Michelle Beckhorn, second year apprentice with Local 1556, is the first woman to pass both underwater diving certifications. This is a significant accomplishment considering that Michelle didn’t grow up with any knowledge of underwater welding or with any ties to the construction industry or the trades. All she knew was that after being a waitress for 17 years, she needed a change. The restaurant business wasn’t going to sustain her and allow her to live a fruitful life. Michelle turned to a friend who encouraged her to look into the trades.
“Diving seemed like it would be a good fit for me,” she said. “It’s kind of silly, but I always get flustered when someone’s looking over my shoulder. Down there, it’s just you and maybe one other person.”
Before joining the union, an underwater welder needs to get their commercial diving license. Michelle attended a diving school in Charleston, SC and was finally able to enter the union in July 2020. Once at the training center, it was Bob Rieche who took Michelle under his wing and encouraged her to take underwater welding classes.
“Everything he said, I did. I went where he told me to go and listened. He taught me how to weld underwater and that was that.”
Michelle then passed both welding certifications, vertical down (3F) and overhead (4F), and became the first woman in the union to do so! She said it felt good to know she has a marketable skill that can be applied anywhere.
“It gives me a lot of confidence. I will never be the biggest, strongest diver ever. That would be impossible because I work with giants. They do the heavy lifting. But I have a marketable skill set in my toolbox – I can get into smaller spaces and weld when others can’t.”
Michelle is also extremely proud of all the skills she’s learned in the union so far.
“My background isn’t in construction and I didn’t know how many mechanics were involved in underwater welding. These machines break down and need maintenance,” she said. “Bob Rieche taught me how to do maintenance on a hot water machine. I really had to learn – and I am still learning to troubleshoot generators and how to fix an engine.”
While she’s proud of her new career and wouldn’t return to hospitality, Michelle noted that she was able to transfer some of the skills she learned as a waitress to underwater welding.
“With underwater welding, you need to keep your arm locked in at 90 degrees and bend your knees, in order to keep the stinger as straight as possible. This is the same motion I used as a waitress when I would carry a tray of full martini glasses and bend down to deliver them to a table. I credit waitressing with giving me a steady hand and the mindfulness needed to be a successful welder.”
However, Michelle notes that her welding career is taking her to new heights that she never thought possible.
“I can happily say that now I come into work each day and learn new things. Every day is something different, whereas I stopped learning in the restaurant industry 16 years ago.”
When asked what she would say to other women considering a career in the trades, Michelle said, “Just do it.”
She continued by saying, “As long as you don’t try to be a hero and you ask if you don’t know something, someone’s going to show you how to do it. It’s not intimidating or scary. I think a lot of women might be afraid to be yelled at, or nervous that they can’t lift something, but there’s a lot of guys who aren’t that much bigger than me who also need help lifting things, so we just lift it together. It’s not as complicated or as frightening as some people might think it is. It really is a brotherhood. For the women considering a job in the union, just do it.”