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Thursday, February 13, 2014

American manufacturing and welding to women: We want you!

Story originally appeared on CNBC.

Six years after the start of a deep recession and a growing call for more middle-class manufacturing jobs, one American industry is tackling workforce development in a unique way. Welding is courting fresh recruits—women in particular.

America's highest rated welding program at Ferris State University in Michigan.

Mention women welders and "Flashdance" might come to mind. The 1983 movie starred Jennifer Beals as a welder by day and dancer by night. But the industry has advanced beyond the bulky machinery depicted in the film.

Modern welding techniques are highly specialized and can include automation. Shop floors are brighter and cleaner. Welders work on specialized structures for the marine and aerospace sectors, even on custom cars for reality TV shows.

Despite cool projects, available work is outpacing qualified tradespeople—largely due to an aging workforce.

"Any metal shop you talk to, they're desperate for good metal fabricators," said Scott Behr, owner of Total Metal Resource, based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Their work includes metal staircases and signage for the Colicchio & Sons restaurant and Chobani yogurt shop, both in Manhattan. "The reality is, the guys who really know what they're doing, with deep knowledge of what happens with metal, are machinists, sheet metal workers and blacksmiths. And they're either dead or retiring soon," said Behr, himself a 20-year welding veteran.

Of course, whether men or women make better welders is debatable. But both genders being equal, some women, it turns out, have a knack for welding, which requires multiple proficiencies. An affinity for math and science. Artistic and spatial skills to conceptualize ideas. And maybe just as important, a temperament for precise work and hand-eye coordination.

"Women have steady hands and patience. And those are two very important things in welding," said Becky Lorenz, a veteran professional welder and machinist.

Welding isn't the first industry to place extra value on female workers. Most of Hollywood's first film editors, or "cutters" as they were called, were women. The tedious work included sifting through thousands of feet of negatives, cutting the film and then joining the pieces together.

Just as it takes patience to craft scenes into a film, welding requires diligence to produce a weld bead fusion along a metal joint. This process is similar to a sewer adhering a seam. "You can't rush the bead or you won't get a clean fusion," said Lorenz, who runs her own shop, Aerospace Welding Services, in Silver Spring, Md.

Aging welders
Lorenz is among the select few women in her field: They represent only 3 percent of U.S. professional welders in a welding degree program.