According to a 2013 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 7.8 percent of welders in the United States are women. Given the Labor Department’s projection of a 15-percent increase in welding jobs by 2020, welding could be a viable career that most would have never considered.
Women like Karen Gilgenbach are leading the way. Her experience serves as both inspiration and guidepost for women considering a career in welding. American Welding Online queried Karen about her life in welding, in the first of several blog posts about Women in Welding.
How did you get into the welding industry?
I went to school for Engineering, and when I graduated I went to work for a company called AGA, a member of the Linde Gas Group. I was very lucky because the company provided extensive welding training opportunities, and I took night classes as well.
What do you do?
I am an Advanced Fabrication Manager for Airgas. My goal is to find ways to help Airgas customers increase productivity and the quality of the products they produce, while reducing waste. I get to work with customers in a very hands-on way, every day. I do destructive testing like macroetches and bend tests to help customers evaluate weld quality. I also help them determine what equipment, for example automation equipment, might help them become more efficient, and how they can measure those changes.
What did you study and why?
I have a BS degree in Engineering Mechanics, and then completed a variety of AWS certifications (CWI, CWS, CRAW-T). Last year I enrolled at Ohio State University in the Master’s Degree Program in Weld Engineering.
How well did your studies prepare you for your current job?
There was (and IS!) A LOT of on-the-job training. I learn from my customers and co-workers every day – I don’t think the learning process ever stops. Welding is a very complicated process! The field of Welding and Welding Engineering has aspects of manufacturing engineering, in determining how to gain efficiencies, metallurgy, electrical engineering (in terms of how the power sources function), inspection, design, the actual skills involved with the welding process, etc. I anticipate that I will be learning on the job until the day I retire.
What do you like most about your job?
The thing I like most about my job is being able to help customers improve their processes and quality. It is very rewarding to feel like I make an impact in my work with them.
What are some of the stumbling blocks that women in the welding industry should look out for?
I think it can be helpful to have a support system. There may be people who are willing to mentor you, coach or advise you, or even just listen. If you can figure out who those people are, I think it can be a huge help.
If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ you’d recommend, which would you include and why?
GO TO AWS MEETINGS! I have met so many people who have coached, mentored, and helped me to recognize potential opportunities that I would never have known about. Get involved with the AWS.
Do you think the welding industry is a good career option for women?
Why or why not?
I think the welding industry is a good career option for women. I think in the welding industry there are lots of opportunities for stable, well-paying work, which is not the case in every industry. On top of that you get the satisfaction of creating something that can potentially make other people’s lives better, or be a part of that process. You get to use your creativity, and there are so many opportunities to learn more and advance in your career in the Welding Industry.
Is there a particular career track that you recommend for women who want to work in the welding industry?
I know a lot of women who started as welders, and that’s great. I also know women who went on to get their CWI, and I think that can be a very rewarding career track.
How should they prepare for this career?
There are a lot of very good technical colleges, and I think that is the best place to start. You can find out if you like welding, what types of welding you like, and welding instructors at the technical colleges are fantastic – they really take the time to show students the ropes, and also help them as they seek employment after graduation.