For a lot of women, packing up their entire life to move to a different state for a new job sounds quite daunting. Factor in trying to deal with yet another male-dominated shop where you have to prove that your work is just as good (if not better) as theirs, and it sounds like something no woman would do more than once.
Meet Cynthia Phillips, aka @hotsteelwelding, who did this not once, not twice, not even three times… but eight times! Cynthia worked at eight different shops and says, “You gotta go where the work is, especially when freelancing.”
When asked if this is where she saw her life going when she was little, she gave a definite “no.”
Cynthia’s first job was a lifeguard and swim instructor, as she had dedicated most of her childhood to swimming. “It was mainly my parents doing but looking back now, I’m grateful they encouraged me.”
When Cynthia began pursuing a career of her own liking, she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do, except that it needed to be something creative. She enrolled herself in the Alfred University, an art school in western New York known for its ceramics program and sculpture facilities. Beginning with a course in printmaking, Cynthia says, “I felt I needed to try a more hands-on course so I chose Glass Blowing one semester and Intro to Metal Fab the following semester.”
The initial experience of welding was a little intimidating for Cynthia. “I wasn’t used to loud noises or sparks flying but after completing my first project, I was hooked.” She dropped out of her printmaking course and pursued sculpture full time.
Cynthia’s passion for welding turned into a career of a lifetime. She started out building small sets for local theaters and through several referrals, travelled the country to work on commercial and event sets for various shops throughout the country. She even went to Brazil to fabricate a set for the NBC News Studio during the 2016 Olympics.
Reaching for the Stars
Cynthia says it’s who you know more than what you know and credits her networking skills more than her own talents for how far she’s come over the years. “Networking is key! I find it very important to network and meet as many builders, drafters and shops as possible.” One referral at one shop leads to two or three referrals to another shop and as soon as you know it, you’re a traveling freelance sculptor who builds set pieces for musicians on tour.
Ever heard of Katy Perry or the queen bee, Beyonce? Yeah, Cynthia’s fabricated numerous set pieces for their tours. “Both Katy Perry and Beyonce have given the shop I work for really challenging and fun projects. I’d have to say the stainless steel chair we made for Beyonce was the most intricate welding job I’ve been part of.” Cynthia’s hard work paid off. Beyonce loved her chair so much, she ordered two more to give as Christmas gifts.
Cynthia had the pleasure of working for two empowering women but hasn’t had the chance to work with any yet.
This is a Man’s World
The trades industry is saturated with men and it’s extremely difficult for women to integrate well into this workforce. She says, “I experience a lot of anxiety before showing up at a new shop. I always feel I have to prove myself and explain why I want to be a welder. Also, harassment is a real issue; I’ve left a shop because of this. But that’s why you network. You learn who you want to work for and with.”
One of the best ways to network nowadays, besides hustling across the country like Cynthia, is through social media.
The Social Network
Thanks to social media, it’s a lot easier to find people with the same interests, aspirations and desires as you. With the current state of women in the workforce, especially a male dominated industry like the trades, it is so important to network with women in similar situations. Cynthia says, “I always looked up to the WWII photos I would find online of women working in shops. Then I started my Instagram and began seeing more and more women and groups of women welding. I was in awe and instantly motivated!”
Something great about the women’s online welding community is that they are not afraid to share both sides of the #WeldLife. They post their strengths and weaknesses, ups and downs and the hurdles they encounter to become the strong women they are today. It’s a place we all can go to gain insight, seek advice and like Cynthia, become motivated for the next project.
Like the wonderful women’s community, Cynthia was more than happy to share her insight of the welding industry. Continue reading to see what she has to say about tools, apparel and more …
What are your favorite welding tools to use?
I might be biased but my favorite welding tool would have to be my personal welder, a Miller Diversion 180. I love that this welder is tiny enough to travel to a job site yet powerful enough to run all day long. I saved and saved and researched this welder before I bought it. I’m just proud whenever I see it.
And, I could not work without my strong hand clamps. Lifesavers!
Which tool was the easiest/most difficult to learn to use?
The MIG welder was easy to get the hang of.
Using the TIG welder was challenging and I would say the most difficult to learn. It took a lot of patience and practice but now it’s what I use the most. It’s hard to imagine back when I had trouble with it.
What brand of safety gear/apparel is your favorite?
This is a tough question for me. I find it extremely difficult to find protective welding gear that fits me. Most of the big companies only carry men’s sizes.
I used “Angel Fire” welding jackets but tend to go through them quickly.
I use Tillman TIG gloves in small- when I can find those.
Other than that, I’ve tried some of the women’s Carhartt line and Dickies Girl.
It’s pretty cool that your career is what some people are only lucky to have as a hobby, what do you do outside of work for fun?
I still build stuff for fun and even dabble in carpentry.
But everyone needs a break from the shop. My boyfriend and I have a 1956 Shasta camper we take out to the desert or the beach. We try to take the roads less traveled. Always looking for an old motel sign or abandoned building to take photos of. You’d probably see us on Route 66!
I’ve also been learning how to skateboard.
Trying to challenge myself in everything.
Lastly, what advice would you give girls/women looking to enter into the trades industry?
Don’t give up, never be afraid to ask questions, always listen and smile!
That old guy whose been at the shop forever can teach you a lot. I know from experience.