Stephanie Hoffman stands barely five feet tall in her work boots, but she is having a huge impact at Salem County Vocational Technical Schools.
A certified welder and a US Army veteran, she holds a bachelor’s degree in education from Stockton University and is the district’s new welding instructor.
“A lot of people think welding is just putting two pieces of metal together in your garage, but it’s much more complex than that,” Stephanie said.
“Just about everything that’s built or created – from buildings to bridges to energy pipelines to electronics – involves welding, and if it’s not done correctly, terrible things can happen,” she said.
SCVTS Superintendent John Swain said that “Stephanie was the most qualified candidate you could imagine for this job. We had initial concerns about anyone coming in to teach the program after a long-time, highly-effective and well-loved instructor retired.
“But when we met this dynamic woman and got to experience her expertise in welding, we knew she would have no difficulties. She has been a motivator to our welding students, and an inspiration to them with how much she has accomplished in her career,” Swain said.
Qualified welders are in high demand in today’s economy. The manufacturing resurgence in the US, coupled with the retirement of many older welders, means that there are many opportunities available for young adults in this highly technical profession.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, experienced welders can make up to $60,000 a year. But welders willing to travel or work in hazardous conditions can earn $100,000 a year or more.
Stephanie began her welding career at age 13, before she started her freshman year at Lacey Township High School.
“My father ran a paving company, which requires welding work, and I was such a daddy’s girl that I tried it out as a helper,” she said. “I liked it, so I took it as an elective at Lacey and then did the shared-time program at Ocean County Vocational-Technical School during my last two years of high school and earned my certification.”
After graduating from Lacey, Stephanie joined the US Army and served in the Intelligence Corps. She left the military to have her daughter, who is now seven.
Returning home to New Jersey, Stephanie went back to work as a welder. “And then James Mansfield, who was my teacher at OCVTS, asked if I was interested in serving as a full-time aide in his classroom,” Stephanie said.
“It was wonderful, just wonderful. I fell in love with teaching. So I decided to get a degree in education so I could be a welding teacher myself,” she said.
There are about 40 welding students at SCVTS, all of whom are training for certifications from the American Welding Society.
“It’s very strenuous work, and you have to be physically fit and smart to do it right,” Stephanie explained. “It requires high-level patience and perseverance, and great hand-eye coordination to become a good welder.
“It’s super-gratifying for me to see these students taking such great pride in their work and getting better and better every day,” she said.
There are few women professional welders, but Stephanie thinks girls and young women who like to work with their hands should consider it as a vocational-technical school training option.
“Sure, you have to have a thick skin and stand your ground in the shop or on the site, but in the end, what other welders respect is skill,” she said. “It’s also very satisfying work, and at the end of the day you know that you’ve played a key role in making something successful and safe.”
Jeremy Selb, of Pittsgrove, a senior welding student who will be representing SCVTS at the SkillsUSA competition this spring, was not surprised when the district hired Stephanie as the welding teacher.
“Women can do anything that men can do,” he said.
Jeremy chose welding as a profession, “because I like to work with my hands and because it’s a high-demand industry. I can be comfortable working anywhere in the world, knowing that I can make the money I need to take care of my family.”
Ms. Hoffman is a great teacher, he said. “In some ways, she’s very laid-back, but in other ways, she’s very strict. She has two #1 policies: Honesty and respecting the rules in the shop.
“I’ve learned a lot from her about the profession in the past few months. And with her background in all kinds of welding, she’s also given me some excellent tips about working on my own truck at home,” Jeremy said.