On a typical workday, Lupe Hinojosa gets herself and her four children up by 4 a.m. By 4:30 a.m., the children have fallen back asleep in their aunt’s apartment, just down the hall. Lupe arrives for her shift at the metal fabrication plant by 5:30 a.m. to set up her station, and is welding by 6 a.m., before many of us have woken up.
Welding is a demanding job, physically and technically, but Lupe has found fulfillment and stability in the work. “Of everything I’ve done, welding is the one thing I love,” she says. “I enjoy it, and it fits me.”
Lupe first began considering a career in welding while pregnant with her youngest child. She had recently left an abusive relationship, moving her three children into a domestic violence shelter, and struggled to find work while pregnant. She enrolled in Chicago Foundation for Women grantee Chicago Women in Trades’ twelve-week welding program in January 2018, shortly after the birth of her son.
A working single mother of four, Lupe worked nights in retail while enrolled in the program, sometimes sleeping just two hours a night. Support from family members and the staff at Chicago Women in Trades kept her going and ensured she stayed on track to reach her goal. Lupe graduated and began working as a welder full-time in May 2018.
Before becoming a welder, Lupe worked a series of low-wage jobs: earning minimum wage in retail, and commuting five hours a day to the airport to clean planes. Now she is on track to earn over $30,000 a year, with benefits, health insurance and paid vacation.
“It’s absolutely an opportunity for women,” Chicago Women in Trades instructor Scarlet Burmeister says. “The wages that you can earn in advanced manufacturing and in the trades are high, and it’s a skill and a career that’s going to grow with them. They’re able to support their families and live comfortably and be filthy at the end of the day but proud of what they are doing,” Scarlet adds.
Lupe is one of only three women welders on the factory floor, but she is hoping more women will be joining her soon. “It’s a new era,” Lupe says. “There’s been a shortage of welders for years, and lots of places are looking for new welders.” Once they employ one CWIT graduate, companies regularly return to CWIT for new hires.
“Because of the hand-eye coordination, multi-tasking and detail-oriented nature of welding, most men who have been doing this for a long time will tell you women make great welders,” Scarlet says.
In addition to the 350-hour welding course, Chicago Women in Trades’ Technical Opportunities Program arms women with basic skills and hands-on experience to pursue a variety of construction trades. Through its two programs, Chicago Women in Trades annually places more than 60 women in apprenticeship or other nontraditional employment earning nearly $18 per hour, on average, and putting them on track to yearly incomes of $38,000.
In addition to training and education, Chicago Women in Trades advocates for policies supporting equal employment opportunities for women, strengthening the industry’s commitment to recruit and retain women, and building tradeswomen’s leadership. Through CWIT’s advocacy, the Iron Workers became the first building trades union in the country to adopt a comprehensive maternity leave and pregnancy accommodation policy. CWIT also leads a national coalition of tradeswomen’s organizations to promote equity within the apprenticeship system.
For Scarlet and Lupe, women in the trades is about more than a paycheck. “The work that we do is so personal and so at its core feminist,” says Scarlet.
“It’s given me more confidence and I’m more independent,” Lupe says. “It’s given me goals. I can take care of my kids and put clothes on their backs. I opened a savings account, and I’m cleaning up my credit.” In five years, Lupe hopes to be a welding instructor.