A Veteran Aglow with Passion to Weld
Jesse Townsend didn’t know how to translate his work on military helicopters to the civilian world — until he trained to become a welder.
Some people whose workdays begin at dawn give themselves only a few minutes to roll out of bed, jump in their cars and drag themselves in a sleepy fog to work.
Not Jesse Townsend.
Maybe it’s the ex-Marine in him that actually kind of relishes the discipline of waking up early — 4:15 a.m. early. He leaves time to shower and eat breakfast before driving from Pacific Beach to work on a gigantic construction site for an Escondido hospital. Though his team meets there at 6:15 for their morning rundown of the day’s work, Townsend gets there 20 minutes before and sits in his car, drinking coffee and listening to a “War of the Roses” radio show where members of committed relationships prank partners suspected of cheating.
It’s hard to tell why he likes the show. Infidelity and dispassion seem foreign concepts to Townsend. The 27-year-old spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a helicopter mechanic, troubleshooting weapons systems. He spouts lessons he learned about himself and stories about the bonds he struck with his platoon. He refers every few minutes to his long-distance girlfriend, or to his family. His eyes light up when he talks about welding.
He’s been on this job site about a week. A second-year apprentice in the plumbers and pipefitters union, he’s currently posted as a materials handler, tasked with finding hardware, cutting steel and wood and taking orders for whatever his colleagues need to measure pipes and weld connections.
Townsend counts himself lucky to have a job, let alone one he’s excited about. When he got out of the military, the scope of the economy was disorienting.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was qualified for.”
He went through a training program specifically geared for returning veterans, but so many others in his situation have found the transition to civilian life tough — tougher because of the recession. The national Bureau of Labor Statistics last year pegged unemployment for 18-to-24-year-old male veterans at 13.9 percent, several points higher than the overall unemployment rate. For women, the percentage jumped to 15.1 percent.
This is significant for San Diego, where an estimated 27,000 veterans live who’ve spent time serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s almost twice the number in Los Angeles. Without training and transition help, the fear is that veterans could wind up on the street or in low-paying jobs. And the numbers of vets returning to San Diego are expected to grow.
On a crisp early morning at the construction site, Townsend pulls out a crinkled list from his khaki work pants and studies it. There are about a dozen items here, pieces and measurements for the supplies his colleagues will need today. He reaches for a measuring tape and uses a power saw to cut lengths of metal framing material.
Townsend is brawny and soft-spoken, hoisting loads of steel beams over his shoulder while recounting stories about the brotherhood of being in the Marines. He punctuates every few sentences with some pearl of self-actualization, something he’s learned about himself or his passion for welding.
“It’s one of those things,” he’ll say. “I’m chasing the thrill of being perfect.”
This work — the glorified gofer position Townsend is assigned right now — is not the most exciting. Neither was the gig on his last site where he was sometimes on fire watch, just standing all day underneath a welder, holding a fire extinguisher. But he says he doesn’t mind. As he carries the beams inside and into a construction elevator, Townsend points out all of the activity on the site, the things he’ll get to do soon. Plus, he says, he’s learning about all of the jobs this way, not just welding.
“You’ve got to be able to be skilled in everything,” he says. “What if you can’t weld anything? What if your eyes go bad?”
He delivers the strut, then returns to the part of the site where supplies are stacked and piled under tarps. Now he has to grab a box of copper pipe insulation and wheel it on a cart to another worker.
Though he says he doesn’t mind the grunt work now, Townsend says he sometimes sneaks back into work when the day’s over to observe more experienced welders or ask for tips.
He’s itching to use what he learned in his four-month welder training. He gets a faraway look in his eyes when he talks about it.
“When you’re welding, you’re in the zone,” he says. “You’re in another world. It’s something I’ve never experienced before.”
At 9 a.m., it’s break time. Townsend reaches into his cooler and pulls out a sandwich. A few fellow workers rib him for having an entourage this morning, with a reporter and photographer there to capture a day in his life.
It’s a bit like the brotherhood he had in the Marines, he says.
Townsend joined the Marines in April 2002 as a 19-year-old who didn’t know what he was getting into. After finishing boot camp at Camp Pendleton, Townsend traveled to Japan, Australia and Guam and completing two seven-month stints in Iraq.
When he got out, he road-tripped and camped up the coast to his hometown in Lakewood, Wash. He was unemployed for a while. He figured out the bare minimum he needed to get by — $2,000 a month take-home — and realized he needed more than one job to do it. He tried landscaping and selling frozen food door-to-door. In the middle of the night, he’d wake up to make bread in a local bakery, then sleep for a few hours before starting a shift as a private security officer.
Another security rotation put him on a construction site, where the sparks and blindingly bright flames of welding ignited Townsend’s imagination. But the training programs he knew about conflicted with his work schedule. Then he heard about Veterans In Piping — a program that allowed him to quit his jobs, train through the union and collect unemployment in the meantime.
Within a few months, Townsend landed a spot as an apprentice in San Diego. He’s making $20.47 an hour, which is about what he made working those two jobs in Washington. In a few months, he expects his pay will bump up by $3.50 an hour.
But Townsend knows the job market is unstable, that construction jobs are especially scarce. He tries to live on no more than he’d receive in unemployment benefits if he lost his job, he says.
This kind of pragmatism might come from his family. His mom didn’t finish high school but has always had a job and provided for him and his two brothers. His dad laid sewer pipes until he hurt his back, and now owns a water purification company in Pacific Beach.
“You never know when you’re not going to be able to do what you do,” Townsend says.
Still, right now, Townsend can’t wait to weld.
“Everybody has something to shine at,” he says. “I feel like I’ve found my thing.”