Rochester native, Praxair customer service rep, and former underwater welder (yes, underwater welder) Amanda Block, 28, hopes her career path inspires other Millennials into technical careers
How did your early life influence you toward such an unconventional career?
My husband [Brady Block] and I grew up in Rochester, met in middle school, and started dating senior year. My parents taught us early on to "chase experiences, not things." I split my extra-curricular time between church activities, gymnastics, indoor rock climbing at Prairie Walls Climbing Gym, Evangel United Methodist’s Youth Choir and youth fellowship group, and Girl Scouts. In Girl Scouts we had a guest speaker who encouraged us to try new things, even if not conventionally "girly." His presentation stuck with me and it’s been the driving force behind some of my more unusual decisions.
How did you learn about underwater welding?
In high school I enrolled in Power Mechanics taught by Gary Komaniecki in the Mayo High School auto shop. I liked it so much that I continued with Intro to Auto Tech and Auto Mechanics. Gary invited me to participate in an extra-curricular project through Vocational and Industrial Clubs of America (now SkillsUSA), modifying and restoring a donated 1964 Ford F100 pick-up truck. To be honest, I was not very good at working on engines, but Gary reassured me there were other ways to contribute. True to his word, I was taught a variety of skills from public speaking to welding. During my senior year, I enrolled in Rochester Community and Technical College’s Post-Secondary Education Option Program, enlisting in welding theory and welding lab classes.
My interest in diving started after a family vacation to Roatan, Honduras. After a week snorkeling in pristine waters, Dad and I decided to become SCUBA certified. We enrolled in the Open Water Certification course through MDC Sports of Rochester, and were certified in the summer of 2004. The following year we became Advanced Open Water certified. At the beginning of my senior year, I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. Gary suggested underwater welding since I enjoyed welding and diving so much.
Not exactly an obvious choice for a Minnesota native. How did you make a start?
I completed courses at the Minnesota Commercial Diver Training Center in Brainerd, then applied to 20 different inland commercial diving companies throughout the nation. Despite advertising a severe need for workers, I was rejected by all of them. Eventually, an HR rep explained the problem was not that an 18-year-old girl straight out of dive school might be incapable of doing the work, but that many smaller inland companies could not spare the additional living expenses to legally separate a female worker from the men in living accommodations. He asked if I had considered an off-shore career and suggested a company out of Louisiana that employed a larger number of female workers. I applied and was called within 18 hours, asking when I was able to start. Within two weeks I packed up to leave Minnesota, and flew to Louisiana for my first commercial diving job in February 2006.
Louisiana, which had just been decimated by Hurricane Katrina a few months earlier?
Right. When I first arrived in New Orleans, a driver pointed out the water lines on various buildings illustrating how high the waters had risen during the storm. My first dive in the Gulf was simply to locate a wrench that a deck hand had dropped overboard next to a small oil platform in 12 feet of water—but the shallow depth made the water so murky it was like diving in chocolate milk. The jobs I was assigned were typically a result of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction—inspections of oil rigs, pipeline repair, pipeline installation, salvage of a deep water oil rig, and setting up and testing of a newly acquired deep-diving vessel. Underwater welding is most often used to repair ships, offshore oil platforms, and pipelines. It eliminates the need to pull a structure out of the water, which saves valuable time, money, and resources. There are, however, inherent occupational safety risks—electric shock, decompression sickness, and other environmental hazards.
What brought you back to Rochester?
The offshore lifestyle is hard. Very hard. It’s easy to prepare for the physical demands, but much harder to mentally prepare for that type of life. Typical working hours are twelve hours per day, seven days per week, until the job is done or the weather forces you back to shore. There’s no going home at the end of the day. You live on the boat 24/7. But if you can shoulder the demands, it’s a fantastic way to travel, meet interesting people, learn about different cultures, taste exciting regional cooking, and earn a very lucrative living.
Are you able to incorporate these skills back home today?
When I first came back, I taught advanced welding at Dover-Eyota High School. Working with students of both diving and welding was incredibly fulfilling. Then, in January of 2008, I was hired by Praxair Distribution Inc. [a division of Praxair Inc., the largest industrial gases company in North and South America] as a customer service representative at our Rochester location. I like that I am able to continue my involvement in the welding industry, albeit from a supply aspect. Our industry’s workforce depends on the interest of today’s students, so I continue to work with those considering a technical career. I have spoken on many occasions to classes, scouting, and extra-curricular groups. It’s wonderful to give students a hands-on learning opportunity that they may not otherwise be exposed to.
What do you tell those students?
That there is a huge demand for anything technical, and even guidance counselors don’t realize it. There are a tremendous amount of job openings. The biggest factor is that the baby boomer population is retiring, and it’s leaving a huge void in the industry. Most don’t realize that even right out of a two-year technical program, students can be making twenty to forty dollars an hour, depending on what they’re doing.