Four years ago, Bailey Steele was working a minimum-wage job at Taco Bell. Now, she’s a full-time welder, making more money doing something she loves.
“It's like meditation,” Steele, 21, said. “When you put your hood down, you can just be quiet and breathe and do your thing.”
Steele’s journey from low-paid taco-maker to highly skilled ironworker was sparked by a unique Detroit organization that teaches women to weld. The intensive course run by nonprofit Women Who Weld has trained roughly 400 aspiring ironworkers since its launch seven years ago.
All of the women accepted into the program went on to complete it, according to founder Samantha Farrugia, and all landed jobs shortly after graduating.
“I graduated from the program on a Friday, and I started a job on Monday,” said Lily Kline, 28, who makes chandeliers, brass credenzas and other custom furniture for a company called Ganas Manufacturing.
The U.S. has lost more than 7 million manufacturing jobs since the late 1960s, but skilled welders are in high demand. More than 300,000 job openings are expected nationwide by 2024, according to the American Welding Society, making it a prime employment opportunity. One reason for this: Older welders are reaching retirement age, and not enough young people are joining their ranks.
“We need many efforts across the nation to help fill the gap, and programs like Women Who Weld that focus on a population that we don’t typically attract are really critical,” said Monica Pfarr, executive director of the American Welding Society Foundation.
Women make up only about 5 percent of the welding workforce. At many of the places where they work, there isn’t even a women’s bathroom on the factory floor.
Farrugia started the program in 2014 after learning how to weld herself while pursuing her master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Michigan. She relies on outside donations to offer the classes, which are on hold due to Covid-19, for as low as $500.
The average salaries for welders vary widely depending on their industry and skill level. Farrugia said some of her graduates are now making six figures in “really demanding jobs.”
“It’s pretty amazing to watch people in as short of a year to really transform their entire lives to go from working minimum wage, perhaps part time, to making a really good living for themselves and their families, but also to love the work they’re engaged in,” Farrugia said.
Farrugia’s program has garnered attention far beyond the industry. In 2019, she earned a spot on InStyle magazine’s list of the 50 most badass women.
“I was pretty blown away because it isn’t too often that women involved in welding are recognized,” Farrugia said. “I thought it was really cool not only for myself but for the industry to get recognition.”
Teia Leonard was a head chef for a school district before she began working as a press machine operator at a plant that built car parts for GM and Toyota.
After getting accepted into the program in fall 2019, Leonard participated in the training from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Then she raced to the plant to work her 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift.
She graduated from the program in October 2019 and now has a full-time job manufacturing and installing automotive paint-finishing systems.
“My family doesn’t understand it,” Leonard, the mother of a 7-year-old son, said. “I’m the only woman welder they’ve ever seen.”
Leonard and the other women said they’ve become accustomed to being judged and harassed by their male counterparts who far outnumber them.
“You are deemed fresh meat when you get there,” Leonard said. “For me, I find that shutting it down right away really makes the difference.”
Leonard said she’s also noticed that the Women Who Weld training provided her with a level of technique above many men she has encountered at work. And that’s not all she got out of the program.
“We had a whole class dedicated to money management,” she said. “They teach you so much more than just the basics of welding.”
The women said they hope they can inspire more young female welders to join their ranks.
“It’s OK to be in a room full of men and know what you’re doing,” Leonard said. “Don’t dim your light. It took me forever to understand that.”
"Don’t worry so much about how people are perceiving you,” Kline said. “Don’t let the judgement or questioning shrink you and your desire to be a part of it.”
Steele, the former Taco Bell employee, now works at the Wayne County Jail, where she welds the jail cells.
The job is demanding and the environment is far from luxurious, but Steele said she takes special pride knowing that her work will outlive her.
“It’s a fun job to have, and it’s tough,” Steele said. “You’re making something that will last forever, so it’s just a good feeling.”