Dorothy Williams' well-manicured fingernails complete with a fresh coat of shimmery red polish are hidden under heavy-duty gloves while carefully wielding her welding tools.
Williams, of North Augusta, is one of a growing number of women looking at welding as a potential career across the country.
“It's fun, and it's challenging,” Williams said. “You're doing something that makes a difference and, also, it's not just for men. It's structured, it's a great job opportunity, and you can get great job benefits.”
Williams started training in 2007. She wanted to see what welding was all about and, by the end of her first course, she was hooked.
Now, she's continuing her training with Sheet Metal Workers International Association, Local Union 399, at its facility in New Ellenton.
She's working on completing 300 hours in two years to become a journeyman, which is someone who is experienced in multiple disciplines of the trade.
Business Manager Mark Lemon said she won't need much time to complete the task as she's racking up her hours quickly.
Lemon, who has been with the association for several decades, said he has noticed more women working toward a welding certification. The association has 449 members throughout the state, and 12 of those are women who are working or training at various levels.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women make up approximately 2 percent of welders in the United States, but those in the field hope to see that number increase.
Kevin Rawlins with the Aiken County Career and Technology Center has had a couple of female students in his classes in three of the four years he has been teaching the skill to grades 10 through 12. In his experience, female welders are just as good and even better than some of male welders he's worked with.
“They have more hand and eye coordination and dexterity skills,” Rawlins said.
Rawlins also pointed out the fact that, currently, the American Welding Society's president is a woman by the name of Nancy Cole.
A hiring boom is happening across the area and, really, everywhere as the need of skilled and certified welders has increased, Lemon said. The U.S. Department of Labor projects approximately a 15 percent increase in jobs in this field by 2020.
Gemma Frock, Aiken Technical College vice president of education and training, has noticed that growing need, too.
She cited Plant Vogtle in Augusta and V.C. Summer in Jenkinsville, which are both building two nuclear reactors, the MOX Project and Parsons' work on a salt waste processing facility as a few large projects that need welders. Frock added there are many general welding jobs available throughout the area, too.
Frock said the annual wage for welding jobs can range anywhere from the low end of $30,000 to the high side of $90,000.
“It's a tremendously-growing, understaffed profession right now,” Frock said. “Aiken Tech has enhanced its program to meet the needs of the market.”
Female students have completed the college's welding program, and Frock said it's true that they do have a finer, lighter touch.
Some of the welding jobs are outdoors without the luxury of air conditioning or conducted in tight, uncomfortable places, but Frock said the college's program prepares its students for that.
More information about the college's classes in welding can be found at www.atc.edu.
So far, Williams said she hasn't gotten too dirty on the job and quipped that she's still a lady. For women who want to get in the career, Williams encourages them to try it out and has one piece of advice.
“You just need to stay focused,” she said smiling.
Lemon said they are looking for welders to recruit and train to meet the growing demand for work in the area.
“It's a rewarding career,” Lemon said. “Sheet metal is a very big industry. We make a lot of things for a lot of different companies. There's always something going on. It's challenging and rewarding.”
Those with experience and training can also apply for positions through the association – a test is required. The association has done contract work for such companies as SRS as well as for the MOX Project, Lemon said.
For more information about possible positions or training through the association, visit www.scsheetmetalworkers.org or call 843-554-4418.