Missoula girls learn true GRIT in gender-breaking welding class

More than a dozen Missoula girls joined the YWCA’s Girls Representing in the Trades program at Missoula College on Saturday to learn the art of welding. The program encourages girls to explore male-dominated trades. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

When Sydney Colomeda thinks about her place in the world, it’s a place of equality. And sometimes, a place where she grabs a welding torch and dons a helmet to prove she can shape steel with the best of them.

On Saturday morning, Colomeda, a 17-year-old student at Sentinel High School, pulled on her gloves and gathered with more than a dozen other middle- and high-school girls at Missoula College for a crash course on welding.

According to the Tulsa Welding School, there are less than 500,000 welders actively employed in the U.S., and less than 6 percent of them are female. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The program, known as Girls Representing in the Trades, aims to break down long-standing gender barriers in male-dominated occupations, like welding, and Colomeda is all about that.

“I really like doing this kind of stuff and showing I can do anything I want to and that a man can do,” said Colomeda. “Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t do whatever. You can break the gender norm and get out of that ‘I can’t do this because I’m a female’ mentality.”

Known as GRIT, the program was launched in January by the Missoula YWCA in an effort to expose girls to certain trades, such as auto mechanics, carpentry and welding.

Margaret Hoyt, who works with the YWCA in the AmeriCorps VISTA program, sat with the girls for a safety briefing early Saturday before heading to the welding shop for hands-on training. The course is now in its second session and was partially modeled off Rosie’s Girls and the Vermont Works for Women program.

“GRIT is a program to try to empower and encourage girls to consider fields they might not have considered before – fields that are often male dominated and can be intimidating to enter,” Hoyt said. “They’re often really well-paying and rewarding jobs, and we want to provide that hands-on experience to girls to learn about these trades and gain the understanding and belief that these are potential career options for them.”

According to the Tulsa Welding School, there are less than 500,000 welders actively employed in the U.S., and less than 6 percent of them are female.

With nearly half of all welders now in their mid- to late 50s and approaching retirement age, it’s estimated the welding labor force faces a shortage of 200,000 workers. That spells opportunity, both on the gender front and the labor front.

But Hoyt says old stereotypes and stigmas still confront women looking to enter trades that have long been held by men. The new Missoula program works to overcome that by placing girls in a safe, nonjudgmental environment where they can explore new trades.

“It can be difficult and challenging to break out of those barriers, and a lot of girls feel intimidated when they enter a classroom that’s male dominated,” said Hoyt. “Girls have this belief that guys automatically know more than them or think they’re more natural at welding or more natural carpenters, which isn’t necessarily true.”

Jennifer Hershman, one of Saturday’s instructors, walks the girls through a safety brief before their first welding lesson. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With 30 years in the profession, Jennifer Hershman has seen the changes. When she entered the welding program back in the 1980s, she was the only female student and wasn’t necessarily welcomed by her male peers.

But a good instructor in Bob Shook helped her stick it out. She went on to work 20 years at Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. before launching a career as a welding artist.

“If it wasn’t for Shook, I probably wouldn’t have got through,” said Hershman. “The other students were not really keen about a female being in the program at that time. Through the years, it has gotten better and better, and it keeps getting better.”

Hershman joined another instructor Saturday in giving the girls a careful safety briefing. It covered the elements of working with hot steel, how to clean a bead, proper use of tools and not looking at the flame without the protection of safety gear.

While the cautions drew an occasional look of concern from the girls, Hershman said that driving a car is equally dangerous, but you learn to do it. She offered her steady hand to anyone who needed it, along with a dose of encouragement, saying women make excellent welders.

“You’re seeing women branch out in all trades, and welding as well, which is still considered one of the more manly trades,” said Hershman. “This is another avenue other than a four-year degree, and there’s money to be made. I’m thrilled there’s so many girls interested in it.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com