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Women in Welding (written by Helen Carey)

As with many areas of manufacturing, the welding industry is in need of workers. Traditionally a male-dominated field, welding has been facing a labor deficit for about a decade now and past efforts to expand recruiting efforts have largely failed or remained inconclusive. But new initiatives aim to change this, specifically by attracting women to the industry.

The older generation of welders is retiring or nearing retirement age, creating a gap that needs to be filled — and quickly. But welding hasn’t been particularly inviting to women over the years, with many companies operating under the assumption that only men would want to weld in the first place.

In 2016, women welders made up only 4% of the industry.

The Evolving Welding Sector

The stereotypical image associated with welding doesn’t help matters — a noisy, dirty factory floor; the constant risk of workplace injuries; and generally unpleasant conditions. But welding, like just about every other area of manufacturing, is evolving and shifting with the times. As technology continues to advance and industrial operations become increasingly digitized and interconnected, the welding industry becomes progressively more high-tech.

Automation technologies are creating safer, more efficient working environments, freeing up workers from more menial tasks and allowing them to focus their time on more interesting aspects of the job. Robotics, computer programming, and engineering skills are becoming more highly sought after as technologies advance.

As the industry evolves, so too must the recruiting techniques used to attract workers to the field. The manufacturing industry as a whole has been grappling with a worker shortage in recent years, with companies and organizations across the country trying to pinpoint the best methods for recruiting — including creating more apprenticeship and mentorship opportunities, raising awareness and funding for trade and technical schools, and targeting underrepresented groups through media and community outreach.

Why So Few Women?

So why aren’t women showing more interest in welding, which offers career stability, flexibility, good pay and benefits, and room for growth?

Simply the fact that women are so outnumbered may be a deterrent; working on a factory floor as the sole woman may be an unappealing prospect for many individuals, not to mention the fact that welding jobs are often associated with workplace hazards and demanding conditions.

Combine this with the fact that workplace harassment remains a constant concern, and the low numbers seem less surprising. In a New York Times article published in December of last year, 80 women factory workers were asked about their workplace experiences, with many describing instances of sexual harassment. And those who don’t face harassment must often deal with an overarching culture of machoism, leading women to feel disrespected or out of place.

Recruiting Women to the World of Welding

With a focus on improving working conditions for women on factory floors, employers, unions, and various nonprofit groups are looking to change these perceptions and shift the country’s welding culture.

The Ironworkers Union, for instance, recently agreed to offer six months paid maternity leave in an effort to attract more women to the field. United Auto Workers made history as one of the first unions to specify in its contracts with Chrysler and Ford that members could file a grievance if they are sexually harassed.

Previous recruiting efforts tended to focus on emphasizing the perks of a welding career, like high pay, good health insurance and benefits, and job stability. Scholarships for trade programs also sprung up, and educational opportunities for younger women became more popular.

Assessing the numbers and determining whether these initiatives were fruitful are more complicated than one might think, however, as the manufacturing industry saw more people — and therefore, more women — entering the workforce during this time. In 2010, 4% of the welders, solderers, and brazers were women, and that percentage remained the same by 2016.

Women Who Weld, a Detroit-based nonprofit, is seeking to create an entirely new welding culture — one that caters to women and offers valuable educational opportunities in female-focused settings rather than simply trying to attract women to traditional, male-dominated programs and apprenticeships. The nonprofit offers welding classes and hands-on training sessions, many of which are led by women, and serves as a general resource and support network for those looking to enter the field. Emphasis is placed on financial literacy, and sexual harassment training is also offered, encouraging women to know their rights on the factory floor.

Sparking a Brighter Future for Women Welders

As new advancements continue to enter the market, welding will continue to evolve — both in terms of the technologies used and the way the industry is perceived. With initiatives like Women Who Weld reaching young women from all walks of life and unions and employers ramping up efforts to create safer, more inclusive working environments, the future seems bright for women in welding.

In the meantime, industry experts, employers, and nonprofits alike will continue to monitor the numbers, trying out new initiatives and working toward a better future — for welding, women, and the manufacturing sphere as a whole.

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