Grand Rapids, Mich., March 7, 2022—Held every year in March since 1998, Women in Construction, or WIC Week, celebrates, educates and promotes the role of women in the construction industry. To mark the occasion, two apprentices are sharing their experiences as welders and as women in Andy J. Egan Co.’s fabrication shop.
Both Brianna Lampe and Brianna Conway are first-year apprentices through the Local 174 Plumbers & Pipefitters. Nicknamed “Bri 1” by her colleagues, Lampe joined Egan in September of 2020, while Conway – or “Bri 2” – was hired just two months later.
Each had a couple of years of work experience in non-union welding roles before their apprenticeships, but different training paths up to that point. “I was always a hands-on, artsy person,” says Lampe. Her dad, a professor at Grand Rapids Community College, encouraged her to enroll there, where she earned her Welding Technology Associates Degree.
Conway’s interest in construction began in high school, where she regularly took drafting courses, along with Kent Community Technical Center’s Mechatronics program. “I got really good grades in those classes,” says Conway, “so my teacher encouraged me to apply for welding in college, even though I had no experience in it.” At Ferris State University, she was discouraged that all of her classmates seemed to know how to weld already. She left the program after a year, completing her welding certification at Merrill Institute in Alma, Mich., instead.
Regardless of where they were learning, the courses that Conway and Lampe took all had one thing in common – they were usually the only women in their classes. Neither found the male-to-female ratios discouraging, however, and Lampe found it motivating. “When someone tells me I can’t do something because I’m a woman, I push myself really hard.”
Like their classroom experiences, Conway and Lampe are the only women in an otherwise all-male fabrication shop. Instead of feeling intimidated, Conway says her colleagues are warm and welcoming, like working with a bunch of older brothers. “Within a day of working here, it felt like a family,” she says, “the guys here have your back and are always looking out for you.”
If anything about her first days in the shop were intimidating, Lampe says it was working side-by-side with so many great welders who had years more experience than her. “My confidence in myself has definitely grown,” she says. “At first, I was nervous, but that became my motivation to show people what I could do. I love challenging myself, knowing that I can improve every single day on something. I feel like we surprise people every day.”
In some instances, the women have been able to do things that would be physically impossible for their male colleagues. Lampe shared an example where, because of her size, she was able to complete a weld in a tight space that no one else could access.
“We’re not very big,” says Conway, and advises other women not to worry about their size when considering a career in construction. “People often think that to do this job, you have to be super strong. But we have all sorts of equipment that will help you lift heavy things, and no one should be doing that much heavy lifting anyway.”
Organizational skills and attention to detail are other strengths both women feel they bring to their work, joking that they hate clutter and have the most organized weld booths. Their supervisor, Foreman Shane Shook, agrees. “They are hard workers with a focused attention to detail,” he says. “Both women are driven to excel and want to be great at their craft. They are respected for what they want to accomplish and have been welcome additions to our shop and trade.”
When asked what advice they would give other women considering a career in the trades, without hesitation both Conway and Lampe replied in unison, “Do it. Just do it.” Lampe pointed out that even if you don’t have experience, there are many people willing to teach you a skilled trade. “It might be hard at first,” she says. “But in five years, it will be worth it. And your team will take care of you because they do not want to lose you.”
Conway adds, “The trades are just a great thing to get into. Even if people are telling you to go to a four-year college, you can give the trades a try. You can learn a lot of stuff and make a lot of money really quickly. You keep those skills forever and, and if you’re good at what you do, you’ll always have a job.”