The Eleven Percent: Meet Celia Reyes, Welder

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Welder Celia Reyes talks about creating, her education 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.

When she was a kid, Celia Reyes remembers watching her dad do thermite welding for the Union Pacific Railroad. She thought it looked really cool, like a volcano. But it wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she decided to try out welding for herself.

She took a community college course and loved it. Her dad said that if she wanted to make a career of it, she should go to Tulsa Welding School, the best in the area.

“He took me on a tour of the school,” she says. “After that, it was like, ‘Let’s do this! I want to enjoy this and learn how to do this.’ ”

There was only one other woman in her initial class of 150. The school was fast-paced and challenging, and many of her male peers told her she couldn’t do it. Only 10 students ultimately made it through the intensive seven-month program — Reyes, and nine others.

She’s spent the past 11 years working for John Zink Hamworthy Combustion, where she welds smart combustion solutions that minimize carbon emissions. “They’re giant flares,” she says. “Like you see in the movies, the flares out in the oil fields.”

Her fierce determination led her to a job she loves, in an industry where women make up just seven percent of the workforce. It’s also made her intent on showing others that women can be successful in the skilled trades. Part of that includes teaching welding at Oklahoma Technical College.

We asked Reyes for her thoughts on the state of the welding industry.

Q: Which projects stand out to you?

A. I’ve worked on so many jobs that I can’t even remember which ones stand out. They’re all unique. I see what I create every day and say, “Wow, I built that, and it’s going to be used in the field for burning off excess gas, so the environment is cleaner.” For fun, also I enjoy making art, like little metal roses and butterflies for my mom’s yard.

Q: What changes have you seen in welding during the last 10 years?

A: There are more and more females going into the field, which is great. Plus there’s so much changing with technology. Robot welding is coming up, and new innovative nondestructive testings are coming out. I’m always trying to learn to keep changing with the welding field.

Q: How do you keep up with those new technologies?

A. I took an AOS [Associate in Occupational Science degree] program for welding, which deals with non-destructive testing. So I know how to read the weld, how to make sure it’s sound and that it looks perfect. It also taught me the paperwork side of welding, how to run a business.

Now I’m working on my CWI, which means Certified Weld Inspector. That way I can be the one telling the guys, “Hey, I need you to fix your weld right there. It’s not quite sound.”

The company also teaches us new techniques, and confined space training, because in my department we actually get inside of the vessels that we weld. I also became a first responder. So now I’m responsible for double-checking the safety of the area, making sure my coworkers have all their gear, and that the atmosphere inside the vessels is okay.

Q: What changes would you like to see in the next 10 years?

A: I hope to see more advancements in welding technology and styles. But I’d really like to see more women in the field, because now when I run into one, I’m like, “Cool, another unicorn.” It makes me want to talk to them and learn about what challenges they have faced in the field, what they’ve learned, and what journey they’ve been on. It’s enjoyable to have someone to relate to who’s in my field and does what I do.

Q: Any pros or cons to being a woman in the welding trade?

A: When I started my job, I had a lot of people saying, “Oh, you’re not supposed to be here.” I was like, “No, I’m here, let me show you.” So it was a little challenging at first, but once I got to know the guys, they became like family. I enjoy everybody I work with.

In general, I think women have more patience and attention to detail. The guys sometimes give me all of the little stuff that needs welding, whenever they feel like they can’t do it, or they’re getting too frustrated. Another advantage I have is being [left-handed]. Some of the guys will ask me if I can weld things for them that are easier for me to reach because of the angle.

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

A: First, it’s a really satisfying career, especially if you enjoy working with your hands and enjoy building objects or creating art. There’s so much welding out there, it’s used for everything, even in fields like aerospace, so it’s also lucrative.

If you’re thinking welding might be for you, try it out in a community college course. After that, if you decide to pursue it as a career, do everything that you can to learn and excel in school. Talk to the instructors a lot, find one who is willing to give you extra advice and attention, and stay late after class to practice.

Q: What are your pro-specific tools?

A: It varies from job to job, but a grinder is probably the most used item in my trade, which helps fix welds if they need to be repaired and even bevel pipe. Then I use a file to slide against my flux core, or for stick welding and feathering out the side of a weld to make it look neater.

My tungsten holder helps me sharpen my tungsten on the bench grinder and keep it sharp for TIG welding. Then there’s my flange wizard, combination square, tape measure, and a digital level for accuracy.

Celia Reyes Bio

Celia Reyes has spent the last decade as a welder for John Zink Hamworthy Combustion, which develops smart combustion solutions that minimize carbon emissions. Prior to that, she attended Tulsa Welding School (TWS), where she was one of just 10 students to graduate out of a starting class of 150.

She continues to sharpen her skills by taking courses at TWS. She holds an Associates of Occupational Studies in Welding Technology and teaches welding at Oklahoma Technical College.

Writer Karuna Eberl Bio

Karuna Eberl is a regular contributor to FamilyHandyman.com. She 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.