Angela Simmons strides across the TCC Portsmouth campus in pumps, fashion jeans, an off-the-shoulder blouse, and bright multicolor earrings. Petite with slim, toned arms and a thick braid wrapped around a blond ponytail, the 52-year-old doesn’t look like a typical welder.
“People look at me and say, ‘You do what?’” she said. “But I just say yes I do… I just love industrial work. It’s my passion.”
Angela worked as a shipfitter at Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock for almost 10 years and then gave it up in 1992 when a family member suggested she pursue a more feminine career. She traded in her toolbox for a stethoscope, became an LPN, and worked as a home care nurse.
She never should have done that, she said. So two decades later, after leaving nursing and trying on a string of other jobs that didn’t fit, Angela enrolled in TCC’s welding program, graduated last year, and is headed back to the shipyard, awaiting an apprenticeship she anticipates beginning this month. This time, she said, she will never look back.
“If I had stayed at that job, I’d be there 30 years now,” she said. “You have to do what’s right for you. You can’t listen to naysayers or people who think they know better than you. You have to follow your dreams. You have to do what you’re passionate about. That’s what I’m doing.”
Angela is one of a number of local women who are following their hearts into meaningful occupations mostly populated by men. These women are used to the raised eyebrows. They have encountered the pushback. They have all heard the complaints that they don’t want to be babysat because they’re in the “wrong” jobs for their gender.
But they share another mindset: Tell them “You can’t,” and they’ll respond with “Watch me.” The secret to their success, they say, is working hard, doing a job well, and ignoring well-meaning critics. Let’s meet these pioneering women.
Behind Lorraine Wagner’s tidy desk in Stihl, Inc.’s Virginia Beach corporate office, a large framed print reads: “Keep calm and carry on.” It’s a fitting lifetime mantra. At 43, Lorraine is the director of manufacturing for the international corporation, overseeing more 1,300 employees in a company that crafts outdoor power equipment and exports to 90 countries. She is the only woman at her level in any of the company’s global production workshops.
Her path to executive leadership began early.
Growing up in England as a “slight tomboy,” Lorraine remembers a learning exercise when she first entered school. Words with one to three letters were placed on the floor, and teachers encouraged students to learn them. But Lorraine could already read. Soon she was allowed to sit in another area with children’s books while her classmates got through the basics.
It was Lorraine’s first lesson in not accepting limitations, a lesson that was reinforced by her grandfather.
“Being cared for by my grandfather while my parents worked was the best thing that could have happened for me,” Lorraine said. “He taught me to read before I was even three. He never taught me there were things I couldn’t do, so I never considered limits.”
Lorraine focused on sciences and languages in school, graduating from Liverpool University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and educated in French, Spanish, and German. As she worked on her Master’s in business administration at the University of London, she hopscotched between Germany, England, and the US, working for GKN Tier 1 Automotive.
When Lorraine first set foot on the factory floor as a 22-year-old graduate, she said she felt a little nervous: “Then I just got to work.”
By the time she left GKN eight years ago to join Stihl, Lorraine was director of their manufacturing engineering over five manufacturing plants and was believed to be the only woman in the company’s 256-year history to have held that position.
“I often speak to groups, and I love speaking to young women,” Lorraine said, “and I teach this to my children, particularly my daughter. You are only limited by your imagination. Children believe they can do anything, so you have to foster that. I was blessed with opportunities because I learned that very young.”
A TOUGH CASE
Sarah Erlandson’s family also encouraged her to pursue an unconventional career. Sarah knew early on that she wanted to work with her hands. She completed a two-year welding program during high school in Sterling, Virginia, but knew she wanted to do more.
When representatives from the Apprentice School in Newport News came by to talk to students, Sarah applied for the program. The school trains people in 19 different areas of shipbuilding and works directly with Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, the largest military shipbuilding company in the nation. She was accepted and graduated in 2013.
Sarah, 24, is now a nuclear shipfitter, working on the propulsion system of the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the John F. Kennedy.
“I didn’t even know what an aircraft carrier was before I came here,” she said, laughing. “I had to Google a picture of what it looked like.”
Now she is completely at home inside the vessel’s massive structure, as the only woman in a 124-person shop.
Sarah describes shipfitting as being like house-building, using metal instead of wood. The work is heavy, dirty, and potentially dangerous, freezing in winter and broiling in the summer. While women do work in this field, they are well outnumbered by their male counterparts and have a tough case to prove for working alongside them.
When general foreman Jeff Bilodeau was Sarah’s instructor, he knew Sarah would be a perfect fit for the shop she now works in. Initially, he encountered some resistance, he said.
“But that first day she started, I got a phone call from the foreman and several employees,” Jeff said. “They were saying, ‘Wow, she is incredible. She is a worker.’ She has gained the respect of all of the people she works with because she is a dedicated, hard worker, and she is really her own person.”
“If they can, I can,” Sarah said and offers this advice for women who might want to go into a field where mostly men work: “Just go,” she said. “Show them that you can. Be the person you’d want to work with.”
Doing her best has paid off in ways Sarah had no way of knowing when she had to Google a carrier to see what it looked like. She’ll be able to see her handiwork 25, 50 years down the road, she said, on a ship that will still exist. Sarah has heard stories of sailors standing on the decks of ships their fathers built. It’s a legacy she is proud to be a part of.
“I’ll be able to show people what I built for the rest of my life,” Sarah said. “It just stands as a testament to your hard work.”
EYE FOR DETAIL
Desiree Hambrick remembers being quirky and shy while growing up in California. Then she found her fit at 19 in the U.S. Navy. She served on active duty, as a helicopter airframer in the U.S. She liked working with her hands and became an aviation structural mechanic.
“Being in the Navy just gave me the confidence to be who I am,” she said. “It was OK to be sarcastic. It was OK to be funny and to get my hands dirty and work hard. I fit so perfectly into my shop.”
Which isn’t to say the transition was smooth from the get-go, she added. “You do have a lot to prove, being female in that job, but when you work hard and they can see that you get the job done, you do earn respect.”
When she left active duty in 2014, Desiree decided to pursue welding as a career and enrolled in TCC Portsmouth’s welding program. Once again working alongside men and learning new equipment and skills, she found herself being hard on herself, she said.
“When I first came in, I thought, ‘Oh, no, what have I gotten myself into,’” she said. “But then I realized no, I can do this, and it’s OK to ask for help, and people want to help you. They want you to succeed, and that helps you succeed.”
Desiree has also found surprising benefits to being a woman in welding, she said. “People don’t realize this, but there are things about this work that being female gives an advantage,” she said. “An eye for detail, a feel for the materials, we just see things differently, and we have a feel for things that’s just different from men. It makes it easier in some ways for us.”
Walter L. Duke, Jr., Desiree’s welding instructor, agrees. “Maybe because they feel like they have a lot to prove,” he said, “but they work hard and they do very well here. I am always happy to have women enter this program. It benefits everyone.”
Like Desiree, Angela Simmons was one of Walter’s top students. Her future plans include becoming a journeyman—able to work in the trade without supervision—and possibly even coming back to TCC to teach someday, she said.
Meanwhile, she is just happy to have found her way back to the work she loves.
“I feel like I won the lottery,” she said.
Veni Fields is a freelance writer who lives in Virginia Beach.