By Susan Tompor
Fredrea Lakes still cannot quite believe how a six-week training program turned into a life-changing, $6-an-hour boost to her pay.
A year ago, she was living in a homeless shelter in Detroit and working minimum wage jobs. Her last check at her old job was just $40 because she worked so few hours.
Now, she’s wearing a welder’s helmet covered in Star Wars stickers — with a sticker of Jimi Hendrix on the inside — at her full-time job at The Armored Group factory in Dearborn Heights.
“This is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had income wise,” said Lakes, 29, who often worked at retail stores or fast food joints.
Lakes took an intensive training program offered through Women Who Weld, a Detroit-based nonprofit, passed her weld test in October 2018 and soon snagged the welding job at the small factory, which makes armored vehicles for law enforcement, personal protection and others.
Yet making more money is only one step in her journey moving away from living at the Coalition for Temporary Shelter in Detroit toward providing a stable, working-class lifestyle for herself and her 6-year-old son Keivon.
Having a full-time job has meant dealing with extra costs associated with working, such as paying more for child care and getting to work. She’s thinking more about her credit, worrying how she might find an apartment closer to her job.
“New level, new devil,” Lakes says of the financial challenges she’s now coping with each day.
Even so, she’s glad to share her story about how she found hope in a new career.
“I’d rather struggle to get from here to there than struggle to get up,” she said. “I’m halfway through the battle.”
“I’m very religious and the Boss isn’t going to put more on me than I can bear.”
Real economic transformation doesn’t just involve learning how to use the proper tools to do the job. It also must include discovering the right financial tools to make the most of the money you’re earning.
“We also must be thinking, ‘OK, now you make $18 an hour, how are you going to manage your dollars? And reduce debt and build up your credit score so you’re not paying more for everything and effectively making under minimum wage because your interest rate is so high on that car you need to get to that job,” said Clarinda Barnett-Harrison, executive director, Detroit Regional Workforce Fund and director of economic prosperity, United Way for Southeastern Michigan. The Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, a collaborative housed at United Way for Southeastern Michigan, has invested $60,000 in the Women Who Weld training program.
“If your credit isn’t improved, you’re effectively making less than the minimum wage,” Barnett-Harrison said.
“All of your disposable income is being eaten up by high interest rates and high costs to live.”
Financial empowerment means knowing that if you pay the bills on time, all the time, you can work toward a stronger credit score. Limiting how much you borrow helps, as well. A better credit score can drive down the cost of borrowing money, as well as possibly cut the cost of things such as your auto insurance.
“We’re looking for people to move along a pathway of sustained economic progress that doesn’t just benefit them but also benefits the next generation within their families,” Barnett-Harrison said.
“Poor people deserve to prosper too,” she said. “So we work on wealth building and wealth retention.”
To achieve that goal, the free-of-charge, six-week Women Who Weld intensive training program also includes an hour-long financial education workshop to provide a basic understanding of credit, banking, saving, and financing. The six-week program is fully subsidized for unemployed and underemployed women. To qualify for the free six-week program, applicants must have an income that is at or below the poverty line.
“What we’re trying to do is better position people so they are increasingly self-reliant,” said Corey Ciotti, managing director for Women Who Weld.
Ciotti said Women Who Weld most recently worked with the nonprofit GreenPath Financial Wellness to hold the workshops. Participants were asked ahead of time to answer the question: What keeps you up at night when it comes to your finances?
The presentation targeted those specific concerns. Some women worried about how to better track their spending and allocate more money toward savings. Others wanted to know how to build a strong credit score. Others worried about housing or student loan debt.
Danielle Crane, chief talent officer at GreenPath, said obtaining an in-demand skill, such as welding, is life altering and can change a family’s future for the better.
But many times someone who has been unemployed or underemployed can find the new financial challenges overwhelming.
Many may face a “scarcity mindset,” she said, which might lead them to fear that they may not be so lucky in the future. They could overspend, thinking they need to buy everything at once because the money might not be here next year. Or they could be fearful of trying to learn how to budget or save for the future.
Crane who gave the Women Who Weld financial workshop said some participants also had old student loan debt to address but did not complete the degree that might have led to a better paying job.
If someone is earning $45,000 a year as a welder, she said, they might not realize how much of that money already goes to fixed expenses.
For some, their expenses went up when they began welding jobs and needed to pay for day care, transportation and other work-related expenses.
“We find that not everybody really understands where their money is going,” she said.
Some also must build their confidence to realize that they can accomplish more and advance in their careers.
“It’s such a pivotal moment,” Crane said.
Samantha Farr — who made InStyle magazine’s list of “The Badass 50: Women who are changing the world” this year — founded Women Who Weld in 2014 as a way for women to be trained to be part of an industry that pays well and has jobs to fill. The goal is to address the gender imbalance and skills gap.
More than 400,000 job openings in the welding industry are expected nationwide by 2025, according to the American Welding Society, and women only constitute 4% of the workforce.
Welding jobs can pay well. The median pay was $41,380 per year in 2018 for the category of welders, cutters, solderers and brazers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Or $19.89 an hour. Half made more, half made less.
Farr, 32, and her husband Ciotti, 33, had jobs at tech start up companies before they took on the latest mission. Both are from West Bloomfield. Farr was enrolled in the University of Michigan’s graduate program in urban planning in the Taubman College when she held her first Women Who Weld program five years ago.
Farr, who learned how to weld, now teaches women in her program. Lakes described her teacher as open, funny and meticulous.
“She listened to us just as much as we listened to her,” Lakes said.
Ciotti said roughly 450 women are on a waiting list now for Women Who Weld training programs. To make the final cut for one of the six-week classes, which have about a dozen women in them, applicants also partake in a 30-minute in-person interview.
“Welding is very much an in-demand skill at the present,” Ciotti said.
The six-week course serves women who llve in Southeast Michigan, and a preference is given to residents of Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. Applicants must be at least 18 years old and dedicated to pursuing a full-time career in welding.
Graduates of the six-week intensive training program are prepared for full-time jobs or apprenticeships in the welding industry. The goal of the intensive training program is to serve individuals who cannot afford to incur any cost. The cost of training would run about $6,000 for each individual.
Women Who Weld also offers other programs. Its next week-long intensive training course begins July 15 and will be held at a facility in Madison Heights. The cost of that partially subsidized program is $850 to participants. That program can accept a maximum of six participants. Again, someone must be 18 or older to participate.
Women Who Weld also offers a one-day workshop in Detroit and occasionally in other cities that costs $100 per individual. That workshop provides basic training in gas metal arc welding and more information about job opportunities. All proceeds from the single-day events help subsidize other welding training programs.
Ciotti said the nonprofit’s model includes the $100 workshop as part of its operating budget to raise money for the effort. It’s essentially a substitute, he said, for holding a gala or a dinner.
While the work is hard and welding isn’t an easy skill to learn, Lakes said she’s thankful for the opportunity to move beyond being homeless and working for minimum wage.
And she’s doing her best to cover her bills with the extra money she’s making now.
She doesn’t have a car. She pays someone for a dependable ride to her job, which is about 20 miles away from where she’s living in Oak Park. She quickly learned that taking an Uber to her job was costing her $50 a day and that wouldn’t work.
Her son has attended three different schools in the past year as the plan to build a better life unfolded. She wants more stability for her son’s education too.
Lakes said she’s glad that she acted when she saw a sign on the wall at the COTS shelter about the Women Who Weld training program. She couldn’t stand the job she was in then.
Yet she almost didn’t attend the first introductory meeting. She worried that she had no one to watch her son the night of the presentation at the shelter. But someone told her that she could bring her son along.
Once she was chosen to participate in the program, she said, she made sure to attend classes and commit to learning as much as she could.
“I did what I had to do,” Lakes said. “It wasn’t easy.”