When you close your eyes and envision a welder, what do you see? Thanks to television and movies many people have an image of welders as tough, scruffy and large men. Did anyone picture a 5-foot, 2-inch, 115-pound woman? Did anyone picture a woman at all?

You may be asking why it matters what image a welder has. It is important because as experienced welders retire, a growing skills gap is making it more difficult for the industry to find qualified replacement welders. Who is going to fill those jobs? Is the skewed image of a welder discouraging women from pursuing a career in welding?

Filling the skills gap

The challenge is not finding applicants; it is finding welders who have enough experience and skills to fill the gap. This will take time and effort. Companies can begin by implementing in-house programs that promote mentoring or apprenticeships. Pairing experienced welders and entry level trainees serves two purposes. First, it shows the experienced welder that the company recognizes their value. Second, it demonstrates to the trainees that the company is willing to invest valuable time, money, and effort into their development.

Some companies have gone one step further and developed their own in-house welding school to build on the skills of a promising entry level welder. Classes are designed to build the trainee’s skill set and allow the inexperienced welder to gain valuable hands-on experience in a controlled classroom environment. As the welder develops she spends less time in the training environment and more time doing production work with a mentor.

Another option for the company is to work with schools in their area. Provide schools with a list of skills the company needs and the level of proficiency required. Work with them to identify welders that have the qualities the company needs. Do not stop at the technical schools; consider working with the local high schools. Help them develop a welding program that will prepare graduates for continued development and certification.

Presence of female welders

Welding has been, and still is, a male-dominated occupation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 615,000 welders in 2015. Of those, 25,830 (4.2 percent) were female welders. This leaves considerable room for growth, since female workers make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce.

Welding environments are becoming more female-friendly

The image of a weld shop is also skewed. If you ask someone not in the welding industry to describe a weld shop, they will probably answer with words like dark, smelly, hot, dirty and stifling. Weld shops will never be as clean as an office and will probably always smell like hot metal. In the past it was not unusual to have every surface of a weld shop covered in black grime. However, what started as compliance with safety standards has developed into a positive safety culture. Cleaner weld shops not only attract female welders, they promote safety and boost morale for everyone.

Weld equipment has changed, too. The equipment is lighter, smaller, and more maneuverable. Personal protective equipment (PPE) has also improved making it easier to use and more comfortable to wear. These changes in welding help make the profession more attractive to women.

PPE improvements are still needed. In the past, PPE was developed from a male body type. Women welders found that it either did not fit or it did not fit right. Some female welders find welding leathers, welding gloves, and welding helmets too big for their use. This can be a safety risk and may mean that special sizes need to be purchased. There are signs that this is changing. While sometimes still difficult to find, companies that make PPE are starting to offer equipment designed for women.