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By Jodi Helmer
Olivia McCleery took a job in ad sales after graduating from college but didn’t love it. On a whim, she went to work for a demolition company while she figured out her next move — and fell in love with the trades.
"It was the job I never knew I wanted," she recalls. "I was operating heavy machinery and breaking things; I got to do a little bit of welding and wanted to learn more."
In 2013, McCleery signed up for the six-week welding program at Lincoln Electric Welding Technology and Training Center in Cleveland, Ohio. She was one of two women in the class. From the moment she fired up the torch and started learning how to use heat and electrical currents to bond metals together, she was hooked.
“There is something addictive about welding,” she explains. “You start to get the hang of it and want to do it again and again to try to make a better and better weld.”
After completing the program she worked in the field before returning to the training center as a welding instructor. She is the first and only female instructor in company history and teaches several classes, including the popular (and often sold-out) Women in Welding weekend classes.
Check out this video from Lincoln Electric in which female welders explain why they love their careers and the different environments welders can work in, including under water.
Although there are 592,000 welders in the United States, just 5.3% are women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number might grow, thanks to an increasing number of “women in welding” programs offered through organizations such as Lincoln Electric, Women Who Weld and Chicago Women in Trades.
Welders earn a median wage of $20.43 per hour working in industries ranging from auto racing, shipbuilding and aerospace to custom furniture manufacturing.
Lauren Svedman, a welding instructor at Chicago Women in Trades, a nonprofit workforce development organization, believes women are drawn to welding because of the diversity of job opportunities, stable employment and high wages.
“The opportunities in welding are so vast,” Svedman says. “It’s so much more than working in a steel mill.”
Despite a growing demand for skills-based workers, women are rarely encouraged to pursue careers in welding. “I didn’t even know welding was a thing until I was in my 20s,” said McCleery. “No one talked to me about going to trade school or all of the opportunities in the trades.”
Welding classes for women provide a safe place for them to explore their interests and decide if a career in the trades is the right fit — and their first experience with a welding torch is almost never their last, according to McCleery. Many of the women who attend the weekend programs go on to register for comprehensive classes in trade schools or community colleges, earning certifications and pursuing careers in welding.
"Welding makes me feel powerful. There is so much satisfaction that comes from being able to see a physical creation that I made," says Svedman.
Like McCleery, Svedman stumbled into a career in welding. The single mom, who holds a degree in psychology and previously worked with troubled youth, loved making things and wanted to learn how to weld in order to make sculptures and other artwork as a hobby. She signed up for a free welding class offered through the Jane Addams Resource Corporation in Chicago and it sparked a passion that led her to change careers.
“Welding makes me feel powerful. There is so much satisfaction that comes from being able to see a physical creation that I made,” she says. “There is so much stability in manufacturing and I was able to leave my work at work and spend evenings with my daughter.”
In addition to teaching women the basics of reading blueprints, shop safety and MIG, TIG and stick welding, Svedman talks to students about the realities of being a woman in a historically male field. “It takes a lot of courage to step outside of traditional gender roles and explore opportunities in a male-dominated industry.”
For McCleery, stepping outside of her comfort zone has led to incredible opportunities, and no small amount of pride.
“There is a huge sense of accomplishment that comes with welding,” McCleery says. “You feel so proud to have something you can point to and say, ‘I did this.’”
Jodi Helmer has covered education and vocational training for Civil Eats, NPR, Fresh Cup and Garden Center Magazine among others.