Still waters run deep
The welding journey of Miss Elaine
Elaine Waters, the 2016 PWTeacher of the Year award winner, has taught, inspired, and intimidated the hell out of welding students for 30 years. This is her story.
Things are changing in suburban Atlanta. There is a growing belief that welding and other skilled-trades careers are more than an afterthought, a final straw, or someone’s end of the line. Instead, those people believe that welding training is an option with the same level of credibility as a four-year college.
This belief rejects the status quo and insists that there is a better way to do things. A reluctant centerpiece of this movement is Elaine Waters, welding instructor at Georgia Trade School, located in the northern Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw, Ga.
Waters herself is a walking example of someone who has spent her adult life rejecting social norms, living instead by her own definition of normal. To be a female welder in today’s society is unique, especially since women account for just roughly 4 percent of welders in the industry. But to be a female welder 35 years ago? Well, that was downright strange, not that she has ever cared what others thought.
She also saw firsthand a broken system while instructing at a now shuttered technical school in southwest Atlanta, where unmotivated students took advantage of a government program designed to provide them with skills training in an effort to help them get back on their feet.
She wasn’t the only one who wanted more. Her co-workers Sean Quinton and Ryan Blythe did too, and they knew that there was a different and better way to teach welding and that Waters held the key to it all.
Since opening in 2012, Georgia Trade School has become one of the most sought-after privately funded welding schools in the nation. Without Waters onboard, Georgia Trade School probably wouldn’t exist as it does today.
Not the Intimidating Kind
In general, Waters keeps things pretty close to the vest. Her co-workers and former students describe her as a woman of few words, but the words she says matter and carry weight with those to whom they are spoken. Reluctant to talk about herself, and if she does she, with her heavy Southern drawl, immediately switches focus to her colleagues or
students. Waters is humble, confident, and lives and breathes her craft.
There’s nothing ordinary about Waters, or Miss Elaine, as she’s known to her students. She blazed a trail all her own during a time when it was an oddity to see a woman working in a man’s profession. She didn’t weld to prove a point or to make a statement, she did it because it’s what she liked doing. It never occurred to her that it was wrong or unladylike.
You might not know it by looking at her, but Waters is tough. She has a quiet confidence that only comes from possessing an unwavering faith in who you are and what you are capable of. Waters knew exactly what she was capable of as a welder and really couldn’t care less what others thought, especially those who tried to test or intimidate her for the simple fact that she was a woman. She vividly remembers all of the sideways glances and odd looks she’d receive when she went to the grocery store after a long day of welding. She was dirty and, well, didn’t look like all the other women who were out shopping. It never really bothered her, though, because making a living by doing what she enjoyed was more important than maintaining a certain appearance to appease other people.
“I know what I can do and I’m comfortable with what I can do. I know that whatever it is out there that needs to be welded, I can weld it. No question. I have enough confidence in myself that I know if I’m presented a job to do, I will do it because I was taught well.”
She’d get a little flack at work, too, sometimes from those who didn’t know how good she was at what she did. Not even that was enough to shake her confidence.
“I’ve had guys tell me that they could weld better than me and I’d say, ‘Well, so be it.’ It never intimidated me. I’m not the intimidating kind.
“One job, this man said, ‘You’re going to be working alongside a bunch of men. What does your husband think about that?’ I said, ‘My husband is more worried about what I’ll say to them than what they’ll say to me.’ I got the job just because I said that.”
While tough and a little stubborn, she never felt that she was above learning from others around her. If you could show her a better way to do things, she was willing to listen, learn, and give it a try. It’s what you do when you love your job and strive to get better.
“You’ve got to learn to take pride in your work, and I always did. That’s what I tell my students now. Don’t ever settle. If it looks good but it could look better, don’t settle for good, go for better.”
Her career comprised mostly government work, like fuel cells for commercial and military aircraft, pressure vessels, and combustion liners for jet engines. After working for Lockheed Martin for about four years, Waters enrolled at the Quality School of Pipe Welding in Atlanta, where she learned how to pipe weld before venturing out to work at Turbine Support.
Roughly two years later in 1986 she was contacted by the school to return as a teacher. It wasn’t something she had ever really considered, but she quickly found she had a certain knack for it. It was fun, and watching someone succeed because of what she had taught them was surprisingly rewarding. It didn’t come without a little friction.
“Some of them would say, ‘Well, I’ve never seen a female weld before,’ and I’d say, ‘That’s funny, because I haven’t seen many men that really know how to weld either.’ That would stop them right in their tracks.”
A Shared Vision for Change
Waters spent the next 25 years as an instructor at the Quality School of Pipe Welding, which would eventually change its name to Center of Industry and Technology. It was there she met Ryan Blythe and Sean Quinton, who came aboard as director of student affairs and director of operations, respectively. Neither knew anything about welding, but gravitated toward Waters, who was happy to educate them.
Quinton, in particular, found himself hanging out in the lab with Waters, picking her brain and learning as much as he could about the craft.
“I would go back there and just listen as she taught me all about welding, every aspect of it,” Quinton said.
In 2008-2009, the recession was devastating to the Atlanta area, leaving a lot of people out of work. The school was flooded with unemployed individuals who, through the Workforce Investment Act, now referred to as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, were there to learn how to weld to re-enter the workforce and sustain employment.
To participate in the program, a person had to be unemployed; a U.S. citizen or have lawful, permanent residency; and registered for selective service if a man. Participants would receive training in high-demand skilled occupations like welding, nursing, and truck driving.
While the intent was genuinely good, for every person serious about learning the trade, there were a couple who just didn’t have a passion for welding. Without passion, the desire to learn and improve was lacking.
“You’re not talking about people that are highly motivated. There were some, but you got a sense that there were a lot of people who were there just to keep their unemployment checks coming,” Quinton said.
That lack of desire and initiative was frustrating to everyone, Waters especially. She took it personally. Why would anyone spend so much time learning to do something if they didn’t intend to be great at it? What was the point? She began to resent it, but in classic Waters style she put her head down and got to work, whether she felt she was working with a student who was genuinely there for the right reasons or there simply as a way to collect a check.
The school’s financial woes caught up with it, and in late 2011 it closed, leaving everybody, including Waters, Quinton, and Blythe, out of a job. Losing a school that had served the Atlanta area for a quarter-century was a huge loss for the region.
With the closing, Blythe saw an opportunity to fill the void with another school, one that would rely on private funding instead of government funding. He and Quinton would talk about it often, even before the Center of Industry and Technology closed down. Their school would be 100 percent paid for by the students, and they would recruit people who genuinely wanted to be there, not because welding was some last straw. Their plans of opening this school depended entirely on Waters’ involvement.
“Ryan and I had a vision of what it could be. We talked about it often. But it really depended on Elaine and her experience,” Quinton said.
Between her industry resume and her teaching experience, Quinton and Blythe weren’t going to find anyone better than Waters to lead instruction efforts, and it just so happened that she shared their vision. She wanted nothing more than to teach individuals who were focused, determined, and excited about welding; who weren’t afraid of being pushed; who she could demand excellence and watch as they willingly rose to the challenge.
They found and secured space in nearby Kennesaw, a northern Atlanta suburb. Waters designed the layout of the lab; she, her husband Tommy, and Quinton designed and fabricated cutting tables, tool racks, and welding booths.
Blythe’s wife Joanna came aboard to serve as president; Quinton became vice president and CWI, a certification he earned with extensive help from Waters; and Waters became senior welding instructor.
By early 2012, Georgia Trade School was open for business.
Attracting a Different Kind of Student
Ryan viewed Kennesaw as the perfect location for a welding school. They wanted to attract young, motivated kids right out of high school who were bright, driven, yet not sold on college as the only viable post-high school option.
“The suburbs were starving for something like Georgia Trade School. There are some craftwork programs in urban and rural markets, but nothing in the suburbs. For these kids—and Cobb is a great school system—the only pathway being made available to them was college,” Ryan said.
Though Waters taught students of all types and circumstances in her first 25 years on the job, the last four years she got to help develop a culture that would attract a certain type of student, said Joanna Blythe. No welding experience necessary.
“We talked with her about the kind of students we wanted to attract, what they and their families would expect from us, and what our expectation would be of them. Once we outlined our vision for GTS, she bought right in. She wanted to teach people who wanted to learn and that had no previous experience. She’s a master at teaching that type of student,” Joanna explained.
The ideal student is young, between the ages of 18 and 22; smart; driven; and has a desire to weld not because they can’t get into college, but because they buy in to the opportunities that exist within the field and aren’t afraid of going against the tide.
“A lot of our students performed very well in high school, had the means and opportunity to go to college, but decided they wanted to do something different,” Joanna added.
Additionally, this type of student doesn’t want to start life being thousands of dollars in debt. They don’t want to live at home with their parents until they are in their late 20s. They don’t want to earn an academic degree only to have to choose between taking a job as a barista at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts.
At 24 years old, Gary Ware of Dallas, Ga., was older than most new students when he first enrolled. He saw a program on television about welding and thought it looked like something he’d like to do. A little research pointed him toward the 14-week program at Georgia Trade School. After working hard to save up the tuition money, Ware enrolled and fell in love with it immediately. His first teacher was Waters.
“This woman stared at me and ran an uphill weave and it looked perfect. I was like, ‘You didn’t even look at it! That’s not even fair!’ I wanted to go home at that point, but I thought, ‘One day I’ll be able to do that.’ She’s been a great role model for me,” Ware said.
Stephen Leone of Tampa, Fla., also was 24 when he enrolled at GTS. Unlike Ware, he had previous experience as a construction maintenance welder. He chose Georgia Trade School because he wanted to earn certification to make more money to support his family. The $8,000 tuition was steep, but he knew he’d get that back and then some with the bump in pay he’d receive after getting certified.
He enrolled in the 14-week class where he met Waters for the first time. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he didn’t know how to weld after all, not really anyway.
“She was the first person to actually teach me. There’s a difference between being a certified welder and being able to strike an arc. That’s the first time I remember thinking, ‘Oh wow, Elaine is the best,’” Leone said.
Her teaching style is a mixture of tough love, biting honesty, and an unwavering demand for perfection. Leone noticed immediately that she wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type and assumed she just needed to warm up to new people. He’d get frustrated when he’d ask her how to do something and instead of giving him specifics, she’d word her answer in a way that made it necessary for him to problem-solve and figure it out on his own. And when he’d look to her for approval for his work, he was stunned when she didn’t give him glowing reviews.
That type of feedback can be difficult to handle, especially for a generation of young people who are accustomed to receiving praise for simply trying. But just because she’s tough doesn’t mean she doesn’t care.
“I come across pretty hard and Sean will tell me that they are intimidated by me and don’t want to ask me things. I don’t want that because I’m here to help,” Waters commented.
That’s fine by Leone. It was that type of feedback that motivated him to do better. He didn’t want empty praise; he wanted honesty, and still does to this day.
“I’ll show Elaine something and she’ll go, ‘Yeah, that’s all right.’ And I know what she means is it needs to be better. She never said good job, even when I graduated. I gave her a hug and she just said, ‘See you later.’”
Joanna noted that Waters does have her subtle ways of giving kids her approval. Even after 30 years of teaching, she is still able to share in the small successes of young welders, and her enthusiasm to teach them even the most basic of tasks is just as vibrant as it ever was.
“If you get the coveted smile or pat on the back, you’ll know that you’ve really accomplished something,” Joanna said.
The school offers a 14-week full-time schedule, 24-week part-time schedule, and open enrollment. The $8,000 tuition fee guarantees the student 500+ hours of welding with shielded metal arc welding (SMAW), gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), gas metal arc welding (GMAW), and flux-cored arc welding (FCAW). They learn to weld in the vertical-up and vertical-down positions; lay open butt, groove, and fillet welds; and how to walk the cup, welding on plate in 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G and on pipe in the 1G, 2G, 5G, and 6G positions.
In addition to welding, students spend lab time learning how to cut and perform fabrication techniques, and they learn about tolerances, measurements, machine operation, and maintenance. Classroom time is devoted to welding fundamentals, electrical principles, blueprint reading, weld symbols, and math. It’s incredibly intense, but the upside is a skill that can take students as far as they want it to.
The House Elaine Built
In its four years of existence, the school has become wildly successful thanks largely to Waters’ influence and expertise. It currently has a six-month waiting list, but with plans to expand into a larger building on the horizon, that waiting list time should shorten. While the $8,000 price tag can be intimidating for some, it has served as a factor in weeding out those who are serious from those who are not.
In short, they found a formula that works mostly because they had all seen firsthand one that didn’t.
“I believe in the Silicon Valley culture where you have a failure that you can learn so much from. We would not be as successful as we are had we not had that experience of knowing what doesn’t work,” Ryan said.
Joanna estimated she hosts 10 tours a week with potential students and their families. Women make up roughly 10 percent of the student population. Graduates have gone on to work for Huntington Ingalls, Trinity Industries, and the Ironworkers union, to name a few. While their high school classmates struggle to find full-time employment or repay student loan debt, Georgia Trade School graduates are employed and well-paid, making that once daunting $8,000 tuition payment seem like an incredibly easy decision.
While she may not be warm and fuzzy, everyone is family in the house that Elaine built. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see graduates like Ware, who works full-time as a structural welder at Trinity Industries, hanging out in the lab and shooting the breeze with current students and teachers. It’s a family environment that developed through the friendships forged between the Blythes, Waters, and Quinton and trickled down to their students.
Other alumni like Leone and Kyle Robison came back as full-time instructors, setting the same high standards for a new crop of welders as they were held to under Waters. Leone knows he wouldn’t be where he is without her help and approval.
“If Elaine didn’t like me, I wouldn’t be here. Straight up. Anytime they hire someone or ask about someone, Sean goes straight to Elaine to get her opinion on them.”
Ryan Blythe agrees, saying that only those who have been taught by Waters really understand what the school is trying to accomplish.
“When we were hiring more instructors, we looked at candidates from out of state and from various industries. Now it’s like, if you weren’t taught by Elaine, if you don’t understand what we’re trying to do here, then you probably don’t have a good shot of being hired.”
There might be a time when the 67-year-old Waters decides to hang up her stinger rod, at least in the classroom setting. It’s a concern that Ryan, Joanna, and Quinton are in no hurry to address. If that time comes sooner rather than later, the school will be just fine, though, because Waters’ legacy is imprinted on her co-workers and teachers like a cement handprint. In many ways she is Georgia’s mother of welding, and for the countless welders she’s taught over the last 30 years, it’s not their own voice they hear, it’s hers.
Georgia Trade School, 770-590-9353, www.georgiatradeschool.com
In Their Words
“She’s a woman of few words, so her words have a lot of meaning behind them. Not a lot of hyperbole. She embraces and exhibits old-fashioned values, and I mean that in a good way. Everything from work ethic to manners, and she encourages others to hold them as well. She sets such a great example. You really do have the desire to impress her or please her. She definitely makes you want to be a better person, whether it’s a welder or whatever else. She makes you want to do a little better.” —Joanna Blythe, President, Georgia Trade School
“Students come in and ask me, ‘I work during the day; should I take the part-time class at night with you?’ and I tell them straight up, I had two tours the other day, and I said, ‘No, don’t take it with me. Take it with Elaine, because you’re going to learn so much more from her. You’re going to learn the same amount of material, but she is going to do it so much better.’ And I have no problem admitting that. I tell them, ‘Quit your job and get a night job so you can learn from Elaine. Because she is the best.’” —Stephen Leone, Instructor, Georgia Trade School, and former student of Waters
“It’s a predominantly male industry, and she kicks ass. She’s a tough lady. I love that about her. She’s quick, she’s witty, she’s smart. And the more I got to know her, the more I fell in love with the lady. I was truly blessed to find a place like this with such great people, very knowledgeable. That woman taught me everything I needed to know to be a successful welder.” —Gary Ware, Welder, Trinity Industries, and former student of Waters
“This all radiates from Elaine. What we are and the success we’ve had, I don’t think we can ever really repay her for that. Hopefully the success will in some way be enough. We want her to realize what she’s given to us, the school, and to everyone beyond this place.” —Sean Quinton, Vice President, CWI, Georgia Trade School
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