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Changing work force
Students embrace non-traditional college courses
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Tesela Dutton, a student in the automotive technology program at Lanier Technical College, checks the power of a car battery last week. - photo by Michele Hester Dawson Community News

Growing up, Tesela Dutton wanted her first car to be a truck and her first job to be in a garage.

"I've always wanted to work on cars or drive a big truck ever since I was a little girl," she said.

Earlier this year, she enrolled in Lanier Technical College's automotive technology program and will become a certified mechanic within two years.

"My mom is a certified mechanic and she works on cars all the time," the 22-year-old said. "It was something I really wanted to do.

"I didn't want to be the girl that was stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire and have to call her dad to come fix it."

In the generally male-dominant program, Dutton is one of two women taking the courses at the tech school's Dawson campus. She admitted it can be a trying experience at times.

"Last semester, I had a really hard time and had to keep my cool," she said. "A group of guys said I shouldn't be here and that I should be at home with my daughter cooking and cleaning.

"I feel like I should be able to be here and be comfortable because this is something that I want to do and I feel like I can do it just as good as they can do it."

Misty Thiltgen, a 44-year-old mother of four girls, had similar experiences when she decided to pursue a new career in welding.

"I think that's just a stereotype," she said. "I think more women would be more apt to do it if they realized what it really involves."

An artist by trade, Thiltgen sees welding as a twofold philosophy that allows her to channel creativity while making a salary to support her family.

"'Starving artist' is a true term. It doesn't pay well," she said.

Alternatively, welding is one of the most in-demand trades for manufacturers nationwide, according to Troy Lindsey, dean of the local campus.

"Welding is one of the careers that there's a national shortage of. In our service area - with Impulse here in Dawson, Kubota, Caterpillar, America Boa [nearby] -we have those huge manufacturing companies, and they're looking for welders," he said.

"Our primary mission is work force development and helping the employers in our area have a good work force."

With additional funds available for students taking on non-traditional college coursework, Lindsey said Lanier Tech has encouraged men and women to consider programs typically considered gender based.

"Because we are a state school, every program has always been open to everyone," he said. "We've encouraged females to take those courses of study and the same with the traditionally female courses.

"In cosmetology, we have very little crossover. But in general, males make more in cosmetology careers than females do."

Christopher Ahrendt recently graduated from the cosmetology program and is an apprentice at an upscale salon in Atlanta.

Initially, he felt awkward in class with just women, but said it didn't take long for classmates to embrace his passion.

"It was a great experience for me, so I would definitely encourage anyone that was thinking about doing it to go ahead and follow what they want to do and not to let any of the stigmas that they might see or they might feel to hold them back," he said.

"I am very grateful I went through the program and I'm very happy with my decision."