Since 1987, March has been designated as Women’s History Month to commemorate the vital role women play in our society. Recognizing the many benefits they offer, women are increasingly being courted for a new range of jobs traditionally held by men. These include positions in manufacturing, particularly in welding, thanks to women’s reputation for being quick learners, dexterous and reliable.
To showcase the value that women bring to the manufacturing table, Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), the largest industrial employer in Virginia and the sole designer, builder and refueler of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, has long celebrated Women’s History Month. Of the company’s 26,000 employees, women comprise approximately about 21 percent of its workforce.
Advancing women in the workplace
Currently, 9.4 percent of NNS’s welders are female. Women hold a range of welding-related positions that include manual, semiautomatic and automatic welding processes from stick welding to TIG welding all the way through to robotic MIG welding. Employees at NNS weld materials ranging from carbon steel, high-yield-strength steel and corrosion-resistant steel to nickel alloys and titanium.
To advance women welders in the workplace, NNS supports a number of initiatives, including the National Shipbuilding Research Program, which is tailored toward
researching and discovering what helps, hinders and stirs interest in welding for women.
Other projects at NNS have looked at PPE that is designed for women, hiring events where women are paired with female recruiters and have the opportunity to ask questions without embarrassment, and career builder events.
Additionally, NNS currently maintains an active level of involvement with Skills USA, Skills USA Virginia, The Boys and Girls Clubs of the Virginia Peninsula, and a multitude of local schools and colleges. All of these efforts have one thing in common: To support careers in welding for men and women alike.
Overall, the team at NNS understands that it is incredibly important to encourage children’s interests at an early age. Knowing this, NNS has a program called GEMS, which stands for “Girls with Engineering Minds in Shipbuilding.”
GEMS is an after-school program geared toward middle school-aged girls interested in pursuing engineering and other STEM careers. Female engineering mentors from the shipyard are partnered with the students to encourage college and career pathways and to help motivate the girls to excel in STEM-related classes. The girls participate in hands-on STEM activities that promote learning different engineering principles such as structural, mechanical and electrical engineering.
The current scope of projects at NNS is vast, and women are involved in each and every one of them. To offer a few examples, the company is currently building the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy and refueling the aircraft carrier George Washington. There are also 11 Virginia-class fast-attack submarines in various stages of construction and NNS has begun building units for the first Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine.
Furthermore, one of the leading aluminum welding engineers in the nation, who just happens to be a woman, is currently working on a project for NNS that involves retrofitting a higher grade of aluminum into the Nimitz class of aircraft carriers. Through her attention to detail, keen research skills and deep passion to find an answer, this welding engineer has developed a robust welding procedure that has one of the highest production aluminum weld qualities in company history. She also has tremendous writing skills which has provided her the ability to effectively communicate with and train the welders on what it takes to be successful.
To get a feel for the important work that women contribute to the success of the company, NNS interviewed three of its women welding engineers to find out what inspired them to pursue a career in welding and what aspects of their job are most fulfilling. These three integral NNS team members also offered advice for young women that may be interested in welding as a career.
How did you learn about a career in welding engineering?
Stephanie J. Kiffer, welding engineer: I learned through conversations with my high school vocational technical welding teacher. He showed me a brochure for a welding program at Pennsylvania College of Technology (PCT) and suggested I apply for early acceptance since I had good grades and had excelled at welding in the short amount of time he worked with me. PCT was a perfect fit as it was close to home, so I could stay connected to my mom while I was away at college.
Carolyn Tucker, welding engineer: My degree is in materials science and engineering (MSE), which is a lot broader; welding engineering is very specialized. I honestly didn’t consider welding engineering as a career path until I began applying and interviewing for jobs. At the time in college, I was focused more on the ceramics and polymers side of MSE. Interviewing at Newport News Shipbuilding was my first full exposure to all the different aspects of welding engineering, but from that first exposure, I knew welding engineering at the shipyard would be an interesting career path.
Leslie Schmidt, welding engineer: I was accepted into The Ohio State University and knew I wanted to be an engineer, but I had no idea which type. I learned about welding engineering through the research I did when considering different engineering disciplines. It just caught my attention, and I knew it was what I wanted to do.
What areas of welding engineering in the shipyard do you find the most fulfilling?
Kiffer: I currently work in our field group directly supporting the production of submarines. This allows me the opportunity to witness the submarines being built and learn
directly from the people completing the work, including the welders themselves. I feel like a valuable member of the construction team when I help them solve welding-related issues. Working in this group also gives me the opportunity to work with the other welding engineering groups in our department.
Tucker: I consider problem solving to be an essential aspect of engineering, and we certainly never run out of interesting problems to solve. Problem solving welding engineering issues in the shipyard requires considering the practical process controls of welding in a production environment, technical considerations to produce satisfactory weld quality and properties, and specification requirements. I like research and I find it fulfilling to take complicated problems where these considerations may not easily align and determine what justification, testing and/or approvals are necessary to provide a resolution.
Schmidt: Working with suppliers can be very fulfilling. You get to work with companies around the country and even around the world that are all working on one goal, to build world-class Navy ships.
What would you tell young women to focus on to prepare for a career in welding or welding engineering?
Kiffer: Hands-on experience is priceless. You will benefit from that experience regardless of the path you choose to follow. Understanding the welding process gives you an advantage over someone who knows nothing about welding. Become comfortable with asking questions and equally comfortable with listening to other people.
Tucker: To prepare for a career in welding engineering, I recommend working on your communication and technical writing skills. A lot of people go into welding engineering because they like welding or welding metallurgy or how hands-on it is. Good documentation and being able to clearly communicate with welders, other engineering groups, customers and technical authorities are also important.
Consider if you’d find explaining welding procedure requirements on the phone for half an hour stressful. Personally, I hated talking on the phone that much when I first started. If you would like working on a lab project but would have trouble sitting down to write up good documentation in a lab report at the end, then that’s also something on which to work.
Schmidt: The best advice I can give is to learn from everyone around you. Ask questions and be humble. The engineers and technicians that surround you can teach you so much.
Who is your greatest inspiration and why?
Kiffer: That’s a toss-up between two people. My high school vo-tech instructor inspired me to believe that I could become a welding engineer, and I was accepted early with advanced placement into the program. My mom spent countless hours encouraging me to never stop believing in myself and what I could accomplish. Today, I can say I accomplished the goal of getting an opportunity to work as a welding engineer for the nation’s sole designer, builder and refueler of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, one of only two shipyards capable of designing and building nuclear-powered submarines.
Tucker: My parents always encouraged me to be independent and be able to support myself. That definitely inspired me to pursue an engineering degree and eventually find a solid, long-term career in welding engineering.
Schmidt: My grandmother didn’t have the opportunity to go to college until she was in her 40s. Because of her lack of education, she was forced to stay in an unhealthy marriage. Once she got her education and could take care of herself financially, she was able to go off and live the life she wanted. She always encouraged her children and grandchildren to get an education or find a career that allowed us to be independent, so we didn’t have to rely on anyone to take care of us. She loved sending me any article she found in the newspapers regarding anything welding related and was always so supportive and encouraging.
Like the women at NNS and those in countless other welding positions around the world, women are making strides with every weld they lay down and every welding challenge they solve. And with an overall lack of welders entering the field, the industry should welcome their accomplishments as they trailblaze the way for many more women to come. And what better time to extend that gratitude than during Women’s History Month?