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'I decided to switch it up' | Women in Hampton Roads stepping up to fill welding job gaps

According to the American Welding Society, the United States will need more than 300,000 people to fill welding jobs in 2026.

NORFOLK, Va. — Women are channeling their inner Rosie the Riveter throughout Hampton Roads, making moves in male-dominated industries.

Welders are needed across the nation and more women are answering the call.

Several days out of the week, Tesa Higginbotham is blazing her own trail, suited up in a helmet and gloves.

“I wanted to be a teacher six months ago,” Higginbotham said.

Instead, she decided on a career switch after scrolling on social media.

“I came across a TikTok where they send all these women out to Florida to underwater welding,” Higginbotham said. “I was like 'Wow, that is awesome.'”

RELATED: More women take up truck driving amid worker shortages, supply chain issues

One week later, she signed up to start the welding program at Tidewater Tech in Norfolk. Inside the school’s shop, several women are flexing their skills.

“You have to be very persistent with it, very precise,” said Tidewater Tech student Allie Whitely.

Whitely picked up a torch last year after following a four-year degree track in management.

“I decided to switch it up a little bit,” Whitley said. “Probably the best decision I made. I wish I would have done it right out of high school.”

It’s also a helpful choice for the welding industry. According to the American Welding Society, the United States will need more than 300,000 people to fill welding jobs in 2026.

They note women make up only 5 percent of the welding workforce.

“I have about, probably 23 females in the program,” said welding coordinator Kristie Miller.

Miller said throughout the pandemic, they saw more people sign up for courses.

“They basically realized tradesmen, in general, are essential and I think COVID brought that out,” Miller said.

Miller said it takes anywhere from 30 to 45 weeks for a student to graduate, based on the program. Once they do, she said the job opportunities in Hampton Roads are endless.

“Entry-level welder around here, you are going to start probably anywhere between 18 and 22 an hour,” Miller said. “And possibly more, depending on your skill.”

About eight months ago, instructor Eileen Pabon-Rivera joined the Tidewater team after moving from Puerto Rico.

“I know we can do it,” Pabon-Rivera said. “I tell all the girls, them my experience and say if I do it, you can, too.”

These ladies are making the sparks fly, with big goals in mind.

“I really want to work with planes or aerospace,” Whitley said.

“Offshore oil rigs,” Higginbotham said. “I definitely want to be out there in the ocean. The goal is to be underwater certified and repelling certified.”

Higginbotham encourages more women to help fill the welding gaps.

“I love being a woman and I support women going into trades,” Higginbotham said. “I think we need a lot more of them.”

The American Welding Society recognizes April as National Welding Month to bring awareness to the welding industry and career possibilities.

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