By Natalia E. Contreras, Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS – Consuelo Poland was the only woman and the only woman of color in her class when she got a welding certificate seven years ago in Michigan.
And other than the hands-on instruction on how to use welding tools, the classes didn't offer a way to take what she had learned to the next level.
But she figured it out.
While she was still in school working toward obtaining her certificate, she quickly got job offers and sponsorship opportunities.
“My welding skills opened a lot of doors for me,” Poland said, "and a lot of opportunities fell on my lap and I wondered, ‘why aren’t there more women doing this?’"
So when the 31-year-old functional artist and welder moved to Indianapolis in 2015, she saw an opportunity to help more women not only venture into the welding industry but also take their skills beyond the workshops in a diverse and inclusive environment.
"But I also wanted to find a way to get more Latinas together,” Poland — who was born in Guatemala, adopted by American parents and raised in a predominately white community in Michigan — said.
In 2017, Poland founded the Latinas Welding Guild
, a nonprofit organization in Indianapolis that aims to empower Latinas and all women personally, creatively and economically through welding.
Through donations and scholarships, the program is able to feature welding workshops — where she's an instructor — a chance to build career development skills through advocacy and mentorship. The students also learn how to navigate the welding industry, Poland said, "which they wouldn't typically get in a classroom-setting."
“From my personal experience of joining the welding industry as a woman and trying to enter a creative world and then also trying to survive in a white world, I know I would have liked to have more support," she said. "That's why it is so important that we are inclusive and that we have women from all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and education levels.”
Networking and field trips to metal supply shops and fabrication shops including larger-scale fabrication shops, and custom art fabrication shops, are also an important part of the program.
“Being new to the industry you don’t know what questions to ask, you don’t know who to talk to, no one teaches you that stuff,” she said. "If they don’t feel confident enough to go buy their own supplies then there’s a chance they won’t keep welding. There’s a chance they give up."
Since it was founded, the organization has helped 21 women in Indianapolis obtain welding certifications.
The Latinas Welding Guild students' ages range from early 20s to 60s. Many of the students are moms who are trying to find better career opportunities, seeking to run their own business or enter the workforce.
Women in the welding industry
According to a 2016 study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, more women are seeking certifications in middle-skill jobs — jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree, such as welding, cosmetology, auto repair, nursing, or medical assisting — because they offer the potential of employment with family-sustaining earnings.
But welding is still an occupational field dominated by men.
According to the most recent data by the U.S. Department of Labor, as of 2016, 96% of workers in welding, soldering, and brazing were men.
In Central Indiana, the landscape for structural work is similar.
Iron Workers Local #22 union in Indianapolis represents more than 1,000 members in Indianapolis, Terre Haute, and Lafayette, and only 11 of those members are women.
However, the union doesn't only represent welders, their members do several types of structural work, Rick Crum, the union's financial secretary/treasurer, told IndyStar.
"Just locally (the industry) is predominately male and white," Crum said. "We will gladly accept more women. It's tough labor but women should still be encouraged to look into it."
And even during the coronavirus pandemic, structural jobs have not slowed down. There's a need for workers to do these jobs, Crum said.
"Through the pandemic, we were considered essential workers," Crum said. "I mean, our hours have been great. Everybody that wants to work right now is working. There's definitely a high demand."
According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the median annual wage for welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers was $42,490 in May 2019.
The report states that the employment of welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers is projected to grow 3% from 2018 to 2028.
"The nation’s aging infrastructure will require the expertise of welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers to help rebuild bridges, highways, and buildings," the report says. "Also, the construction of new power generation facilities and, specifically, pipelines transporting natural gas and oil may result in new jobs."
'Yes we can'
Marisol Serrano, 48, heard about the organization through word-of-mouth. Serrano worked as a supervisor for a food manufacturer for more than a decade before she started welding with the guild.
She was tired, stressed, and wanted to try something new. Reaching financial stability has also been her goal for a while, she said.
And working in an environment where she was often the only woman in the room became uncomfortable and exhausting.
"I kept getting challenged only because I was a female," Serrano said. "And when I became involved in this organization it was great to be around people that understand that and that can relate. And yes, welding is a heavy job and (men) might think we can't do it, but yes we can."
Now that she's certified in welding and also celebrating recently obtaining her high school diploma, Serrano hopes to become more involved with the guild and mentor other women.
"I want to help this organization grow," Serrano said. "I want to help us reach more women to get involved."
The students have been able to work in projects with businesses such as Tlaolli Mexican Restaurant and Hotel Tango Distillery.
Carlos Hutchinson owner of Tlaolli said Poland and students of the guild worked on an archway for the entrance of his restaurant.
"Consuelo is a true artist. The piece she designed for us is beautiful and I was very proud to see the work she's doing in helping women entrepreneurs," Hutchinson said. "She's a leader in the Latino community here and an example for everyone. I would encourage other businesses in the community to collaborate with them and get more steel art pieces. Art in your businesses takes your space to another level.
"And business owners will be supporting the (welding) students in return."
In June, the students worked on a community project by creating and installing arbors and a bike rack for the Holy Cross neighborhood.
Upcoming projects for the group include building a horse trailer for Poured to Perfection, a mobile bartending service; and art installations in collaboration with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and the Indianapolis Arts Council, among other projects.
An inclusive and safe space
Graciela Suarez, 46, had experienced a loss in her family around the time she found the guild. She never told anyone in the group what she'd gone through, she said.
Suarez, who is originally from Mexico City, said she and others in the immigrant community in Indianapolis can often feel excluded from career development opportunities.
She said the classes and the women she met helped her through her grief. But the group also helped her find a variety of resources available to expand her career options.
"This was the first time I felt included and treated as an equal," Suarez. "I was going through something so stressful at the time and this group helped me, supported me, they had the patience and I felt like I do have some options to develop my skills."
Poland said when she founded the organization, she wanted to focus on partnering with people and organizations in Indianapolis that would typically fall through the cracks.
"Some organizations only market to a certain demographic or a certain audience," she said. "So I wanted to reach those artists, those people, and organizations that are also small. They’re just not being engaged. So how are you supposed to build a network when you’re not ever invited?"
Suarez became a certified welder in June. After years of working in housekeeping, the mother of two said her welding certificate gives her more of a safety net.
"Being able to weld, and work the metal and do all of these things was very interesting for me and I also realized that it’s something that I had no idea I would enjoy."
How to get into the program and how to help
The program is designed to help low to moderate-income women get their welding certification. Women must be 18 years or older in order to apply.
The classes cover the basics of metallurgy, welding, and fabrication.
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