Women in Male-Dominated Fields: Welding
October 6, 2016 | Focus on Women
After working almost 25 years in the mental health field, Holly Beck decided she wanted to try a new career. She longed to do something creative with her hands, so at the age of 58 Beck enrolled at a community college near her home on Long Island and became the school’s first female graduate in welding.
“There’s just something incredibly satisfying about melting and bending metal,” said Beck.
Beck’s father was a welder and farmer who encouraged his daughters to learn to use their hands by building things. They also got to watch him weld in the driveway.
“Nighttime was my favorite time because when he was grinding something, the sparks would be flying like fireworks,” she remembered.
After making the decision to change careers, Beck enrolled in a semester-long program at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood, New York, that met two evenings per week and all day every other Saturday. She was able to keep her day job while learning new skills.
Attending a trade school and becoming certified in areas that were previously thought of as for men only can have huge benefits for women. The American Welding Association predicts that 400,000 welders will be needed by 2024. There is also a growing demand for electricians and HVAC technicians.
Trade schools typically cost much less than tuition at a four-year college, and you can make a very good living after graduation. The average annual wage is more than $40,000 for a welder, more than $46,000 for HVAC and more than $54,000 for an electrician. Experienced tradeswomen and tradesmen can make more than $100,000. And most classes for these careers don’t require any experience in the field.
Beck admits that she felt apprehensive before starting her training, and she wondered how the men in her class would respond to having a female in class. But she was determined to do everything in her power to be a great example.
“I took my role as the sole female seriously. Whether I liked it or not, I represented an entire gender—if I gave an incorrect perception to my fellow classmates or instructor, what would they walk away thinking about women in the field? My focus was on learning as much as I could and committing myself 200 percent.”
Beck’s instruction included a mix of hands-on lab and classroom work, learning things like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirements and how the many different welding machines worked. Her pre-class worries proved to be unfounded. She felt accepted and supported by the male instructor and seven male classmates right away.
“They treated me like anybody else. We kind of banded together and celebrated when we did something well.”
“Don’t put limits on yourself. Employers want well-qualified individuals whether they are men or women.”
Beck hopes to get into the ornamental aspect of welding: making high-end gates, railings and fences that require meticulous attention to details. “It’s very precise and creative, which is attractive to me.”
She’s looking for her first job and just recently became an assistant instructor in the welding program at the Suffolk County Community College. Beck’s 31-year-old son was thrilled by his mother’s choice of a new career and was one of her biggest cheerleaders. So was her father, who was also deeply moved by her decision to take up his trade. “He was a little teary-eyed. He was very, very happy.”
Beck is pleased that she broke traditional gender barriers for welding at her school and hopes to be just the first in a tidal wave of change. It may take some time. There was one other woman signed up for the class who changed her mind. Beck was saddened when she heard that the woman did so because she felt intimidated by the number of men versus women in the field.
“Don’t talk yourself out of something because you think you might be faced with an attitude,” Beck said. “Don’t ever do that. Don’t put that limitation on yourself. If there’s something you really want to do, do it. I had 25 years in a career, and this was a whole other part of me that I needed to honor and respect.”
Generations ago, female welders, carpenters, repair people or electricians were largely unheard of, but things are changing. Careers in skilled trades can be great opportunities for women. Follow your passion with no limits or preset notions wherever that may take you, and you just might find a very rewarding career.
This is the first in a series about women in male-dominated fields.