In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, contributing writer Ryan Blythe introduces us to women blazing trails in a typically male-dominated industry.
She Loves What She Does
Natalie Ford, a top graduate at Georgia Trade School, grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. After high school, she moved to Woodstock to attend Gwinnett Technical College. She intended to major in veterinary technology, a career path that’s 55% female, some 50 points higher than welding. Like many students, Ford found her original plan wasn’t what she really wanted, so she changed majors and earned a Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate for early childhood development.
During the next 10 years, Ford worked a variety of jobs, from child care to photography, never finding career satisfaction. She had been directed to a four-year college, and jobs perceived to be traditionally for women. She came across welding soon after graduating high school, and even discussed going to a welding school as an alternative to college, but was discouraged.
Finally, on her 27th birthday, Ford took matters into her own hands and stopped worrying about what others thought. She enrolled in school to study welding.
Six months later, Ford received multiple certifications in arc welding, flux core welding and mig welding. After earning her industry credentials, she was hired at Absolute Welding and Consulting in Douglasville, and has worked there nearly two years, despite receiving offers from larger companies.
Ford plans to continue her education and become a certified welding inspector (CWI). She would like to teach, and has experienced the joy of helping coworkers with various techniques and positions to improve their welds. With an average salary of $80,000 per year, becoming a CWI in Georgia is an excellent career plan.
A Big Deal in the Welding Business
Ford’s success wouldn’t be possible without the talented women – like Elaine Waters – who came before her, paving the way in an industry dominated by men. In North Georgia, there is one woman whose efforts over 35-plus years have set her apart from the rest. That woman is Elaine Waters.
It’s not hyperbole to say Waters is a big deal in the welding business. She has the hardware to prove it. In 2016, the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association named Waters the National Teacher of the Year. Her career began more than 30 years earlier, when she graduated from the Quality School of Pipe Welding in Atlanta.
Waters decided to become a pipe welder after working for Lockheed Martin, where she built fuel cells for commercial and military aircraft, and pressure vessels and combustion liners for jet engines. With her new skills, she moved into turbine support, but after a couple of years, the teaching bug hit her.
For the next quarter century, Waters taught at the Quality School and later the Center of Industry and Technology. Her students would go on to become pipeline welders, fabricators, structural welders and, in some cases, business owners. Conservatively, Waters has taught thousands of students — an impact that is unmatched in the region and state.
Currently, there are about 20,000 female welders in the United States. Trailblazers like Waters have made that possible.
Giving Women the Tools They Need
One of the many organizations developing innovative workforces is the Biloxi, Mississippi-based Moore Community House (MCH). Program Director Ruth Mazara sheds light on the program.
Moore Community House was founded in Biloxi in 1924, at a time when east Biloxi was filled with seafood factories that attracted workers from around the world. Many came with young children. Moore Community House offered education and other services to the children in east Biloxi, and we have continued to provide affordable child care to our neighbors over the past 96 years. As a mission agency of United Methodist Women, we support low-income women and children. One of our programs is our Women in Construction (WinC) program.
After Hurricane Katrina, there were many construction and trade jobs on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, due to the extensive rebuilding necessary after the devastation caused by the storm, but the women that we served at MCH were not able to access those jobs. We decided to start a program that gives women the tools to enter the trades — not just the skills, but the knowledge it takes to succeed in the trades, the confidence to pursue their goals in a male-dominated field, and the support to overcome barriers to employment that low-income women with children often face. Among the support services we offer is child care, since reliable, affordable child care has been shown to increase completion rates in job training programs, and helps with retention in the workforce.
The curriculum is designed to support the needs of industry employers in our area. We combine classroom and hands-on learning for participants to earn industry-recognized stackable credentials, such as NCCER and OSHA cards, while offering supportive services, such as child care, transportation and work-gear assistance, to remove barriers that otherwise would prevent women from participating in workforce training. Our program has been nationally recognized as a best-practice model for workforce training.
With a 78% graduation rate, MCH WinC has graduated more than 700 women since its inception in 2008, and currently holds a 66% placement rate. Graduates of MCH WinC are encouraged to maintain communication through monthly meetings, a graduate-only Facebook page, and check-ins with updates.
– Ryan Blythe is the founder of Georgia Trade School, which, for the fourth consecutive year, was named one of the Cobb Chamber Top 25 Small Businesses of the Year.