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Third generation of welding family joins Willmar manufacturer that benefited from his grandfather's instruction

Erica Dischino / Tribune Third-generation welder Jacob Frank works Wednesday at the RELCO manufacturing plant in Willmar. His father is the estimating manager there, and his late grandfather taught welding for years at Ridgewater College.1 / 7
Erica Dischino / Tribune Steve Frank Jr., estimating manager at RELCO, reflects Wednesday on the impact of his late father, Stephen Frank Sr., who taught welding for many years at Ridgewater College in Willmar. Frank Jr. traveled to welding competitions with his dad and his students and became a welder himself, as well as studying drafting and industrial technology. 2 / 7
Erica Dischino / Tribune RELCO, which designs and manufactures food productions systems at its plant in Willmar, has many employees who were taught to weld by the late Stephen Frank Sr. Frank’s son and grandson work at RELCO, maintaining the family legacy of welders. 3 / 7
Erica Dischino / Tribune Jacob Frank, the third generation of Franks to be a welder, works Wednesday at the RELCO manufacturing plant in Willmar. His father works there, and his late grandfather taught welding to the company founder and at least 10 other employees.4 / 7
Erica Dischino / Tribune A RELCO employee works in the manufacturing plant Wednesday in Willmar. RELCO designs and manufactures food productions systems.5 / 7
Erica Dischino / Tribune RELCO employees Steve Frank Jr., left, Tayler Sing and Jacob Frank all learned from the late Stephen Frank Sr. Steve and Jacob saw their father and grandfather working in the trade from a young age, and Sing was a student at Ridgewater College when Frank Sr. was a welding instructor there.6 / 7
Erica Dischino / Tribune Steve Frank Jr., estimating manager at RELCO, holds a photo of his father, Stephen Frank Sr., who was a welding instructor to many RELCO employees.7 / 7

WILLMAR — RELCO LLC in Willmar owes a lot to Stephen Frank Sr., perhaps even a part of its very existence.

Frank Sr., who died in March 2017, was the welding instructor for RELCO's founder and president Loren Corle. Frank also taught welding to at least 10 current employees of the company, along with passing his love of the craft to his son and grandson, who also work at RELCO.

"He influenced a lot of people," said Steve Frank Jr., estimating manager at RELCO.

Frank Sr. started teaching welding in 1972 at Willmar Technical College, what is now Ridgewater College. While teaching welding, he not only shared his knowledge and skills, but also inspired his students to succeed beyond the classroom, his son said.

"It was the desire of one man to create successful entrepreneurs," Frank Jr. said.

Frank Jr. grew up with welding, helping his father in the shop and traveling to welding competitions with him and his students. He decided to become a welder as well, along with going to school for drafting and industrial technology.

"I thought the industry was the place to be," he said.

It was his father who directed him toward RELCO as a place to work after college. Frank Jr. started working at RELCO in 1988 and has been there on and off for 30 years.

Frank Sr. often sang RELCO's praises to his students and proudly shared the successes his former students achieved.

"Dad always said get into welding, there are a lot of opportunities," Frank Jr. said. "Opportunity is what we make it."

Now the third generation is keeping the Frank family's welding history alive: His son Jacob Frank just started working at RELCO.

"It has been in the family forever," Jake Frank said. "I've been working with my hands for a while now. It is something I like to do."

His grandfather was a big influence. Jake Frank watched him weld and create from a very young age.

"Every time I saw him, he was working in the shop, welding," Jake Frank said.

Frank Sr. didn't just influence his own family, but many of his students. Tayler Sing, the manufacturing manager at RELCO, was also taught by Frank Sr. at Ridgewater. Sing grew up around welding, since his grandparents owned a business in Olivia, and they, along with Frank Sr., helped Sing find his career path.

"He was my strongest influence, after my grandparents. He helped solidify my decision to get into the industry," Sing said.

Sing said it was how Frank Sr. treated his students that made him such a successful teacher.

"It was a respect thing. He respected his students a lot," and cared about their future, Sing said.

Frank Sr.'s students are continuing his legacy of educating and inspiring the next generation of welders and tradesmen.

"His grandson is a benefactor of all of this. He would be smiling," Frank Jr. said. "The beauty of it, you look at Jake, and it comes full circle, and it will continue."

But to keep that cycle going, RELCO and businesses like it need to find workers.

"They have a huge need for welders," Frank Jr. said.

Both Frank Jr. and Sing say there isn't a single reason why youth today do not seem as interested in welding or other trade careers. They say it is partly because it isn't being taught enough in school, that there is a stigma attached to those sorts of occupations and times are changing.

"(Fewer) kids are being brought up working with their hands" and on family farms where those kinds of skills were once taught, Sing said.

Now, RELCO has to search for workers, when once people came to them. RELCO is working with area schools to build student interest in careers such as welding.

"It needs to be an effort between industries, like RELCO, and the schools," Sing said.

When it comes to what Sing is looking for in an employee, a high school diploma is all the education needed, but prospective workers need to be dedicated, humble and hardworking.

"It is more about the qualities," Sing said.

The skills to be a welder can be taught, and once an individual learns those skills, it can open quite a few doors.

"Once you start learning the skills, and you are hardworking and motivated, you will have a lot more opportunities," Sing said.

Welding, especially for businesses such as RELCO — which designs and manufactures food productions systems, isn't just standing in a room on an assembly line doing the same thing over and over again. A human touch and mind will probably always be needed for work such as that.

"Everything is different, everything is customized. You have to be a craftsman," Frank Jr. said. "It is an art form."

Sharing those possibilities is one of the best things Frank Sr. did, for both his students and the industry he loved.

"He saw it as something greater than standing on an assembly line. He took the stigma out of it," Frank Jr. said.