OTC graduate Bryanna Shaffner never thought of herself as a trailblazer for women in the workplace, but when Springfield’s Stainless Fabrication Inc. (SFI) hired Bryanna as a welder in 2019, she was the company’s first female welder.
Ozarks Technical Community College graduate Bryanna Shaffner never thought of herself as a trailblazer for women in the workplace — she was just looking for a good job.
But when Springfield’s Stainless Fabrication Inc. (SFI) hired Bryanna as a welder in 2019, she was the company’s first female welder.
“It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but it just made me work harder,” Bryanna said. “I just wanted to show my co-workers I could keep up and hang with the best of them.”
The 29-year-old did not set out to become a welder after high school. Bryanna earned her associate degree in art at a community college in her hometown of South Haven, Mississippi — a Memphis suburb.
Bryanna was married young and had two boys, but as life often does, things did not go as planned. After a series of different jobs that never seemed to fit her and then a divorce, she was looking for a fresh start. Bryanna decided to relocate to the Ozarks to be closer to her family.
Before leaving Mississippi, a friend suggested Bryanna try her hand at welding.
“I just Googled, ‘Welding schools near Springfield,’” Bryanna said. “And OTC was the first one that came up.”
Since she already had an associate degree and was looking to learn the skills for a new job quickly, Bryanna opted for OTC’s 20-week welding program.
The 20-week welding course is an intense program where students can learn and get hands-on training to become a welder quickly. Students begin their days at 7 in the morning and are either welding or in the classroom until 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. The 20-week welding classes are small, with a maximum of 14 students per session, and those small class sizes build camaraderie.
“By the end of the 20 weeks, we were all buddies,” Bryanna said. “I still talk to several of the guys from my class.”
Bryanna graduated from OTC in May 2019 and started working at Stainless Fabrication Inc. that same month. Because of her OTC education, she was accepted into SFI’s apprenticeship program. After three years of on-the-job training, she was the first SFI apprentice to graduate with a certificate from the Department of Labor as a Master Welder.
“The 20-week welding program prepared me to feel confident when I walked into the job on my first day,” Bryanna said.
She started building stainless steel tanks for the food and pharmaceutical industries on the day shift. Many of her male co-workers at SFI were long-time employees who had never worked with a female welder. From her first days on the job, she showed her co-workers there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do, from crawling in a tank, welding in a tight spot, to grinding a tank for 10 hours.
“I knew that to gain their respect, I had to prove myself,” Bryanna said. “I asked for a transfer to the night shift for a position that would give me more responsibility and advancement.”
Working from 6:30 in the evening until 4:30 in the morning comes with more pay and, for Bryanna, more opportunities for advancement. She’s now the lead fabricator on the night shift, responsible for helping to train new welders.
The night shift allows Bryanna to have breakfast with her young boys, take them to school, and attend programs and special events while other parents are at work.
Her sons are proud of their hard-working mom.
“My oldest son dressed up like me for career day at school. He even took my welding hood,” Bryanna said. “My younger son is protective of me. He asked me, ‘You work with all boys. Are they nice to you?’”
After four years on the job, Bryanna is just one of the guys. Although her nickname has become “Girl.”
“They were searching for a nickname for me, and I didn’t like any of their ideas,” she said. “One day, someone said, ‘Hey girl.’ I turned around, and from then on, I was ‘Girl.’ It fits, and I like it.”
Since Bryanna’s hiring in 2019, she has proven that women can be excellent welders with their attention to detail and steady hand. Because of her proven work ethic, SFI has sought out and hired three more women in the shop. Whether she intended to be or not, this “girl” from Mississippi became a trailblazer for female welders.
“My managers told me that if I hadn’t done a good job, they would have hesitated to hire more female welders because it is a hard job,” Bryanna said. “Now we have four women. I’m proud I was the first.”