The women said they hope they can inspire more young female welders to join their ranks

Steele’s journey from low-paid taco-maker to highly skilled ironworker was sparked by a unique Detroit organization that teaches women to weld. The intensive course run by nonprofit Women Who Weld has trained roughly 400 aspiring ironworkers since its launch seven years ago.

IMAGE: Bailey Steele
Bailey Steele, the former Taco Bell employee, works at the Wayne County, Mich., Jail, where she welds the jail cells.Jake Whitman
All of the women accepted into the program went on to complete it, according to founder Samantha Farrugia, and all landed jobs shortly after graduating.

“I graduated from the program on a Friday, and I started a job on Monday,” said Lily Kline, 28, who makes chandeliers, brass credenzas and other custom furniture for a company called Ganas Manufacturing.

The U.S. has lost more than 7 million manufacturing jobs since the late 1960s, but skilled welders are in high demand. More than 300,000 job openings are expected nationwide by 2024, according to the American Welding Society, making it a prime employment opportunity. One reason for this: Older welders are reaching retirement age, and not enough young people are joining their ranks.

“We need many efforts across the nation to help fill the gap, and programs like Women Who Weld that focus on a population that we don’t typically attract are really critical,” said Monica Pfarr, executive director of the American Welding Society Foundation.

Women make up only about 5 percent of the welding workforce. At many of the places where they work, there isn’t even a women’s bathroom on the factory floor.

Farrugia started the program in 2014 after learning how to weld herself while pursuing her master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Michigan. She relies on outside donations to offer the classes, which are on hold due to Covid-19, for as low as $500.

The average salaries for welders vary widely depending on their industry and skill level. Farrugia said some of her graduates are now making six figures in “really demanding jobs.”

“It’s pretty amazing to watch people in as short of a year to really transform their entire lives to go from working minimum wage, perhaps part time, to making a really good living for themselves and their families, but also to love the work they’re engaged in,” Farrugia said.

Farrugia’s program has garnered attention far beyond the industry. In 2019, she earned a spot on InStyle magazine’s list of the 50 most badass women.

“I was pretty blown away because it isn’t too often that women involved in welding are recognized,” Farrugia said. “I thought it was really cool not only for myself but for the industry to get recognition.”

Teia Leonard was a head chef for a school district before she began working as a press machine operator at a plant that built car parts for GM and Toyota.

Teia Leonard was a head chef for a school district before she began working as a press machine operator at a plant that built car parts for GM and Toyota.
Teia Leonard was a head chef for a school district before she began working as a press machine operator at a plant that built car parts for GM and Toyota.Jake Whitman
After getting accepted into the program in fall 2019, Leonard participated in the training from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Then she raced to the plant to work her 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift.

She graduated from the program in October 2019 and now has a full-time job manufacturing and installing automotive paint-finishing systems.

“My family doesn’t understand it,” Leonard, the mother of a 7-year-old son, said. “I’m the only woman welder they’ve ever seen.”

Leonard and the other women said they’ve become accustomed to being judged and harassed by their male counterparts who far outnumber them.

“You are deemed fresh meat when you get there,” Leonard said. “For me, I find that shutting it down right away really makes the difference.”

Leonard said she’s also noticed that the Women Who Weld training provided her with a level of technique above many men she has encountered at work. And that’s not all she got out of the program.

“We had a whole class dedicated to money management,” she said. “They teach you so much more than just the basics of welding.”

The women said they hope they can inspire more young female welders to join their ranks.

“It’s OK to be in a room full of men and know what you’re doing,” Leonard said. “Don’t dim your light. It took me forever to understand that.”

Lily Kline, 28, who makes chandeliers, brass credenzas and other custom furniture for Ganas Manufacturing.
Lily Kline, 28, who makes chandeliers, brass credenzas and other custom furniture for Ganas Manufacturing.Jake Whitman
“Don’t worry so much about how people are perceiving you,” Kline said. “Don’t let the judgement or questioning shrink you and your desire to be a part of it.”

Steele, the former Taco Bell employee, now works at the Wayne County Jail, where she welds the jail cells.

The job is demanding and the environment is far from luxurious, but Steele said she takes special pride knowing that her work will outlive her.

“It’s a fun job to have, and it’s tough,” Steele said. “You’re making something that will last forever, so it’s just a good feeling

Volunteers across the country are responding to people’s fears, coaxing the hesitant and removing obstacles for those who want to get vaccinated.

By Jon Schuppe, Erin Einhorn and Bracey Harris
DETROIT — Tanika Knighton knows how devastating Covid-19 can be: Her 62-year-old father died of the disease last spring, and she and her husband both got very sick last year.

But she hasn’t been vaccinated. And when a canvasser approached her on a street in northwest Detroit recently offering information on getting a shot, she took his flyer but didn’t seem convinced.

“I don’t know too much about it,” Knighton, 46, said as the canvasser — part of a new city-run door-knocking operation — continued down the block. The working-class neighborhood, which is predominantly Black, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Detroit, a city where fewer than a third of residents have received at least one shot.

Knighton said she didn’t trust the vaccine. “It’s something that was put together really fast and, quite frankly, I’m afraid,” she said.

Tanika Knighton, right, and her husband, Curtis Knighton.
Tanika Knighton, 46, and her husband, Curtis Knighton, 49.Erin Einhorn / NBC News
That brief encounter was among many that NBC News reporters observed across the country last week, offering a glimpse at the massive challenge that cities and public health officials face as they try to meet President Joe Biden’s goal of getting at least one shot to 70 percent of the adult population by July 4. So far, about 59 percent of adults have received at least one shot.

Although the vaccines are widely available, demand is sliding. Some people are reluctant to get the shots, while others have not been able to because of their work schedules, child care obligations, a lack of transportation or other obstacles, researchers say.

While the waning demand cuts across broad portions of the population, the consequences could fall hardest on people at the highest risk of infection and death. Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic people, but they’re getting vaccinated at lower rates than white people, the Kaiser Family Foundation found.

Children ages 12- 15 begin receiving Pfizer’s Covid vaccine
MAY 12, 202101:56
Public health authorities have responded by shifting efforts away from mass vaccination sites and focusing on communities with the lowest vaccination rates. This hyperlocal approach, using census-style canvassing operations, education campaigns and mobile vaccination events, hinges on making the shots easy to reach — and helping the hesitant change their minds. In some places, officials seem willing to try just about anything: free beer in New Jersey, crawfish giveaways in New Orleans, complimentary baseball tickets in New York, $100 savings bonds in West Virginia, $50 gift cards in Detroit — and a $1 million lottery in Ohio.

The most successful efforts will result from talking to people who have not been vaccinated and using those conversations to develop “bespoke solutions” designed for particular neighborhoods, said Harald Schmidt, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Even if the initial conversations unvaccinated people have with outreach workers don’t change their mind on the spot, it could cause them to think more about their decision — a potential first step. And the conversations will teach community health centers how best to reach vulnerable groups, including public housing residents, farmworkers and the homeless, to help with access issues like language barriers.

“Tailored community outreach is what we need to be doing now,” Schmidt said.

In many of the country’s most vulnerable areas, that work is only now getting underway.

‘Protect yourself by any means’
Last Saturday morning, newly enlisted volunteers gathered around a table at a Salvadoran restaurant in Newark, New Jersey, to introduce themselves and prepare for their first day canvassing in the Lower Broadway neighborhood. This section of the city’s North Ward has a large population of immigrants from across Latin America and is an area state officials identified as having a low vaccination rate. (Officials wouldn’t provide that rate, but state data shows that only a third of Newark residents have received at least one shot.)