Sharla Knight is one of 18 women selected during a nationwide search by the Ironworkers Union. Qualified female welders from the United States and Canada are chosen once a year to complete a pre-apprenticeship at the Ironworkers Training Center in the Bay Area, an opportunity achieved while a student at San Diego Continuing Education (SDCE).
“I came to SDCE to pursue welding. I didn’t expect success this quick at all,” said Knight, 35. “There were plenty of deserving women in my class. I felt special that I was one of them.”
Students at SDCE opt to specialize in one to five Welding certificates: Shielding Metal Arc Welding, Gas Metal and Flux Cored Arc Welding, Gas Tungsten Arc Welding, Pipe Welding and Metal Fabrication. Located in Mountain View, SDCE’s state-of-the-art welding facility features 100 welding booths and Miller and Lincoln inverter power units.
Free welding classes usually take place at SDCE’s Educational Cultural Complex; however, the campus temporarily closed in March due to COVID-19. While learning remotely, student welders are studying blueprint reading, welding symbols, theory, and math—essential skills for graduates pursuing careers with local employer General Dynamics NASSCO, the world leader in shipbuilding and largest full-service shipyard on the west coast.
The welding industry will face a shortage of about 400,000 welders by 2024, according to the American Welding Society. To meet the growing demand for welding personnel, unions around the world are recruiting women into the historically male space. Women like Knight.
“It is a male dominated field but to me it’s art. We aren’t scared to get dirty and work hard,” she said. Knight grew up in Victorville with an artistry family, her father did oil paintings, her mother baked, and her stepfather dabbled with woodworking. “As a kid, I was always interested in building and working with my hands.”
Before she started welding, Knight earned a kinesiology degree at San Diego State University in 2009, determined to become a high school teacher. “Back then teachers were getting pink slips and I wondered if I wanted to keep doing this,” she said. Following her bachelor’s, knight apprenticed at her friend’s metal fabrication shop for two years and fell in love with the craft.
Last fall, she enrolled in the free welding program at SDCE, attending classes while working as a bartender for Petco Park. She turned to the construction and building trades, wanting a career with growth.
This past March, Knight was chosen for the Ironworkers International Union Pre-Apprenticeship, a program designed to prepare more women to enter the rigorous profession. Students receive training in basic ironworking, welding, rigging, fire watch, traffic flagger, OSHA 10, first aid and CPR.
She felt ready for the challenge. “The instructors/master welders at SDCE definitely prepared me for this,” she said. “I have the upper hand with my training. They set me up to be successful and to do very well at my career.”
She was right. Knight placed top two in academics and was the first one in her class during the pre-apprenticeship to get spot plug certified.
When stay at home orders are lifted and worksites are safely operating, Knight will start an apprenticeship with the Ironworker Local 229 in San Diego with plans of advancing to a journeywoman welder.
“The timing is unfortunate though we have a number of graduates working right now in the building and construction trades,” said Brad Dorschel, Master Welder and SDCE faculty member. “The important thing is that Sharla has a spot waiting for her with the local union.”
Welding provides relatively high average pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for Ironworkers was $52,770 per year in 2018.