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Past efforts to attract women to welding have had underwhelming results. New programs aim to change that.
On a rainy Saturday morning in May, Samantha Farr was standing in front of a steel table, drawing loops in the air with a welding gun. “You want to hear a nice sizzle—and you want to breathe,” Farr, the founder of a Detroit nonprofit called Women Who Weld, told the dozen women assembled around the table at a community workshop in Ann Arbor. “This should be meditative.” She pushed the trigger switch and lowered the welding gun onto a small, squarish slab of metal.
The women—from cities across Michigan, and clad in mint-green jackets and gloves, their hair encased under caps—were learning for the first time how to weld, or how to fuse metals together. Farr pointed to the legs and frame of the table. “Metal is all around you and it needs to be welded.”
Farr was speaking to a broad economic truth. Over the past 18 years, the rapid advancement of automation and globalization has helped contribute to the loss of about 5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the employment of welders, and those in similar professions, in the United States is expected to grow 6 percent by 2026, compared with 2016 numbers. Much of the welding workforce is approaching retirement age just as the crumbling of infrastructure such as bridges, highways, and oil pipelines means a great deal of metal needs fusing. Unlike with many manufacturing jobs, large infrastructure projects typically require that welding takes place on site, which means the jobs can’t easily be transported abroad.
A deficit in skilled-trade workers emerged about a decade ago. At that time, welding organizations and employers realized that women could help fill the gap. Early efforts focused on recruiting women by emphasizing career perks such as high pay and job stability, and by establishing scholarships for college trade programs. Welding organizations also tried to generally destigmatize the industry through interactive exhibits and mentorship programs for younger recruits.
It’s unclear if those efforts actually increased the number of women pursuing education and careers in welding. In 2016, women made up 4 percent of the welding, soldering, and brazing workers in the United States, unchanged from the percentage in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The number of women has increased, but so has the total workforce,” said Monica Pfarr, the executive director of the American Welding Society Foundation, a charitable organization focused on welding research and education.
Women Who Weld and other similar initiatives are now pursuing different approaches. Instead of enticing women into established programs dominated by men at trade schools and colleges, they’re changing the programs altogether. Alternative instruction models are offering classes exclusively for women, many of which are taught by female instructors, and providing subsidized costs and intensive programs that are more affordable and take less time to complete than traditional classes. Bolstered by the #MeToo movement, which has largely bypassed blue-collar women, some are also incorporating sexual-harassment training.
Farr was working toward a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Michigan in 2013 when she looked into a lab at the school one day and saw sparks flying. She had always been interested in welding and signed up for a class. “I was good at it, and I found it meditative and relaxing,” she says. “I wondered, Why aren’t there more women here with me?” When she started asking around, she concluded that a combination of factors, including socioeconomic challenges, fear, lack of encouragement, and harassment in the workplace, had mostly kept women away from welding.
The existing means of drawing in women seemed limited to Farr. Since 2011, the American Welding Society, an industry group, has been sending a “Careers in Welding” trailer to trade fairs in more than 25 states. It features a virtual welding simulator that allows visitors to experience welding firsthand. In 2012, the Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, launched an initiative to highlight the achievements of women in manufacturing, including welders, and to encourage mentorship of a new generation of female workers.
These efforts, however, tended to funnel interest into welding programs run by vocational schools or trade organizations. As Farr looked into these programs, she found that those offered by vocational schools were time-consuming and expensive (according to recent estimates, the average cost for a one-year associate program in welding is $17,787), and that the ones offered by trade organizations tended to be one-off programs that didn’t adequately prepare students for welding careers. She also found no intensive career-preparation programs designed for and available only to women.
Farr realized that a welding program for women that improved on the existing recruiting efforts might be a way for her to use her urban-planning and economic-development background to help her community. She began applying for grants and funds to start a women’s welding program (which would cost $5,500 a student for a six-week track), and started a partnership with the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (cots), a Detroit-based nonprofit that aims to alleviate homelessness. In 2014, she created Women Who Weld to teach women the craft and to help them find employment in the field. The organization offers several training programs, including a six-week workshop for unemployed and underemployed women—most of whom live in temporary shelters—who graduate the course prepared for full-time jobs in the aerospace, automotive, and defense industries, or for apprenticeships at welding shops.
Students in the six-week program meet four days a week. They take weekly weld tests and tour production facilities. Farr advises participants on their résumés, and the women take day-long workshops on financial literacy, home buying, and interviewing led by partner organizations. Women Who Weld also tackles ways to deal with harassment, providing guidance for newly minted welders before and after they’ve graduated. In addition, the organization holds single-day workshops as introductory courses, and week-long training classes that cram the intensive course into five days. To date, more than 100 women have completed training (across the one-day, five-day, and six-week options). Farr says everyone who has begun the program has finished it, and all of the graduates who went through the five-day and six-week tracks obtained full-time employment as welders within six weeks. This year, she says, Women Who Weld expects to train around 300 women.
Tiffany Collins, a single mother who was homeless and living at cots in 2016, heard about the training program and decided to participate in the six-week workshop. She didn’t think anything would come of it, but she saw an opportunity to better herself, and a chance to spend time outside of the shelter. “It turns out I actually fell in love with the thing,” she says. “The idea of being a woman welder, of having a trade and a craft, and, one day, being able to have a career.”
Collins was hired three days after she graduated. She went from the homeless shelter to making $20 to $30 an hour at her job at a auto-parts manufacturer in Plymouth, Michigan, where she works on car frames and is considered an overhead welder—meaning she can weld at any angle, including over her head, horizontally, and vertically. She is the only woman on the line at her shift, but she’s hoping her presence attracts others, as women become encouraged to take on welding and businesses become more open to hiring them. “I feel like a real-life Rosie the Riveter,” she says.
Beyond Detroit, welding initiatives tailored for women include the Women in Welding program run by Chicago Women in Trades, the Latinas Welding Guild in Indianapolis, and Weld Like a Girl in Arizona. In small classrooms with female instructors, women are being prepared for entry-level welding jobs and are being taught strategies to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. Traditional programs, too, have recognized the benefit of this approach and have begun incorporating women-only courses into their curriculums. A report published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research about attracting women to middle-skill jobs such as welding cites women-only pre-apprenticeship programs and workshops as ways to make up for gender deficits in the job market.
Despite the inroads women are making in the industry, sexual harassment continues to be a challenge in the male-dominated welding business, and often goes undocumented. Amanda Todd, a former hairdresser who graduated from Women Who Weld last year and now works as a welder, said that although she has never felt harassed, she has received comments from male co-workers that someone else might interpret as harassment. “One time someone asked me if I wanted to cheat on my boyfriend and I said, ‘You know I could get you fired for that, right?’”
In her workshops, Farr makes sure to cover what women might face in their welding jobs, addressing how they can report and immediately document instances of harassment. She also vets the shops that she matches with female candidates, going on tours and meeting with human-resources departments to see if the working environment appears safe and comfortable for women. Farr believes that as more women join the industry, circumstances will change. “I want to walk into a shop and have no one even look up—that’s a good sign,” she says.
At her Ann Arbor class, the women got more comfortable as the day wore on. At one point, Farr yelled, “Flash!”—a warning about the bright light from a weld she was about to demonstrate—and everyone pulled their helmet down over their face. Farr guided the torch in a looping motion over the metal, until an even weld had formed. “It’s almost like frosting,” one of the women said. “Like cake decorating.” “I’ll try it,” said another.
Liana Aghajanian is a writer based in Detroit, Michigan. This article originally appeared in The Atlantic.