Skills shortage, meet the force of Women Who Weld

Partnership

6/27/2019 / USA
It’s understandable that welding equipment suppliers are invested in the people who use their machines. Without welding professionals, they have no market. That’s why a skills shortage is such a concern to the industry. Or is it more than that? Should the average person care about this skills shortage? When you think about our world, it’s easy to see the importance of welding. We live in a society built by metal and therefore welding. When more experienced welders retire every year, and fewer people learn the trade, the necessary skills and artistry that support our buildings, our cars, even our furniture, are being lost. The fact that this “skills gap” has been widening for years is a large concern. Thankfully, there are people working to change things.
Participants practice in the Women Who Weld lab
Participants welding at the Women Who Weld lab

One of these change-makers is a Detroit based non-profit called Women Who Weld. This organization is working to slow the skills shortage one woman at a time. Women Who Weld, led by Samantha Farr, works to inform women of the lucrative opportunities in the welding industry, and—even better—train them with job-ready skills. Between Farr’s passion and the fierce determination of the participants, the industry has a new source of skilled welding talent.While the organization and its graduates have been wildly successful, growing to further meet the challenge will require a lot of hard work and a little bit of help.

Women Who Weld began serving the unemployed and underemployed women of Detroit in 2014. In concept, their mission was simple. Teach women to weld, fill the abundance of employment openings, and boost the local economy by helping women and families out of poverty. It’s a winning scenario for everyone involved. Training would include not only welding skills but life skills such as how to manage a large pay increase, buy a house, create a budget, and other skills that are issues for those experiencing deep poverty. From the beginning the program was a huge success for the women it served and the Detroit area where Farr calls home. 

To reach the women she wanted to help, Farr offers information sessions at local shelters and support organizations in Detroit, such as the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), Southwest Solutions, and Alternatives for Girls (named one of Crain’s Detroit Best-Managed Non-Profits, 2017.) The information sessions let potential participants understand the program, the industry, and what a career in welding can offer. 

Their main program lasts six-weeks and is completely funded through donations and grants. This intensive welding training is offered once per year and serves ten women per session. Upon completion participants are ready for entry-level or intermediate-level jobs in the welding industry. Instruction covers safety, best practices, welding, and use of additional tools for metalworking and measurement. Graduates also receive help with interview skills and resumes, financial literacy, and the chance to meet with companies offering employment and apprenticeship opportunities. Many of the women will transition out of deep poverty upon graduation. To help ensure their success, Farr meets with each of them regularly throughout the program to ensure they have everything they need to meet new challenges. 

More Options
Depending solely on generosity and the availability of grants isn’t easy. To help ease the burden of funding and reach more women, Farr developed other training models. In addition to the six-week program, there is a week-long intensive welding class offered every quarter. This partially subsidized training model is open on a first come, first served basis with a maximum class size of five women. The class covers similar content to the six-week program, but doesn’t offer the same supportive services, and the cost varies by the type of welding taught.

The organization also offers single-day workshops as an introduction to welding and the industry. These workshops are both a fundraiser and a funnel to the week-long class. Originally only offered in southeast Michigan, Farr has been able to bring these workshops to women in California and soon to several other states with the help of partners in both the education and welding industries.

During 2017, they held most of the programming at TechShop Detroit in Dearborn, a prototyping space already equipped with the necessary welding equipment. When TechShop Detroit closed its doors suddenly in November 2017 due to bankruptcy, Women Who Weld had to find an alternate location quickly to keep their program schedule. Though Farr could find spaces willing to hold the classes and workshops, they would lose access to the welding machines and fume extraction systems necessary for training. The problem seemed insurmountable.

“It would be like trying to hold a computer programming class without computers,” Farr said. Hundreds of women wanted to take part in the programs, but she needed a viable space and machines, fast.

After much research she located a space in Madison Heights but there were no welding machines and no money in the budget to buy them.  Not willing to give up, Farr reached out to Fronius USA, a welding manufacturer she had worked with in the past through the American Welding Society. Fronius was happy to help.

“We were excited to work with Samantha and provide welding machines for her programs,” said Stephanie Welch, public relations manager at Fronius USA. “Since our U.S. headquarters began in Brighton, Michigan, we have a direct connection to the area. We continue to support their mission, and we’re happy to help bring new welding professionals to the industry.”

Fronius USA provided Women Who Weld with a range of top-of-the-line welding machines. The donated machines excel in all the most desired types of welding, giving the participants a solid background for employment. 

“I really don’t know where we would be without the support of Fronius and having access to those machines. It was a huge expense that we could not have afforded,” Farr said. “I was so happy and excited that we were getting the best machines—my favorite machines—and it was all going to come together quickly so we could continue programming.”

Moving Forward

With an interim location for training, and equipment to use, Women Who Weld was back to doing what it does best, helping women rise from poverty. Since beginning the program five years ago, approximately 250 women have completed one of their training models. Of the women who’ve completed the intensive training programs, all have successfully moved into either employment, such as full-time welding jobs and apprenticeships, or further education in welding technology and weld engineering. Women Who Weld is supportive of participants’ choices and is dedicated to their success.

This dedication is proven by the 100% completion and employment rate of the women who have taken the six-week and week-long intensive programs. Women previously stuck in poverty are now employed in full-time welding careers that support themselves and their families. Some have moved from temporary shelter and near homelessness to renting or owning their own home. One woman was living in a shelter with her son prior to training and working a part-time fast food job. Shelters provide temporary housing and she had no hope of making enough money to get her own place when her allotted time at the shelter ran out. A week before completing the intensive welding program she secured a full-time welding job, making enough money to move into more permanent housing.

She reached out to Farr two weeks after graduation. “Just 8 weeks ago I had no idea what I was doing with my future,” she said. “Now I’m in a job I love, making double the amount of before. I tell my son about my work and he’s proud of me. And I can be proud of myself.”

Being able to provide this kind of transformative opportunity while relying mostly on donations is a roller coaster for Farr and her husband Corey, who is also Women Who Weld’s managing partner. With over 400 women on the waiting list, Women Who Weld is facing the challenge of growing to meet their own success and the demands of an industry in dire need of workers. The two of them handle all the demands of the organization including accounting, legal, marketing, and strategy, in addition to training, programming and supporting their participants. As a growing non-profit, their biggest challenge is getting the funding to cover operating and programming costs.

Community Benefits

Every participant trained by Women Who Weld has access to welding machines, personal protective equipment (PPE), and welding consumables such as metal and gas. These items are most often provided through in-kind donations (non-cash goods or services) by members of the welding community. With well-established connections in the welding world, it seems easier to obtain the necessary supplies than sources of cash to fund programming. More programming could help a larger number of women. Raising families out of poverty through career training benefits entire communities. For cities like Detroit, this means more families buy food, pay for transportation, support local businesses, and pay for infrastructure through taxes. More trained welders mean businesses providing those services stay open and thrive. The effect of training women to fill these empty positions ripples across the community in many positive ways and helps break the cycle of poverty.

This training has been such a benefit that in each session Farr sees more participants coming from further away to take advantage of the low-cost single day and week-long classes. The desire for training is so great that women have reached out from almost every state expressing interest. The job markets across the country need skilled workers but providing more programming is out of the question without help.

Recently, InStyle Magazine named Samantha Farr to the list of “50 Badass Women” among other notables such as Michelle Obama, Rachel Maddow, Sen. Mazie Hirono, and Betty White. While honored to be on the list, Farr was especially pleased to see welding included. Welding is always in the background and rarely considered as a career for women. Being included on this list, in a magazine such as InStyle, put Women Who Weld and its mission, in front of a much different audience. A welcome change for the historically male dominated career.

If you are interested in donating to support Women Who Weld, please visit their website (www.womenwhoweld.org) to donate or to contact them directly.

-By Rhonda Zatezalo, freelance writer, Crearies Marketing Design LLC