Oakland women welders spark inspiration in next generation of tradeswomen

Camille MacRae, a welding instructor at The Crucible.

Camille MacRae, a welding instructor at The Crucible.

A woman with a commanding voice stands surrounded by a dozen teenagers. She’s wearing a dark blue work shirt that has “Weld-Ed” stitched on the left breast. Her dark brown hair is swept into a side braid, and on her head sits a snug-fitting denim cap with polka dots. She looks intently at each student. “This is a really fun job,” Liisa Pine Schoonmaker says. “It’s hands-on all day, until you decide to be in charge and tell everyone else what to do.”

Most of the teenagers stare silently around the room, seemingly unimpressed. A few, mostly girls, nod along as Pine Schoonmaker offers reasons why they should all become welders.

“Tough crowd,” Pine Schoonmaker jokes during a quick break between student groups. She is hosting students from Oakland schools during a career and technical education tour, meant to spark student interest in fields like welding, carpentry and machine technology. Pine Schoonmaker is the only female instructor in the welding department at Laney College, and the department chair. She wants students, especially the girls, to realize that welding can provide them with stable work, good pay and intellectual challenges.

After she explains what welding is (using heat from gas or electricity to join two pieces of metal) and what it’s for (everything from building a bicycle to repairing a submarine), Pine Schoonmaker leads the students deeper into the lab. Each is required to put on safety goggles, causing some to laugh and tease each other. Unsure of what they are about to see, the teens form two lines, one on each side of the metal cutting tables. The room has high a ceiling and harsh lighting, intensifying its industrial feel. Hoses and spigots hang from a pipe that runs above their heads. Individual oxyacetylene cutting stations line the perimeter of the space.

Pine Schoonmaker brings out an oxy-fuel torch. When she ignites the blue flame, a group of students in the back giggle excitedly. As she cuts the scrap metal in front of her, sparks begin to fly. The students, interest finally piqued, watch the burning torch to see what will happen. Some use their phones to take photos of the fiery display. With heavily-gloved hands, Pine Schoonmaker grabs the still-warm metal and makes her way around the room, letting the students touch the freshly-cut steel.

Left: Liisa Pine Schoonmaker instructs two of her students on TIG welding techniques.
Right: United for Success Academy students joke around during an oxy-fuel cutting demonstration at a technical career fair at Laney College.

Maybelin Beatrice Portillo pays particularly close attention throughout the demonstration. The 17-year old Castlemont High School student already knows she wants to be a welder; she learned about ironwork during a career fair. “It really stood out to me,” Portillo says. “I was telling my teachers, ‘That’s something I want to do.’”

She’s excited to enroll at Laney in no small part because of Pine Schoonmaker. “She’s someone I could look up to because she’s a woman. I’m a woman too,” she says. “That’s a good example.”

American women have been working in industrial and construction fields since before World War II, but have traditionally made up a very small portion of that workforce, including among metal workers. Even today, it is not uncommon for a woman to be the only one on a given job, or even within an entire shop or company.

According to the American Welding Society, a non-profit organization that supports welding and related fields, in 2017 women made up 3.4 percent of all welders in the U.S. This number includes union and non-union workers in jobs such as boilermakers, pipefitters, metal fabricators, welders, sheet metal workers, and structural iron and steel workers. The number of women in each trade varies, but overall it remains in the single digits.

Despite low numbers, in recent years educators and trade unions have worked to increase visibility and opportunities for women in trades. Through student career fairs, community outreach and women’s-only apprenticeships, people like Pine Schoonmaker are trying to show young women that welding is a viable career option for them, too, creating opportunities not only in industrial arts and construction, but in sculpture, design and technology.

“Welding is a game-changer,” said Pine Schoonmaker. “You’re going to get a lot more money in a job like welding than you would in a service-level job.”

In a typical semester at Laney, there will be about 250 welding students. Pine Schoonmaker estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of those students are women, but that only half of the women are interested in a welding career.

“Welding is so satisfying. I’d like to see more women enjoying that trade, and, you know, be able to thrive in blue-collar work, which I find to be incredibly creative,” she said. “It isn’t exclusive to a manly perspective.”

***

Sitting at a small table in a café, Pine Schoonmaker sipped a cup of coffee. With her hair loose around her shoulders and her tailored grey coat, she bore little resemblance to the woman from the welding lab clad in protective clothing, but her demeanor remained the same: speaking confidently and frankly, cracking a joke or two as she went along.

Pine Schoonmaker first became interested in metal while studying art and communications at UC San Diego in the mid-1980s. “I did not want to be a welder then, but I wanted to use the medium—to use steel as a medium,” she said. But there were no facilities for metalwork at the university, so she focused on oil painting and moved to San Francisco after graduation to become part of the art community. “There were a lot more galleries. There was a lot more respect for art and artists. Culturally, there was just a lot more going on,” she said.

She held several jobs in the first few years she lived in San Francisco, including working with the Festival of Animation. She said she was attracted to the technicality of the drawings, and how “all these tiny, interlocking pieces,” fit together.

In 1991, Pine Schoonmaker began volunteering with an industrial art collective, Survival Research Laboratories (SRL). The group, founded by artist Mark Pauline, focuses on repurposing technology to create “dangerous and disturbing mechanical presentations,” according to the SRL website. Until that point, Pine Schoonmaker had very little mechanical experience, but she was inspired by the “extreme” art the group produced. “I showed up thinking I’ll be helping with shipping videos or something. And he was like, ‘Here’s a socket wrench,’” she said about her experience with Pauline.

“It wasn’t nice, collaborative art,” said Pine Schoonmaker, calling the installations “challenging.” “I wanted to get involved with these machines. I wanted to do creative, technical stuff,” she continued.

SRL performances involve large-scale, radio-controlled machines and robots, which interact with each other and do things like destroy props and shoot flames. “I built a ton of really large props for them, and they would tear them down,” she says, calling the performances “dystopian.” “This was before Burning Man. A lot of times there would be a lot of fire,” she said. The installations were large enough to fit in a parking lot, and some of the early pieces had “little sprinklers with cow blood going off,” she said with a laugh.

During this time, Pine Schoonmaker began to take welding classes at a trade school in San Francisco. “And then I was just hooked,” she said.

She first learned to flame cut oxyacetylene and to Tungsten Inert Gas weld (TIG), a process that involves using a tungsten electrode, inert gas, such as argon, and filler to weld together thin sections of metal. “You have a degree, you have fine motor control, you’re a girl,” Pine Schoonmaker said the welding instructors told her as justification for putting her on the trickiest form of welding.

In TIG welding, the light emitted from the flame is extremely bright. Welders are required to wear specialized helmets to protect their vision. Once the helmet is on, it’s impossible to see anything beyond the arc light, which can make learning difficult and frustrating. Pine Schoonmaker said it’s like “doing dentistry in space in the dark.” Although it was challenging, she felt empowered. She recalled thinking, “I’m taking this material and just cutting it in half like no big deal. And I’m a woman doing this, you know? Nobody freaking else does this.”

Liisa Pine Schoonmaker, welding department chair and instructor at Laney College.

Liisa Pine Schoonmaker, welding department chair and instructor at Laney College.

Her work with SRL gave Pine Schoonmaker the opportunity to build her skills and do structural welding—the kind used to build heavy iron structures. She also began to take paid jobs through people she met at SRL. Welding “was, not easier, but felt more natural than I thought it would. And it was as interesting as art, and demanded more from me,” she said.

She considered joining the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union (also known as the Ironworkers), but was too unsure of her abilities and worried about being accepted in such a male-dominated environment. “I thought it was a really big stretch,” she said. “Like, women don’t do ironworking, and if they are, they’re a really unusual woman,” she remembered thinking.

Pine Schoonmaker’s work with SLR was unpaid, so she supported herself by working as a producer for Colossal Pictures, a production studio specializing in animated commercials and special effects for film. Later, she did work on everything from helping build a land speed record car—jet engine cars that have since broken the sound barrier—to exhibit building at the Exploratorium.

In 2003, she accepted her first job as a welding instructor at the Edan Area Regional Occupational Program in Hayward, a career technical education center for high school students. “I started teaching, and I was like, ‘This is an excellent fit,’” she said. She joined Laney as an adjunct welding instructor in 2009. In 2014, Pine Schoonmaker became the department chair. “I just thought I wanted more professional development,” she said of the transition.

Pine Schoonmaker said it’s important for her female students to see a woman in her position. “When you don’t have role models or images, you’re the only one doing it, it feels like a completely new world that you’re inventing,” she said. But it benefits the program as well, she believes. “For the women it’s really refreshing, and for some of the guys I’m sure it is, too,” she said. Seeing a woman in her role forces students, as well as people in the industry, to adjust their expectations. “They have to get used to the idea that it’s not a big deal,” she added.

For Laney student Anna Davis, 24, having a female instructor makes her feel comfortable. “It’s a huge inspiration, but, also, it creates a safe space,” Davis said. “I know that I will go to this class and I will be respected because the person who is teaching everyone is a woman.”

As an educator, Pine Schoonmaker’s “mission is always to get students to the next level of what they’re trying to achieve in life,” she said. “People come to the welding courses for a variety of reasons. Some of those are strictly vocational, others are much more personal.” She also wants to ensure that students understand welding is more interesting, varied and exciting than many believe it to be. “A lot of times people think of it,” she said, “as dark, dirty, and dangerous, or dumb.”

Since Pine Schoonmaker began welding in the 1990s, she said attitudes have shifted, and women have become more visible in every industry. “They’re working alongside men and doing as well, or better,” she said. “They’re doing traditionally male things and that feeds into, ‘Oh, Of course, you’re a welder.’ No big deal.”

***

Until WWII, American women rarely worked outside the home. Those who did primarily had domestic or service jobs, such as working in a department store, and did it out of necessity. Once the US entered the war, the federal government began encouraging women to take defense jobs, especially since so much of the young male workforce was deployed overseas. In the Bay Area, many women began working in shipyards as welders and riveters.

Elisabeth Tucker, lead park ranger for the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Homefront National Historical Park in Richmond, said that around 6 million American women began working in defense jobs. These women, now known as “Rosie the Riveters,” were some of the first to work on industrial sites.

In some cases, women and people of color were given wages equal to white men. But in others, the wages remained lower. “For the duration of the war, there was an attempt to open things up and give people more opportunity because there was money,” Tucker said, “always with this idea that at the end of the war, things would go back to the way things were.”

Mary Torres, now age 94, spent World War II working as an arc welder at Moore Dry Dock Company, a shipbuilding and repair company in Oakland, where she became one of the best welders in the shop. “It came natural to me,” she said. She attributed her ease to having crocheted and knitted as a child. “Same thing, same pattern,” she said, miming the hand motion. “They say women have soft hands, so they get a better weld.”

Moore Dry Dock was one of the smaller shipbuilding outfits in the area. This gave Torres ample opportunity to improve her skills and work on more interesting projects. With mentoring from her supervisor—whom she eventually married—Torres learned to do more advanced types of welding, and after 6 months passed her journeyman test. “In 1944, I became one of the top welders,” she said.

Rosie the Riveter Mary Torres, seen at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Homefront Museum in Richmind, CA.

Rosie the Riveter Mary Torres, seen at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Homefront Museum in Richmond, CA.

But because the positions were intended to be temporary, there were usually limits to how far the women could rise. They often weren’t allowed to be supervisors. Working conditions for women varied greatly, Tucker said. “In some cases, they were treated really well, trained well,” she said. In others, the women endured sexual harassment and ridicule, tricked into things like “being told to ask for a left-handed wrench,” said Tucker.

When the war ended, the vast majority of Rosies left the defense industries to make room for the men returning from overseas. “Once the war was over, the women were all laid off,” said Torres.

According to Tucker, although the vast majority of women did stop working after the war— willingly or otherwise—some continued to work in defense. “I’ve actually met a Rosie who was able to keep working as a welder, but that’s more rare,” she said.

Tucker said that the opportunity to do more engaging work left a lasting impression on the Rosie generation. “Because of the taste of opportunity for both people of color and for women, there’s a lot of historians that feel this was an important moment in history,” said Tucker. The women believed they could do anything, and passed that down to the next generation which, Tucker said contributed to the women’s rights and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

According to the state’s Division of Apprenticeship Standards, larger numbers of women began to re-enter apprenticeships for non-traditional fields in the late 1970s, following the 1978 passage of California’s Equal Opportunity of Apprenticeship Act.

But today, women’s numbers still lag far behind their male counterparts, although it is difficult to determine the exact number of welders in the country. Welding is a skill, not a trade itself, so welders work in fields ranging from construction to pipefitting and technology. Yet across the board in these industries, women’s participation rates are extremely low. According to the 2015 U.S. Census, just under 5 percent of welding, soldering and brazing workers were women. For the same year, 1.3 percent of pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters were women.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ figures for welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers, in May, 2016, California had the second highest rate of employment for those jobs, with more than 27,000 workers employed across the state.

Pay varies greatly based on location, experience, whether a worker is a union member, and how specialized the work is. Wages are determined by the companies that employ the laborers, unless they are union subcontractors. Union members are generally the highest paid. Trade unions negotiate a pay scale for members based on experience; apprentices generally make more the longer they are in the program, and journeymen have a flat rate. In California, journeymen-status Ironworkers—those who have completed a union apprenticeship—automatically make $40 per hour. According to a 2011 American Welding Society brochure, underwater welders, the best paid and most specialized welders, can make between $100,00 and $200,000 annually.

Not everyone makes that much. According to census figures, welding, soldering and brazing workers across the U.S. make an average of about $41,600 annually. However, this number drops significantly for women, with an average income of closer to $30,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May, 2016, the average pay rate was $23 per hour in the Berkeley-Oakland-Hayward area. However, some women who are non-union welders in the Bay Area told Oakland North they have been paid as little as $14 per hour. In search of higher wages, some welders choose to join a union, seek additional certifications, or open their own business.

***

From the outside, it looks like any warehouse space in East Oakland—a fall gate, a truck out front, an alleyway full of trash, a barking dog in a pen next door. The inside, however, is a bright white space, with high ceilings and pops of yellow on the walls. Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” plays over the speakers and a flurry of denim-clad twentysomethings shuffle potted plants and equipment across the room.

Augusta Sitney, a 27-year old fabricator—a term used to describe skilled workers who create anything from ornamental fences to furniture—is in the middle of moving out of her workshop. “Do you think this will fit?” someone asks, as three friends play Tetris with furniture in the back of a rental truck.

Sitney began welding while studying kinetic sculpture at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. “I had a project that was to make a machine of our own, and I started soldering these gears together, and I just got more and more hooked on just working with metal,” she says.

Sitney first learned metal inert gas welding (MIG), a process that entails running a welding gun with a wire electrode across two pieces of metal to fuse them together. It is one of the easier forms of welding to learn, so it’s often the first one students are taught. “When you’re welding you’re able to take two pieces of one of the strongest materials that we have at our disposal—metal—and combine them,” Sitney remembers, “there’s something addictive about that.”

Augusta Sitney at California College of the Arts.

Augusta Sitney at California College of the Arts.

“I’m really into using found objects, old machines, and reorganizing them to do totally different things,” she says. Once Sitney discovered that she could use tack weldinga type of welding generally used as a temporary measure—to quickly build the sculptures she envisioned, she became “addicted to hoarding these little bits of metal and making these weird found object sculptures,” she says.

Since moving to the Bay Area in 2013, Sitney says she has “worked for more than half of the West Oakland fabrication scene.” The work is often commission-based, so Sitney says she “ended up just bouncing around between five different fabrication shops” until deciding to open Sitney Fabrications in 2016. “I could do this myself,” she recalls thinking.

Sitney was in her East Oakland workshop for a year, a live/work space that she rented from a biker gang, but is in the process of moving to a less-expensive shared space near Lake Merritt. “I really couldn’t tell how much I was going to make a year,” she says. “I manage to make ends meet, but another spot opened up and I just decided it would financially be a better decision.”

Her new space at Standard Parts Studios is smaller, but Sitney says she can supplement her workspace with the tools available at California College of the Arts where she works as a studio technician for the metal, wood and plaster shop.

The biggest benefit to owning her own business is having control over the commissions that she takes. “I like to take on jobs that I can do myself—a lot of furniture, a lot of table commissions,” Sitney said. Another benefit is no longer having to deal with being the only women on the job. “Sexism is alive and very real in those situations,” Sitney says.

She says she always had to prove herself each time she was hired by a new company: “I never get hired into a shop with automatic trust.” Now that she gets most of her work by word of mouth, she feels that it establishes some credibility. And if it doesn’t, she’s able to quickly demonstrate to her clients that she knows what she’s doing. “Most of the jobs I take it’s because I’ve already done a job, and somebody recommended me,” she says.

But the flipside of total control is total responsibility. “Underbidding myself” is a challenge, says Sitney. “The responsibilities of if someone was injured by something [I’ve] done. If [I] mess up something in someone’s house,” she continues. “Luckily, I haven’t had a situation like that yet.”

As for the future of her business, Sitney “would like to make enough money to live comfortably. To be able to take on jobs selectively,” she says. “For my business to have a certain value, and for people to respect that value.”

“My welding, I think, speaks for itself,” she says.

***

In an effort to reach more women across the country, Ironworkers apprenticeship director Dick Zampa started the National Women’s Pre-Apprenticeship Cohort in 2015, based at the union’s regional training center in Benicia, California. “We’re just doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re trying to open up our program to underserved populations, which is women.”

Zampa said that the program began with some weekend classes and eventually grew into a three-week intensive program, meant to give women entering apprenticeships from the around the country a leg up. Zampa decided to start the program because he realized that many women had such limited experience with manual labor that it was deterring them from the trades. “A lot of women have never taken a shop class in high school, they never built anything with mom and dad,” he said. “They’ve never been exposed to this type of industry.”

Carrie Steele, an instructor at the training center, has been working as a welder for 35 years, with 17 years in the union, and said it is rare to find another woman on a job. “It was 15 years before I saw another woman ironworker on my job,” she said. “I truly thought I was the only one.”

Steele said being the only woman on a job site can be challenging, and that it is important for women to have mentors. “There’s a lot of self-doubt,” she said, among women going into the trades. “Society has pretty much told them, ‘You’re a woman, you can’t handle it.’”

“That’s the reason why our program is such a success,” she continued, “because they see a woman who’s been in the trade for 17 years who can pretty much be an example for them to follow.”

Left: A protective leather jacket with 'Laney Welding Dept' written on it. Center: A Laney College welding student seen through the curtain of a welding booth. Right: Laney College welding students wait outside the booths to practice during class.

Left: A protective leather jacket with ‘Laney Welding Dept’ written on it.
Center: A Laney College welding student seen through the curtain of a welding booth.
Right: Laney College welding students wait outside the booths to practice during class.

Although attitudes are slowly changing, sexism and discomfort toward women in the industrial world are commonplace, which can be a deterrent for women considering welding. Pine Schoonmaker attributes many uncomfortable experiences, like feeling unwelcome on a job site, to men not understanding how to interact with her. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God! Look at you!’” she said of early experiences on welding jobs.

“It was social awkwardness they could not deal with,” she added. “They were probably more nervous than me.”

Sitney described a former boss who advised her to begin lifting weights, “giving me tips on how to get stronger because I was obviously not as strong as their male bodies. It’s like, please, don’t talk to me about my body.”

Steele said she faced hiring discrimination from non-union companies earlier in her career. She described the industry as being a “white male dominated field,” which left little room for anyone else. “We were always the first two laid off and the last two brought back in,” she said of herself and a black male coworker.

Steele joined the Ironworkers after her neighbor suggested she would find fair treatment within their organization. “I got tired of the discrimination,” she said. Once she joined the union, Steele said she had to prove herself as a worker, but never experienced overt sexism. Ultimately, Steele said, her attention to detail and skill earned her respect from the contractor companies. “I had the least amount of cutouts, or defects,” she said. “That makes the company money, and if you make the company money, that gets you farther along down the road.”

Steele attributes the fair treatment to standardized pay: “You are a body that’s going to do a job. Period.”

The Crucible, a community industrial arts center in West Oakland, is another Bay Area institution helping people learn about industrial processes such as blacksmithing, carpentry and welding. Within these fields, “The Crucible has been really exceptional at providing spaces and opportunities for women,” according to Kristy Higares, its director of administration and strategic planning.

“Men and women occupy space differently,” Higares said. For that reason, the center runs all-girls and all-women welding and blacksmithing classes. “There’s something really extraordinary when young girls look and see their instructors are also women,” she said.

Welding instructor Camille McRae at The Crucible.

Welding instructor Camille McRae at The Crucible.

In addition to these classes, The Crucible has run summer camps and apprenticeship programs for young people, intended to introduce teens to industrial arts and trades. “There was this time in high schools where young men and young women were exposed to [industrial arts], and then they got rid of this education,” said Higares. “It’s just creating opportunity for them to pivot wherever they want,” she said.

“We see The Crucible as a pathway from middle school possibly to Laney,” she said. It’s a way for young people to be engaged and get training, she continued, “and join a union, or become a fabricator, become a welding inspector.”

***

On a Monday night at Laney, Pine Schoonmaker is once again at center stage teaching her welding survey class. The students are working on shielded metal arc welding, also called stick welding, a process which uses electricity to form an arc between the welder and the metal to join two pieces of material together. Sparks are flying.

In the class of almost 20 students, there are only four women. Their reasons for taking a welding class range widely, from a mechanical engineer wanting to better understand the work she assigns her subordinates to a stained-glass maker who needs to learn new ways of manipulating her materials.

As the students practice their welds, Pine Schoonmaker energetically makes her way from one welding booth to another. Pulling the heavy, orange curtain apart, she pops her head into each booth. “Hi!” she says enthusiastically, then begins to inspect the student’s work.

Like a musical instrument, welding requires a lot of practice. “You do it over and over and over again. Like Chopsticks,” Pine Schoonmaker says, referring to the classic piece given to beginning piano students.

As she makes the rounds, checking the lines of metal joins along the way, Pine Schoonmaker remains upbeat. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” she says as she slips through the heavy curtain and moves on to the next booth.

One Comment

  1. Denise

    Women do great things when they join forces and have/ or are role models.

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