Barbies? No! Welding Rods? Yes!

Brittany Kerr graduated the Industrial Systems Technology program at Hibbing Community College in May. The self-described "True Iron Ranger" is staying close to home to work in her trade. She was recently hired at Ulland Brothers Inc. Here she poses next to a forklift in the HCC IST shop. (Crystal Dey/Hibbing Daily Tribune)

HIBBING — While other girls were playing with Barbies, Brittany Kerr was sparking welding rods. She dreamed of working in Minnesota’s iron ore mines when she grew up.

“I wanted to be a welder in the mines since I was really young,” Kerr said.

She remembers learning to weld in her father’s garage at an early age. Brittany’s dad, C.J. Kerr, a welder/fabricator, and her uncle, Jim Aimonetti, also a welder, were major influences in her decision to pursue trades.

“I didn’t hang out with a lot of girls in high school or do typical girly things,” Kerr said. “I always wanted to just be in the trades or the industrial field.”

After high school, Kerr pursued her dream and enrolled in the Industrial Systems Technology (IST) program at Hibbing Community College (HCC). Although, the future she once envisioned as a little girl changed.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go straight into the mines or not and into my first year I got really interested in boiler maintenance and repair,” Kerr said.

Kerr, now 21, graduated with very high distinction from the IST program at HCC in May earning her Associate in Applied Science two-year degree.

Unlike a lot of Iron Range millennials, Kerr has no intention of taking her local education elsewhere. She plans to get experience under her belt and stay close to home.

“Born and raised in Hibbing, I’m a true Iron Ranger,” Kerr boasted.

She enjoys the Minnesota seasons and landscape. Growing up outside of town with horses, Kerr can’t imagine living in the city.

“Not just the Range, but I like Minnesota. I like the environment. I like the long winters. We have fresh air up here,” Kerr said. “I’m going to stay here. I’m going to try anyway.”

The recent graduate applied to more than 50 companies in Minnesota, half of which were industrial trades, before being hired in June as a roller operator with Ulland Brothers Inc. Ulland Brothers has offices in Virginia, Cloquet and Albert Lea. Kerr will be driving heavy equipment at a construction site in Hermantown.

“Duluth is close, it’s connected to the Iron Range with shipping,” Kerr said.

Prior to her recent hire, Kerr was working at Lowe’s in Hibbing while attending college.

“I was so glad when Ulland called. Like, oh yeah, this is happening,” Kerr said. “I was persistent, but not too persistent. There were a couple people I called and thought I was being annoying, but I just wanted to get a job.”

Kerr had her now 2-year-old daughter Gemma’s future in mind as she studied for her IST degree. She plans to get her master boiler license and hopes one day Gemma may join her working for their own business.

“You could definitely work in the mines with your boiler license,” Kerr said. “But after I get my master’s I might start my own business.”

The economic instability with mining work contributed to Kerr’s desire to explore other venues, however, she has not ruled out mining work altogether. She said she doesn’t have a preference of mining companies but tends to be partial to U.S. Steel.

“It kind of depends on where work takes me,” Kerr said. “Right now, I’m happy to be with Ulland.”

Kerr said she was fortunate to find a job both in her field and in her hometown area, but in order to keep future graduates here a change needs to take place internationally.

“If we don’t find something it’s going to be a ghost town,” Kerr said. “It’s not our fault we have foreign dumping. It’s our government’s.”

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HCC’s IST Program

HCC has modified its industrial trades program over the years to suit area needs. What was once a Mining and Heavy Equipment Operator program became Industrial Technology with a mining emphasis and is now Industrial Systems Technology.

“I definitely recommend the program,” Kerr said. “It’s not just mining, it covers so many areas.”

Kerr entertained the idea of going into construction management, but opted for IST because of the variety of skills and range of trades.

“The mines like this program because you graduate from it and you’re a jack of all trades,” Kerr said. “And Rick and Larry are awesome.”

Rick Mayerich and Larry Hendrickson teach and oversee HCC’s IST program. Kerr added the instructors’ experience helped connect classroom lessons to real-world application. Both men have worked in the mining industry.

One of the classes Kerr enjoyed most at HCC was an industrial projects class where students visit a job site to apply learned trade skills. Creating foundations for Habitat for Humanity homes in Hibbing’s Brooklyn area was one of the projects.

Although Kerr is a happenchance industrial artist, a metal sculpting course developed to satisfy liberal art credits for the program was not one of her favorites.

“Welding was easy. I really did like welding, but it turns out just not as a career path,” Kerr said. “And I’m just not artsy with my metal work even if people tell me it’s good.”

Kerr’s advice to future IST students: “Just show up and do the work.”

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