SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Jo Remillard’s welding visor is covered with snarky stickers. One of the biggest reads, “Bitch in heat.”
You can’t miss the sassy, pink slogan as they touch off an eye-searing flash of high-voltage light, laying a perfect bead of hot, melted metal across the demonstration table at People’s Inclusive Welding.
Remillard is the lead instructor at the new welding school catering to women, people of color, folks in the LGBTQ community and others currently underrepresented in the building and fabrication trades. The program opened last fall and offers courses designed to get students qualified for in-demand welding jobs in as little as eight weeks.
Remmilard earned their defiant sticker while enduring nearly a decade in the trades, putting up bridges, shipbuilding and overhauling boilers where they were often the only femme person on the team.
“I put up with all of the language you might expect from a white, male-dominated trade,” Remillard said.
This included constant accusations of being “too emotional,” along with invasive, harassing questions about their “time of the month” or if they were pregnant.
“I made that stop because I was good at what I did,” Remillard said, “but I constantly had to keep proving myself.”
All the while, Remillard was wondering why there weren’t more people like them on the job. That unanswered question, along with a growing clamor for more skilled welders, led to founding the nonprofit school last fall.
On Thursday, job-finding website Indeed.com listed almost 50 vacant welding positions in Maine. Zip Recruiter listed 45 and Glassdoor offered 166 of them, with starting salaries as high at $81,000 per year.
Local 7 of the Ironworkers Union had only 15 members working in Maine in 2018. As of Thursday morning, the union had between 150 and 200 workers on the job.
“We’ve got five jobs in [Portland] going right now,” said Local 7 Business Manager Grant Provost. “Which is pretty good considering we had zero a couple years ago.”
In 2018, union workers put in a little over 30,000 hours. This year, they worked 80,000 in the first three months.
Remillard sees the abundant work and job openings as an opportunity to fundamentally change the face of the welding trade, to supply it with a steady stream of skilled workers from a variety of backgrounds. Only then can things change.
“I want this to be the school I needed and didn’t get,” they said. “I want to create a diverse working environment. This is my reparations for being complacent before. The time is now.”
Remillard is currently in the middle of teaching an eight-week, 320-hour course designed to get students qualified for an immediate job upon completion. The class includes instruction on the four main welding processes, along with three different metal-cutting techniques.
Along with the fabrication skills, Remillard is teaching students about workplace politics and safety. This includes how to say “no” when faced with unrealistic speed pressures which can lead to poor work and unsafe conditions.
“I tell them all about the times I was forced to say yes,” Remillard said, remembering unsafe conditions, including hanging off bridges in less-than-reliable rigging. “This is all the info I wish had been passed on to me.”
Local fabrication shops have already visited the school, looking to hire graduates, and Remillard was proud when students quizzed recruiters on pay and benefits packages.
“And if they had paid maternity leave,” Remillard said.
On Wednesday afternoon, People’s Inclusive Welding student Alexis Strain was learning how to work with stainless steel — a notoriously finicky process.
“I’ve always been interested in the trades but never knew how to approach it,” Strain said.”I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it, but it’s empowering — learning to use all these tools.”
Echoing several other students in the current program, Strain said she is looking for a way out of working dead-end, restaurant jobs.
“I want an actual career,” she said. “Hopefully this will show other Black women that there’s a space for us.”
Working in another of the school’s six welding booths, Milly Taylor said she is motivated by similar circumstances.
“I’m done being a barista,” Taylor said. “I want out of the service industry.”
She said she appreciates Remillard’s teaching approach and willingness to share their real-life stories.
“Jo feels like one of us,” Taylor said, “a teacher but also a bud.”
After a short break for some sunshine and a snack, Hannah Robinson reached for her protective visor, ready to get back to mastering her new craft. Robinson also sees welding as a path to a better future.
“I’m desperate to get out of customer service,” she said, “and you don’t have to deal with customers when you’re dealing with melting-hot metal.”