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Welding

Weld like a girl

By Nick Wright

As the only woman in her welding class, Army reservist pursues career in a male-dominated trade

January 2016 - After Brook Huffman transitioned out of active duty in the Army last year, you could say she revisited an old flame.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do, but welding was always on the back of my mind,” says Huffman, 22. “I just decided that I would give it a try and started looking into local programs.”

Four years after enlisting in the Army at the age of 17, in which she spent the majority of her service at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, Huffman decided she needed more time to care for her young daughter who had been sick. She switched to the Army Reserves. In the meantime, she enrolled in the welding program at Clover Park Technical College in nearby Lakewood, Washington. Huffman had welded in high school, but hadn’t picked up a torch since.

Now, she’s the only female in her welding class at CPTC—while raising her daughter and managing monthly Army Reserves commitment.

She’s originally from Elgin, Minnesota, a farming community where many of her high school classmates went to work on family farms. They’d use welding skills to fix farm equipment and build tools. In high school, Huffman’s main focus was stick welding, including lots of 6010 electrode. Students also learned to use a plasma cutter.

“I always liked making something I know most people can’t,” she says. “It’s also a calming thing for me. Every time I weld, I get so focused and it’s all I think about.”

FFJ 0116 welding image1

Brook Huffman, 22, is about halfway through the welding program at Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Wash.

Enlisted welder

In the Army, Huffman repaired weapons. Her title was small arms and artillery repair. “My last unit in the Army when I was active duty was 1-229 ARB, 16th CAB,” short for Combat Aviation Bridge, she says. After attending an open house at CPTC she realized it was the right fit and enrolled. It also didn’t hurt that it was near where she lives.

Huffman attends class Monday through Friday and says she isn’t treated any differently than the men. The Army gave her tough skin—not that she’s needed it so far. “You can’t be a prissy girl and expect to have respect and a good time at school. The guys I go to school with are great and I don’t even think they realize I’m a girl,” she adds. 

In the first quarter at CPTC, Huffman and her class learned oxyfuel welding and 6010 horizontal and flat. During the second quarter, which wrapped up in December 2015, her class learned 6010 over head and vertical up along with 7018 flat and horizontal.

“We’re also doing bend tests on V grooves to prepare us for WABO testing,” she says, referring to Washington Association of Building Officials, a certifying body for welders.

The welding program is two years long. At the end, Huffman’s dream is to work for Global Dynamics Land Systems, a defense company. But she’s also looking for jobs involving TIG welding as it’s her main focus. 

“I always liked the idea of light metals and making small things,” she adds.

But it takes cohering the small things to make up the bigger picture. Huffman’s welding instructor at CPTC, David Meyers, who has taught welding for over five years, says women who enter a welding curriculum offer a unique and different point of view and in most instances, possess astute attention to detail.

“The women who complete a technical college welding program in my experience tend to apply themselves to the course material and excel in both lecture and lab. I believe they understand both the challenges and rewards of entering a male dominated trade,” Meyers says.

FFJ 0116 welding image2

Huffman is the only woman in her welding class, but says that it’s never an issue. “The guys I go to school with are great,” she says.

He points to the many businesses in Washington that are looking for student welders who have a breadth and depth of understanding of their trade, follow direction, read drawings and are patient welders. 

“The women who enter the industry and have these traits will do well.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014, there are about 615,000 welders in the U.S. Roughly 30,000—less than 5 percent—are women. Huffman is on track to bump that number up.

Meyers adds, “I would also like to take my hat off to the military people who are coming to welding as a new line of education and work. They understand hard work, show respect and take directions better than anyone.”

With the average age of a welder in the U.S. hovering around 50 years old, the baby boomers are retiring faster than they can be replaced. “Service men and service women are a great resource for a trade that pays well and offers rewarding work,” Meyers says.

There’s nothing stopping Huffman from realizing the best of both worlds when she completes CPTC’s welding program next year. FFJ

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