September 14, 2011
When it comes to sheet metal welders, the lyrics "Anything you can do, I can do better" isn’t a phrase of competition or ego. Women welders in the industry are the minority — by far — but a few of them are looking to show their male counterparts that when it comes to their craft, the question of who is the most talented is a toss-up.
Three American women took to welding at different times in their lives, through the International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal industry. Misty Whaley of Conyers, Ga. is a single mom who wanted to provide for her family. Irais Gandarilla of Portland, Ore., always wanted to create metal sculptures, and she found a career she loves in the process. Rachel Koon of Charleston, S.C., followed her husband into the sheet metal industry and found her steady hands helped her earn a living at a career she enjoyed.
Although different, each shares a passion for welding as well as the empowerment and challenge it brings to them.
"Women are known for paying attention to detail, and we're not in a rush," Whaley said. "It takes patience."
Koon's steady hands and patience have proven priceless in her newfound career. She participated in the concentrated welding program, an intense, three-week class meant to fast-track welders for large, multiyear projects in the Southeast.
"A lot of women think it's hot and sweaty and dangerous. It's very safe," said Koon, 22, who grew up on a farm and isn’t afraid of hard work and dirt. "It's a great way to support your family, and I think if other women gave it a chance, they'd enjoy it as well.”
Gandarilla, 30, meets once a month with other female sheet metal workers as a sign of solidarity and sisterhood. In the fourth year of the industry's five-year apprenticeship program, she takes every opportunity to learn and explore her creative side.
"We're trying to break into a male-dominated field. Many guys think sheet metal is a man's job, and it is, but it's a woman's job, too," she said. "Every time I go to the training center, I know I'm going to get to fabricate and build. I love it. It's dirty work, but I love it. For me, I've always wanted to build metal sculptures. I've always liked putting metal together to create art."
Another similarity of these three women is they are all currently working.
Needless to say, all three welders said they would like to see more women in the industry, especially in welding, but they don’t think many know it's a viable option.
The ITI, Alexandria, Va., jointly sponsored by Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA), produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a variety of training materials free of charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.
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