moved to Phase 1B.
Milton School District officials said in a news release Wednesday the district had been assured all of its staff who wanted a vaccination would receive their first doses Wednesday.
“During our coordination process, the district was informed that the clinic was not exclusive to Milton staff. A limited population from another school district in Rock County was also invited to participate,” a district press release reads.
“Again, the district was reassured that there was adequate supply for all interested staff persons,” the release reads.
Because of medical privacy laws, the district was unsure how many staff who wanted the vaccine couldn’t get it Wednesday.
Superintendent Rich Dahman expressed his frustration with Wednesday’s outcome.
“We are extremely disappointed that the commitment that was made to vaccinate our entire staff today was not fulfilled,” Dahman said in the release.
Janczak said Mercyhealth staff also are disappointed everybody interested in getting a vaccination was unable to receive one, but he said no guarantees or priorities were given to any school district.
“Our goal was to vaccinate as many of the teachers that would be willing to accept the vaccine. But again, we had to balance that with what we had in our inventory. And you have to realize that we’re not just vaccinating the teachers. We’re still vaccinating our 1A’s that are presenting, our non-Mercy-affiliated health care providers. That continues,” he said.
“So, though initially we thought maybe we could have enough vaccines to continue to have a full day’s POD (point of distribution) with continuing the other groups as well, we decided that we do not want to put Mercy into risk of not having a vaccine for our upcoming groups that we want to vaccinate this weekend into next week.”
Those who did receive their first doses of the vaccine will receive second doses in the coming weeks. Those waiting for their first doses will have to wait until the state gives the go-ahead to educators.
Mercyhealth hadn’t received any guidance from the state on a timeline for educators to be vaccinated before Tuesday, other than that they are in Phase 1B, Janczak said.
Janczak said no other vaccines will be given to educators until the state Department of Health Services advances to Phase 1B in March and guidance is given to the hospital.
As local private and municipal economic development officials peer into the crystal ball of a new year, they say one new prospect is coming into view in 2021: More warehousing, distribution and supply-chain jobs could be headed to Janesville.
During a conference call with chamber of commerce group Forward Janesville on the future of the local economy this week, city of Janesville Economic Development Director Gale Price said he is seeing a sudden, dramatic uptick in interest for industrial developers.
Price said talks he is involved in are in “early stages,” but right now, his office is working on nine development deals that could range from new industrial development to the reuse of existing commercial space.
Two of those negotiations, he said, revolve around prospects in e-commerce distribution. More specifically, those prospects are in warehousing and distribution developments that would take advantage of Janesville’s location—along a major Interstate highway and within short driving distance of several larger metro areas—to bolster the supply chain in a growing trend: delivery of retail goods straight to consumers.
The talks have emerged as major retailers continue to shift their models during a pandemic that has turned consumer shopping habits upside down. Retailers are adjusting to be able to mix brick-and-mortar sales with e-commerce sales shipped directly to customers, including everything from packaged foods to cleaning supplies to clothing.
Some companies in the e-commerce shipment sector act as third-party vendors for retailers who channel shipments of individual products from manufacturers straight to the homes of people who ordered the products online.
These distributors are growing in number in certain centrally located areas. They operate in a manner that is in some ways comparable to e-commerce giant Amazon but at a smaller scale. Some also operate as hubs for existing parcel delivery companies such as UPS or FedEx, Price said.
Price explains the model through the lens of a typical, pandemic-era shopping order.
“What now happens is you make an online product purchase or an order from a local box retail store. Half of that comes from the actual local store. During this pandemic, maybe you drive over and pick up half the order curbside in the parking lot. But a handful of the other products you ordered instead comes straight to you via UPS because it’s products from a different warehouse,” Price said.
“That’s what we’re talking about with e-commerce (distribution). It’s an entity that in and of itself has evolved dramatically very recently, and it’s out of necessity because of the pandemic.”
Price said pending ongoing talks, he is not authorized to identify the e-commerce distribution companies. He said they are just one piece of prospective industrial growth here, but he said he views the potential of job growth in local distribution linked to e-commerce as “potentially significant.”
That growth potential can be seen at large-scale distribution hubs such as the new Amazon distribution center in Beloit and Janesville’s 1-million-square-foot Dollar General distribution center: Officials say that when both are operating at full capacity, they could employ at least 2,500 people combined.
They are two big drivers in what is poised to be the single fastest-growing segment of the local job market in Janesville. The two facilities alone have over the past five years transformed part of the local workforce and reoriented workers toward a set of skills that is different than that used in typical manufacturing jobs.
Price said Janesville’s labor force—and its central location—will continue to drive interest from distribution companies of different types and sizes.
“Continued industrial distribution has continued to be a great strong point in real estate development, especially in the Midwest and in Wisconsin. There’s continued interest in Janesville because of its geographic location in the center of huge Midwest markets for distribution, and it just continues to bolster our position,” Price said.
Starting pay for some local distribution jobs now is around $15 to $16 an hour, according to federal wage data. The data shows that distribution has outpaced average pay in other semi-skilled professions.
That means those jobs have pay that could woo workers away from manufacturing in the local labor shed and from nearby labor markets in northern Illinois.
Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the census shows that over the past five years, the influx of daily commuters into Janesville’s labor market has continued to grow, Price said. He said industrial developers, distribution companies included, view that as evidence of a stable labor market.
The new interest in industrial development projects in Janesville comes in the wake of a short-term shakeup in the job market. The state measures Janesville’s unemployment rate now at about 5.3%, which roughly aligns with the state average.
That is certainly not full employment, but it comes months after the pandemic derailed the national economy, including the local job market, particularly for workers in the restaurant and hotel sectors.
In Rock County, unemployment spiked to about 15% during the state’s initial COVID-19 lockdown in April.
Local and national analysts say the hotel and restaurant sectors likely will continue to struggle mightily until at least this summer when the pandemic’s grip might start to loosen with the hoped-for proliferation of coronavirus vaccines.
But lingering unemployment in some segments of the job market could bring opportunity for both new and existing local distribution and logistics companies.