Finding a passion for welding - Stef Hamilton - Blue Collar Sisters
Interview from August 2020
This article features our Blue Collar Sister and "badass" welder, Stefanie Hamilton!
Stef has been in the welding industry for 12 years. Most of her experience is in in the oil and gas sectors and mainly in the field, working shutdowns for refineries and power plants. She's now working in a shop position on a 7 on 7 off schedule.
Stef is passionate about her family and spreading kindness and feels very strongly about equality and strives to represent women in male dominated industries by being an example.
Keep reading to learn the importance of taking a chance on something that scares you.
"Women can do absolutely anything they put their minds to. It might take us a little longer or we might find a different way to do it but we can do anything anyone else can do and I truly believe that"
Your love for travel originally had you thinking you would pursue a career incorporating that. How did you find out about welding and what made you choose this career path?
Right out of high school I was working in hotels. So, I'd say that was my introduction to travel and tourism and I did take a trip with my best friend to England just after we graduated so my main goal when I got back to Canada was to try and get back to England and do some more traveling.
Then I was introduced to a safety position that kind of offered a lot more money than I was making in my current position. So, I jumped into that, mainly for the money and that's when I kind of got my first exposure to welding and it just piqued my interest.
What piqued your interest about welding?
Honestly, it looked just kind of bad ass to me. I didn't see very many women doing it so I saw a challenge there, which I tend to do. I attended an all-girls junior high school, so I think it kind of started this, “women can do anything” mentality and it's it surprised me that there weren't more women doing welding.
You mentioned that there wasn't that many women when you started. You've been in the industry for 12 years, what's the gender split like in your experience and have you worked with many other women?
It's been mainly dominated by men. I'm lucky to work with one or two other females here and there and they've been some of the best women I've ever met, the most empowering women you could meet.
Has the gender split changed at all? Because you've been in the industry for 12 years, is there more women now than what there was in the beginning?
Yeah, when I started, we didn't have the social media platforms that we do now, so I'm definitely seeing more support towards women in that sense but I still feel like we have a long ways to go, but there's definitely been an improvement.
Speaking of social media, tell me a little bit about your Instagram page, the Blue-Collar Sisters.
Sure. So, I just started that in my own kind of venture to fill a gap that I observed. I was looking for the different things and some of these websites that are catering towards trades people, I would click on the women's section and there was nothing. So, a fire sparked in me to start something for us. So, it started as that venture, and it turned out as this as a page that supports other women. It's very surprising the support from other women. It's just been phenomenal. I had no idea.
Jessica: Yeah, I follow your page and you have found an amazing number of incredible women, which is crazy. Like you said, you don't realize that there's so many out there.
Stef: No, it's been so humbling and some of the messages are just heart-warming. I really had no idea what a big community there is worldwide, and hopefully it will continue to grow.
Is there anything in the future for blue collar sisters?
Yeah. Right now, I've got the logo done and in the process of getting some screen printing done and a website, that's going to be up hopefully in the next month or so, and everyone can have access to blue collar sister swag.
I love hearing stories about people's kids. Can you tell me a bit about your boys?
They drive me absolutely bananas, but I'm so head over heels for both of them. There’s seven years between them so we are dealing with two completely different age demographics. Right now, I have a three-year-old and a ten-year-old.
So, I have my ten-year-old going into his last year of elementary school, so we've got all kinds of challenges with, now there's been an announcement about the face masks and all that stuff. So, there's that, and then my three-year-old goes to day care part-time and he's just living life. He’s just a wild boy. What I'm enjoying the most right now with the three-year-old is his wacky stories. His imagination is so cool.
With your boys, do you do anything with them to engage them with STEM or anything like that?
I do as much as I can. I involve them in things around the house, anything I'm doing. So, I mean, I'm always dabbling in things. Not that long ago, I replaced the kitchen vanity, I do lots of stuff like that. So, they get to see me working with my hands all the time.
For my older son, he is part of a subscription box where he gets a STEM project every month. He is very into to that and following the instructions and building these cool little trinkets. He really looks forward to that box coming. It's been the neatest things; he just had a light changed colours that he had to do all the wiring for. He's had little robots he's had to build that walk, and pendulum things. It's really neat.
My husband’s a welder, and he loves doing lots of projects at home, do you do any work at home? Do your boys get to join?
I don't generally do any welding at home just because I don't have the equipment, but I've done a couple side jobs here and there and I've taken my older son with me to my uncle’s truck shop.
I was there and I did a little repairing on the truck body. So, he was able to come and watch. I gave him an extra shield and he watched, but I think he's a little intimidated, honestly. I think people get kind of uncomfortable with a fire and hot sparks that stuff.
You love to travel. Do you travel much with your boys?
So, my husband is from the east coast of Canada, he's from Cape Breton island. So, every couple of years we have to do a family trip and that's a big long one. My older son is a great traveller, but it's been a little bit interesting with my little guy.
Do you have any tips for other parents trying to travel with kids?
Patience, and lots of snacks!
I worked really hard to keep my older son away from the electronics and stuff and he's a great travel without it but for my little guy, it doesn't matter. We give him everything! Whatever will keep him in his seat. So, he's allowed tablets, video games, snacks, anything, whatever keeps him in his chair. After a while, he's just done sitting.
I've actually tried the, giving them a little bit of gravel, but for some reason that actually sends my kids into like hyper-drive so, I just don't mess around too much with anything and just do what works.
You have been in the industry for 12 years and your oldest boy is 10, which means you must have only been in the industry a short time before you fell pregnant. How did having your boys affect your career?
It was quite a surprise. I was up north where I'm from, in a refinery in Fort McMurray when I found out and it was definitely tricky. I was an apprentice, so I thought my career was over and it definitely did take a pause for a little bit, but I really focused my energy on finishing.
Whether I continued, or I didn't, it was really important for me to finish. It took me a little longer than it probably would take people that don't have children, but you just have to work at your own pace.
How long did it end up taking you to complete your apprenticeship?
There are some jokes here about being a seven-year apprentice. I'm pretty sure I was a seven-year apprentice. It probably wasn't that long, but I definitely didn't do back-to-back schooling. There was a year or two in between each one of my blocks. I did attempt to do an online block when my son was a newborn at home. I was there reading him my welding modules, but it just wasn't a good situation. So, I scrapped that, and I just spent time with him.
I spent my time at home and when my maternity was up, I just jumped back into it the best I could.
How long did you take off on maternity leave?
I took my full year and then I ended up going back to a shop where I'm from and did a little bit of shift work, which was a little tricky and then I ended up going back to school after that. Then after that I ended up becoming part of the boilermaker union here and so I would do shutdown work. So nothing was ever permanent. I would just do a shutdown and then be off with my son.
How did shut down work affect your family?
It was challenging every time. I thought I needed to rally the troops every time I needed to head back to work. At that time, my husband was also working, so we needed to coordinate with friends and family the best we could for that short amount of time and then I was home again for as long as I could be. Then I would hit a shutdown, be back at home, hit a shut down. It was a roller coaster.
I’ve been told the main challenge becoming a mother in a trade would be being pregnant and being on the tools, they'd probably have to put you in the office straight away. Is that the experience you had?
Oh, that one just kind of gave me goosebumps. This is maybe not going to be the proper advice, but I'm going to tell you what I did.
I didn't tell anybody I was pregnant because where I was there was really no job security. When you're on a shutdown, something like that it's hit or miss someone might be accepting of or someone may be really uncomfortable with it and at that point, my main goal was to obtain my hours to get my maternity leave.
So, I actually hid both my pregnancies and thankfully everything was fine. They were healthy and I carried quite small anyway. With my first son, I hid it right up until I think I was eight months. I think I finally told them at seven and I lasted another couple of weeks before I got the layoff I was anticipating.
"I do think that they're getting more and more accepting. The more women I talk to where I'm at now, where I'm a permanent employee, if I was to get pregnant now, they're actually very accommodating."
There's a girl that I work with and she's now on maternity and it just blew my mind speaking with her. They made modified duties for her; I think they're even topping up her wages which is just phenomenal. She is so lucky.
The more women that are in supervision and have an opportunity to bring this up, the better the opportunities will be for women in the future.
You're a big believer that women can do absolutely anything they put their minds to. What advice would you give to a young woman looking to pursue a career in a trade?
I would say that you would be very surprised that the men are just as nervous as you are and I think that you should try everything and don't overthink it, just do it step by step and in the end you will shock yourself.
The main thing is to be interested in what you're doing and passionate about your job and you'll, you'll kick it out of the ballpark. Honestly, the number of men I talked to that were as nervous or even more nervous than I was to do certain tasks, it would just make you so humble that, in that sense, there's very much equality in that they're just as nervous.
When you're talking about doing different tasks and stuff, I know that women generally are not as physically strong as men. How have you overcome challenges when you've had a task that requires some decent, heavy lifting and you just can't quite lift it? How do you overcome that?
I think you have to remember that you might not do it the same way that a man can do it, but there are all kinds of tools to use your leverage, or I'm never afraid to ask for help. I don't really care. I wouldn't risk hurting myself to do something that I know I'm not capable of doing. If someone is standing there that can easily help me, it doesn't make me feel like I need to prove anything, but there are so many tools that you can use with leverage and all sorts of cranes and stuff like that.
Is there anything else you'd like to add before we finish up?
If you're a woman and you are interested in something that you think is dominated by men, I think maybe you should look for a course that could offer you an introduction.
"I think as soon as you try it, you'll realize that it's really something anybody can do and just go for it and try it."