The Eleven Percent: Meet Brenda Hay, Welding Authorized Inspector-in-Training

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Brenda Hay talks about earning a good salary, switching careers later in life and what's in her tool bag.

This FH series introduces readers to a few of the women who make up 11 percent of the construction workforce in the U.S., spotlighting stories of their careers in the field. Know someone we should feature? Email us here.

Brenda Hay worked hard and tried a lot of careers before she finally found her calling. Her first job was bussing tables when she was 13. Then, after having a son, she worked in electron microscopy before going to law school.

Being a single mom, she took law school classes at night. She said she was one of just six percent of students to pass a preliminary bar exam on the first try. But after twice falling just shy of passing the actual bar exam, she lacked the financial means to keep trying. So she moved on, working various jobs.

“After many years of doing that, I just wasn’t really happy,” says Hay. “The money wasn’t as good as I wanted, and I just didn’t feel like it was my place.”

When her son said he wanted to be a welder, she remembered how much she enjoyed welding in high school and college. So she signed up as well. She spent almost two years at out-of-state schools, away from her husband in Utah.

She returned home after graduation, but the pandemic made it difficult to find work. After six months of searching locally, she took a job in Oklahoma. She worked there for 16 months until her sacrifice paid off in a big way.

Now, at age 48, she’s about to start a new job as a welding training authorized inspector (AI)-in-training with Hartford Steam and Boiler, back home in Utah. Her task: Making sure high-pressure boilers are safe and strong.

“I got my dream job with my dream company,” she says. “I’m so excited about this. I didn’t know this world existed and I’m in it now. I absolutely love my life. I wouldn’t change anything about it.”

Her son, now 33, is working as a welder in California, though Hay suspects one day he’ll also become an inspector like her. And while Hay no longer welds every day, she’s working on setting up a shop at home so she can continue to enjoy the craft.

We asked Hay for her thoughts on the state of welding and welding inspecting.

Q: What do you enjoy about being in the welding trade?

A: I love both welding and inspecting, and the money is wonderful. The more you learn, the more you’re going to make. I know money should never be a motivator, but money does make life easier, and I hope one day I’ll be making more than most lawyers.

I wish I would have done this sooner, but electron microscopy and law school upped my learning capacity and helped make this work. I also love the metallurgy part of the job, plus how much I continue to learn, which keeps me from getting bored. How many people get to leave work and think, “Wow, I’ve learned so much today.” It’s wonderful.

Q: What’s it been like, being a woman in a male-dominated trade?

A: Years ago, when my instructor became an inspector, I think a woman on that job probably would have been shunned. Today we don’t have that attitude. Women inspectors are totally accepted.

Going in, I did think that the older welders would be like, “Get this girl out of here. I don’t want a girl in my shop.” But I never got that attitude, except from some of the younger welders. They can have a kind of cocky attitude, whereas the older ones are more apt to want to show me what they’re doing and help me learn the trade. That surprised me.

Q: What changes would you like to see in the field?

A. I would like to see more women. I used to mock the phrase “women need women.” But the older I get, the more I see that sometimes when things happen, we need our own kind to talk to, and there are so few of us.

Plus, even the men are excited when we have a female welder come in. I think they want more diversity, too. A woman brings so much to the table. We’re strong. We’re so different than men. That diversity makes for more fun conversations, more fun everything.

Q: Any advice for young women looking to get into welding?

A: Just like in any field, approach dating coworkers carefully. Unfortunately, in some work environments, guys and girls are looked upon differently when dating coworkers, even though it’s a mutual decision.

I saw it with one of the women who was a welder. She got caught up with a guy and ended up feeling like she got pushed out of advancement opportunities. That’s not to say it will always be the case.

When I started, I was a little nervous, so I didn’t wear makeup. I wanted my coworkers to think of me as one of their coworkers, a guy. But now I realize it’s okay to be a woman in this field. You can get your hair dyed and wear pretty clothes if you want, and most men are fine with it.

Just go there and do your job. If they flirt with you, feel empowered to just say you appreciate that compliment, but you’re here to do a job and not interested in anything else.

Q: What are your pro-specific tools?

A: Definitely a tape measure with increments down to 1/32-in., paired with a magnet with a hook, so you can measure something really long even when no one is there to help you hold the other end of the tape. The magnet-hook also ensures that you don’t have a variance where the end on the tape measure pulls out a little bit.

I like tight gloves for crawling into boilers. You might still get metal slivers in your hands, and those magnets are also good for pulling them out.

I also always have an inspection mirror and the brightest flashlight I can afford. The brighter it is, the more discontinuities you’ll see. Also pens and a notebook, for documenting everything. I like a book with a wraparound band so it doesn’t open when the wind picks up.

One tool I don’t have yet but I really want is a 400-ft. laser measure. It goes down to 1/16-in. accuracy, though I wish it was 1/32-inch. But it has a Bluetooth camera on it, so you can send it up to a welder and they can measure what you want without having to put on a safety harness and go up there.

Then for welding, for sure you want some TIG welding gloves and TIG Kevlar sleeves so you don’t burn yourself, which you can do even through your clothes.

Brenda Hay Bio

Brenda Hay is the newest training authorized inspector (AI)-in-training with Hartford Steam and Boiler in Utah. Though she’s had careers in electron microscopy and quality control, plus earned a law degree, she says she’s finally found contentment in the welding trade, which makes her “feel free and offers so many opportunities.”

A graduate of the Refrigeration School, Inc. and Tulsa Welding School, she has also worked as a certified welding inspector in Oklahoma. She’d like to give a shoutout to her instructor at Tulsa, David Lamb, for all the knowledge he imparted to her.

Writer Karuna Eberl Bio

Karuna Eberl is a regular contributor to FamilyHandyman.com. She’s spent the last 25 years as a freelance journalist and filmmaker, telling stories of people, nature, travel, science and history. Eberl has won numerous awards for her writing, her Florida Keys Travel Guide and her documentary, The Guerrero Project.

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.