Margo Karoff-Hunger was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island. She has been involved at the Steel Yard since 2007 as a student, instructor and the Workforce Coordinator; where she has blended her passions for education, metalworking, and community development. She received her Bachelors in Human Geography from the University of Vermont; and several welding certificates from the Advanced Welding Institute in South Burlington, VT.
SY: So, Margo, how long have you been involved with the Steel Yard’s Weld to Work Program?
M: Hard question (laughs). I was originally hired in 2014 for a 4 month part-time (like 20 hours a week) AmeriCorps Vista position to manage the job training program as Workforce Coordinator. After that, still, through AmeriCorps, I was hired back full-time. And once that contract was over the Steel Yard brought me back on the team to continue the work as a full-time staff member.
SY: Were you involved at the Steel Yard before you were hired as the Workforce Coordinator?
M: Definitely- I first came to the Yard when I was like 15 or 16 to attend Camp Metal Head. After I graduated from college in VT I returned to the Steel Yard and I’ve been involved here ever since. I taught welding classes, worked in the Public Projects shop as an assistant, and then I was actually hired as a Teaching Assistant for one of the Weld to Work units. After which, the Steel Yard asked my thoughts about the program and where it could be improved… I applied for the open position and have been coordinating the program up until now.
SY: Do you think your previous experience working at the Steel Yard impacted how you managed the program?
M: The more you know the better, right? All of our departments at the Steel Yard work closely together and there’s a lot of cross-over. I think that philosophy helped me the most.
SY: That’s really cool, could you talk a little about what Weld to Work is and what it was like when you first started?
M: It’s a beautiful concept, really. When I started, the program was offering training in welding and fabrication and paying people to work on projects. The curriculum between units was always a little different but W2W always paid participants for their work (and to learn). My job was to bring more consistency to the program and up the professionalism.
SY: What’s Weld to Work like today?
M: Weld to Work is wonderful… it’s still in part the same exact small homegrown thing it was when it began in 2008. It still feels and operates grassroots and that’s why it works so well. I feel like we don’t define success in the same metrics as other organizations and businesses. We aim to create a positive experience and safe space. It’s a program where you’re encouraged to be yourself which is really, really important for the demographics we work with.
SY: Hold up, can you tell me more about that? How do you define success?
M: The job-training world defines success in placement rates, jobs. I define it in jobs, too. But I want to know… how many people went on to further their education after Weld to Work? How many were hired back specifically at the Steel Yard as a TA or Publics Projects artist (which are jobs)? How many came back to volunteer in the studio, at Second Saturday Volunteer Day, or at an event? Honestly, I say anyone who showed up each day and graduated from the 30-hour program is an example of success. I guess what I’m saying is most importantly I judge the success of the program on whether or not we were able to create a sense of community.
SY: Can you give me some examples of a time when this idea of community was really exemplified?
M: Sure! I have so many stories about people who come into the program who tell me they’ve never ever heard of the Steel Yard and they literally live down the street. They show up. They finish the program. They come back to access as many of the opportunities here that we offer. They’re excited to be here… be a part of our Yardie family and they just keep showing up. Long after the W2W work program is over they keep coming back, again and again.
SY: So… you said a lot of about how Weld to Work is similar to the way it was when it started. Has anything changed?
M: Most definitely. It’s like… there’s still work to be done. But Weld to Work is definitely more consistent now… it was more ad hoc when it first started. It really relied on who was available and when and what projects needed to be worked on. We now offer it in units…. 4 one week sessions followed by 2.0 which is a 4-week program. This is important… it communicates to participants that we’re serious about offering consistent, reliable and quality programming. And we now offer Wrap-Around Services and…
SY: WAIT! What are those?
M: Well, first let me say that we don’t offer formal social services and I’m not a social worker. But we acknowledge that when talking about employment or people needing to find jobs that there’s often important stuff to figure out first… like how do you write a resume? Do you need health care? What do you have for transportation? Or food, or dental care? Stuff like that. I developed a resource binder for all the participants. Again, I’m not a social worker but what I like about Rhode Island’s smallness is it can make it easier for people to access a wide range of supportive services.
SY: It sounds like you really helped develop these wrap-around services for Weld to Work. How do you think it changed the program?
M: Partnering with other organizations and getting participants connected to outside resources helps them create and carve their own paths. On top of, it’s allowed us to create some amazing and long-standing partnerships with outside programs. Participants walk away with contacts and opportunities outside of welding.
SY: So not everyone who participates in Weld to Work becomes a Welder?
M: Weld to Work is an entry point. We did not design a program to solely create welders. My goal was to help each person become a well-rounded employee while working safely in an industrial shop… I want them to develop transferable skills and help them achieve their goals- whether it’s to become a welder or not. In addition to welding skills, we focus on showing up on time, teamwork, reliability and taking pride in your work. I ask each participant to tell me where they wanna go and I’ll do my best to help them get there.
SY: Are some people surprised that it’s not just about becoming a welder?
M: Absolutely- but I think, for example, a lot of people think they want to become teachers… mainly because it’s the only profession they’ve ever been introduced to. It’s all they see.
SY: So… we’re talking a lot about jobs, jobs, jobs… how does Weld to Work fit into the Steel Yard and creativity?
M: Art, art making, and creativity are such a crucial part of the program. Creating a project and FINISHING that project demonstrates SO many employable skills. Plus, teamwork, communication and relying on each other. Truthfully, I think Weld to Work is like the essence of what the entire Steel Yard is all about… to create opportunities for as many people as possible.
SY: So… what about Weld to Work has made it so successful?
M: I don’t know why it works! (Laughs out loud). It just does!
SY: Wouldn’t you say it’s ambitious to set out to establish a sense of community and trust with a group of strangers in a week? How does that work?
M: Seriously, a good number of people who come into the program think welding is all fires and explosion- only later to realize how controlled of a process that it is and the tiniest move can make all the difference. But there’s a bond I think that by being surrounded by doing something scary, something new, bonds the group and is what makes a team. What makes it work I think is we jump right in- we don’t spend much time talking about the history or theory of welding, we get right to work. By the end of the first day- every participant has welded. Why waste time? Doing the work is the best way to learn. It’s also the small class sizes and finding the right instructors who can lead an experience of melting metal. Sometimes it all works, sometimes it doesn’t but it’s definitely an experience that bonds people together.
SY: Who’s the ideal student for Weld to Work?
M: The people who have gone through Weld to Work come from a billion different backgrounds… honestly. The one thing I’ve noticed in each successful graduate is that they’re ready for a change…. That’s why the Steel Yard is here- to provide that platform.
SY: So, what’s next for you Margo?
M: Well… starting in June I’ll be moving on and starting my new position outside of the Steel Yard. I will be serving as the Director of Industry Partnerships at the Community College of Rhode Island. I’ll be doing a lot of the same work I’m doing now… just on a more macro scale.
SY: That’s super exciting and we’re really proud of you (though extremely sad to see you go). You’re going to do amazing and they’re lucky to have you. Now, question: You’ve talked a lot about how the program developed and the changes you’ve made. Has Weld to Work changed you? Did you ever imagine and you’d be involved in workforce development?
M: I didn’t think I’d be doing this work. But, a large part of who I am today… it’s thanks to the Steel Yard and to Weld to Work. It’s been a great place for both personal and professional growth and it connects me to regular, to every day BEAUTIFUL people in so many meaningful ways. I think the flexibility of this job, it’s allowed me to try new things and all of that has built my confidence.
SY: You’ve shaped this program and have been integral in its success…. What are you hoping for Weld to Work in the future?
M: I hope it keeps its sentiment. I can see the program growing in so many ways… I say let it grow… I would love to see more sessions, more business partners, and more jobs for Weld to Work right here in the Yard (we do great at this already but I want more!). I just want to create more jobs in Rhode Island… and that we can provide services for as many people as we can. I’d also like to see the program grow in a more traditional way… we’ve already done such a great job at the untraditional methods.
SY: What would you like to say to all the future Weld to Work participants?
M: I mean I have a speech… but, I’ve always worked with people as individuals so I don’t think there’s a blanket statement I can give you. I guess I’d say though…. I hope you enjoy the experience. It’s rare you know to get paid to learn something. Enjoy the ride and I hope you come back….. Oh and, “15 minutes early to something is on time!” (laughs).
SY: You’ve got some big shoes to fill [we both look at Margo’s tiny shoes and laugh]… any advice for the next Workforce Coordinator here at the Yard?
M: Love, really. Take care of yourself and other humans.
[At this moment we both have smiles and eyes are welling up with tears]
SY: Is there something you’d like to say to the Steel Yard?
M: I grew up here. Thank you.
[ We both start crying ]
M: Thank you for the opportunities… thank you for the support. We go above and beyond for each other here… I am where I am because of this idea and am going to take it wherever I go.
SY: We’re going to really miss you!
M: OKAY, I’m still going to be around! I plan to teach courses, be at events and be part of the Iron Pour Crew! This is still my fam.
SY: Well thank you for taking the time to talk today… and congratulations again. Should we get back to work?
M: Yeah, let’s go!