Three women talk about career, need for more females in sheet metal industry

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – When it comes to sheet metal welders, the adage “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 women from across the United States took to welding at different times in their lives, all through the International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal industry. Misty Whaley of Conyears, 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, SC 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, they each share a passion for welding as well as the empowerment and challenge it brings to them, not to mention the innate ability to not sit still.

“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 multi-year projects in the Southeast.

“A lot of women, when they think of this, they 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. Gandarilla is working on the Sandy High School project in Sandy, Ore.; Whaley works as the only welder in the shop at Perimeter Sheet Metal in Georgia; and Koon is in the fabrication shop at Inter Mech in South Carolina.

With large projects coming up in the Southeast, as well as smaller jobs across the rest of the country, welding is a viable skill that can open doors to work, said Steve Kowats, quality assurance manager and industrial specialist for the ITI.

“Someone from the local community needs to recruit women and prepare them for welding in the trade,” Kowats added. “From my experience, women generally tend to approach any job with more forethought and are less likely to rush into the task as many men I have taught and worked with do. This isn’t to say that jumping in and getting it done does not have a place, which can be a lesson for anyone entering the construction trade – when to contemplate and when to get busy. Welding lends itself to careful planning.”

Needless to say, all three female 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.

“As a woman, I’m taking these amazing skills and applying them to a real job, real pension, real benefits. I can’t believe I can do this. Every day I walk away in awe. It’s hard work, but it’s fun,” Gandarilla said. “I can’t sit behind a desk. If other women find themselves saying ‘I worked on a project in the garden or at home,’ and they walked away from it feeling good, they need to be looking into this trade.”

The next concentrated welding program will take place from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Oct. 3-21 (Monday through Friday) at the Local 85 Training Center, 575 Fair Drive SW in Atlanta. The program is open to union members in good standing, and those interested can contact their local training center or Alan Still at 404-753-6466.

More than 15,000 apprentices are registered at training facilities in the United States and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by Sheet Metal Worker’s International Association (SMWIA) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). ITI supports apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal industry throughout the United States and Canada. Located in Alexandria, Va., ITI produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free of charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.

For more information about ITI, visit www.sheetmetal-iti.org or call 703-739-7200.

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