Edison Tech students challenge gender and racial disparities in welding
High school freshman Angelea Sanchez is ready to light a fire in her classroom.
But first, an instructor helps Angelea tie her light brown hair back into a bun using a pencil — a little trick she’d picked up over her lengthy career working with flames and machinery.
Angelea lowers a welder’s hood over her face, sparks the torch and starts welding a metal stitch to fuse two pieces of steel.
She’s one of about 15 students of color in Edison Career and Technology High school’s women in welding workshop. Right now, they’re constructing an artistic metal bench.
“It's mind-blowing, actually, ’cause like it’s new to us and then we're building a bench for school? It’s just crazy,” Angelea says.
Their art teacher, Annie Niederpruem, has been helping them brainstorm what their part of the bench will look like. The plan is to create a functional piece of art that will remain at the school and represent the programs that are offered there.
“It will be a bench that is usable, functional, and also be beautiful,” Niederpruem says.
Leading the students through the process of building the bench is metal sculptor Stacey Mrva. For 20 years, she’s been working as an artist making bespoke furniture, abstract lighting fixtures, and unique sculptures that appear more fluid and lighter than the metal they’re made of.
Because of her uncommon career, she first arrived to Edison Tech to give a talk to female students about her work. From there, it evolved into a collaboration with many of the same students to build something together.
Initially, this was a welding class for anyone, but most of the students who showed up were girls. So, she decided to embrace that.
“I think the focus on having all women in the group is to have the girls learn how to support each other,” Mrva says. “I think the freedom of having just women in the class maybe gives them a little less fear, to ask questions and try and maybe make mistakes.”
When it comes to jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, jobs, women make up about half of the workforce, according to the Pew Research Center, but most of those jobs are in health-related fields.
But when you look at the differences across race and ethnicity, Black and Hispanic people make up less than a fifth of the STEM workforce. As for welders, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2020, fewer than 4% are women. But the bureau doesn’t state how many of those women are women of color.
Edison welding teacher Jim Putnam says learning this skill builds confidence for students -- and expands their career options.
“Many parents don't realize that that's an opportunity where somebody that's learning how to weld, or learning how to be a machinist or an electrician or whatever, can walk out here and make $30, $40 $50,000 a year without going to college,” Putnam says. “However, it still is a lot of work and they have to put the effort in at school to make it happen.”
The job market wasn’t always so male-dominated. During World War II, as more men were recruited into the armed forces, women were recruited to take on factory and industry jobs.
Around the same time, Rosie the Riveter, a propaganda image to convince women to step into these roles, became an icon for women’s independence. But after the war, women were pushed out of those jobs that were considered “men’s work.” The boom was over.
Fast forward to today, the teachers at Edison Tech running this welding workshop hope to inspire a small boom of their own by encouraging their students to pursue careers like this after graduation.
“We had a new girl a few weeks ago, it was her first time using the chop saw, and we were just cheering for her because she was a little apprehensive,” Mrva says. “I think once we show them that they can do it, it's not that scary.”
Mrva says there’s something deeply satisfying about the act of creating itself that can lead to personal discovery.
“One of the first days when we got them really working with the materials and creating things, there was a definite buzz and excitement in the air when they built something in one class period and were able to take it home with them,” Mrva says. “And I know, for me, that's my personal joy: when something didn't exist and then it does.”
That’s what Angelea is uncovering for herself through this process.
“I was proud of myself, because I didn't think I could do it,” she says. “To be honest, I was nervous the first time I welded something. And then I got used to it and now I'm building a bench.”
The project is still in the works, but it’s expected to be completed by the end of the school year.