Four years ago Bailey Steele worked minimum wage at Taco Bell. Now she is a full time welder making more money doing something she loves.
âIt’s like meditation,â said Steele, 21. âWhen you put on your balaclava, you can just be quiet, breathe, and do whatever you want.â
Steele’s journey from poorly paid taco maker to highly skilled blacksmith was sparked by a unique Detroit organization that teaches women to weld. The intensive course led by nonprofit women who weld has trained around 400 future ironworkers since its launch seven years ago.
According to founder Samantha Farrugia, all of the women accepted into the program completed it and all got jobs soon after graduating.
âI graduated from the program on a Friday and started a job on Monday,â said Lily Kline, 28, who makes custom chandeliers, brass splashbacks and other furniture for a company called Ganas Manufacturing.
The United States has lost more than 7 million manufacturing jobs since the late 1960s, but skilled welders are in high demand. According to the American Welding Society, more than 300,000 job postings are expected across the country by 2024, making it a premier employment opportunity. One reason for this is that older welders are reaching retirement age and few young people are joining their ranks.
âWe need a lot of effort across the country to help close the gap, and programs like Women Who Weld that focus on a population that we don’t usually attract are really essential,â said Monica Pfarr, Director Executive of the American Welding Society Foundation.
Women make up only about 5 percent of the welding workforce. In many places where they work, there is not even a female bathroom in the factory.
Farrugia started the program in 2014 after learning to weld while pursuing her Masters in Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. She relies on external donations to deliver the classes, which are on hold due to Covid-19, for as little as $ 500.
Average wages 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 see people in less than a year really transforming their whole life from going from minimum wage, maybe part time, to making a really good living and for their family, but also loving the work they do. re engaged in, âFarrugia said.
Farrugia’s program has attracted attention far beyond the industry. In 2019, she secured a spot on InStyle Magazine’s 50 Most Badass Women list.
âI was pretty blown away because it’s not too often that the women involved in welding are recognized,â said Farrugia. âI thought it was really cool not only for me, but also for the industry to be recognized.â
Teia Leonard was a chef in a school district before starting to work as a pressing machine operator at a factory that made auto parts for GM and Toyota.
After being accepted into the program in the fall of 2019, Leonard attended the training from 9:30 am to 2:30 pm Then she rushed to the plant to work her 3 pm to 2 am shift.
She graduated from the program in October 2019 and now has a full-time job manufacturing and installing automotive paint finish systems.
âMy family doesn’t understand,â said Leonard, the mother of a 7-year-old son. “I’m the only female welder they’ve ever seen.”
Leonard and the other women said they got used to being judged and harassed by their far more male counterparts.
âYou’re considered fresh meat when you get there,â Leonard said. “For me, I find that stopping it right away really makes a difference.”
Leonard said she also noticed the Women Who Weld training provided her with a higher level of technique than many men she’s met on the job. And that’s not all she got out of the program.
âWe had a whole class devoted to money management,â she said. âThey teach you a lot more than the basics of welding.â
The women said they hoped they could inspire more young welders to join their ranks.
âIt’s good to be in a room full of men and know what you’re doing,â Leonard said. âDon’t dim your light. It took me forever to figure this out.
âDon’t worry so much about how people perceive you,â Kline said. “Don’t let judgment or questioning reduce you and your desire to be a part of it.”
Steele, the former Taco Bell employee, now works at Wayne County Jail, where she welds the jail cells.
The work is demanding and the environment is far from luxurious, but Steele said she was especially proud to know her job would outlive her.
âIt’s a fun job to have and it’s tough,â Steele said. “You are creating something that will last forever, so it’s just a good feeling.”