Sparks fly as 23-year-old Abbey Seward uses a welding torch to perform what’s called a stick weld on a rectangular plate of carbon-steel.
Seward is a junior mechanical welder at the NASA White Sands Test Facility located northeast of Las Cruces as part of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
She said she took a career and technical education course in welding her senior year at Mayfield High School, which quickly became her favorite class. But after graduating in 2013, Seward said she had a tough time deciding which career path to follow during her freshman year at New Mexico State University.
“I was 18, I was just excited to buy a lotto ticket. Like how am I supposed to decide what I need to do for the rest of my life?” Seward said. “So, I decided to transfer to DACC, the community college. I enrolled in the welding technology program and I was doing it as more of a space holder until I figured out what career path I wanted. Well, I graduated with a welding technology degree in 2015 and I started out at NASA White Sands Test Facility less than a year later.”
Seward is one of more than 600 employees working at NASA’s test facility. Since 1963, the site has played a key role in aerospace operations including testing rocket engines for NASA, the Department of Defense and private firms.
Seward works in the site’s precision machining and fabrication facility for Engineering Research and Consulting, Inc., one of five companies at the site doing test contracting work for NASA. ERC, Inc. President and CEO Ernie Wu said nontraditional employees like Abbey continue the company’s goal of pushing boundaries.
“That’s about NASA as well. What’s possible for humanity to travel to other planets, to other parts of the solar system, to other parts of space and it’s that ability to dream. Somebody like Abbey brings that imagination, that drive, that ambition to do something that other people don’t think is possible,” Wu said.
While efforts have increased to diversify the mechanical and aerospace engineering field, there’s a wide gender gap in Seward’s industry. Just 4.5 percent of welding, soldering and brazing workers in the U.S. are women according to 2017 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the Bureau also projects employment in welding and similar occupations will grow 6 percent between 2016 and 2026. That’s encouraging news as the American Welding Society has predicted a shortage of 400,000 welding operators by 2024.
Filling that workforce gap means growing and training workers with hands-on skills. Adam Irion is facilities director and deputy general manager for Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., a principal contractor at the site. Irion said aerospace employers look for candidates with experience that sets them apart.
“You want to try and hire the best person possible with the exact skillset that you want and you don't always get the exact skillset. But when you see something like the CTE, that raises, that separates. That's a separator and that's what we're looking for and the experience is huge too,” Irion said. “When you see an individual who's actually had like a summer job and worked in the summers and goes to school and you know they're hands-on, again it leads to they've got a work ethic and that's huge as well.”
While southern New Mexico is home to a substantial aerospace industry, many in the region don’t know what takes place at the federal facility. Irion said the level of testing the site performs makes it a unique workspace.
“From the hypervelocity testing where you shoot a particle at a very high rate of speed to see what it's going to do on impact to something that's actually in orbit to testing an engine, a one-of-a-kind engine or helping with the Missile Defense Agency or the Japanese Space Agency or commercial providers. We do so many different things out here from chemistry labs to machine shops to welding to cleanrooms… we have HVAC technicians. It's like a little city,” Irion said.
Seward said she thinks it’s “pretty rad” to know her work as a welder is helping to advance space travel.
“The path to Mars is through White Sands Test Facility and that’s just something we say around here and it’s true. It’s true,” Seward said. “I build piping systems. I do test stands so we can bring in more work. Just the work I do for NASA itself as well as our other contractors is awesome. It’s very exciting, it’s thrilling and just to know what I’m contributing is being utilized and is just going to change the way we see our future.”
Along with work, Seward is pursuing another associate’s degree at Doña Ana Community College in business management. She said other students interested in technical careers should take a mix of classes to find what they like best. For her, that’s bonding metal.
“I just love to weld, it's a lot of fun. If you haven't tried it I think you should just kind of experience it. It's just very soothing. It's kind of a meditation when you have your hood down and you're just laying beads, it's pretty rad. But working out here is just a lot of the fun projects. The people are awesome, the environment's good... it's a great place to work. I feel I got really lucky starting out and this is my first job, that's awesome,” Seward said.
As Seward works to build on her skills in and out of the workshop, the projected need for welders may make her career prospects white-hot.