Interview 4: Letty, a Welder/Fitter
Letty is a welder/fitter at Gorbel in Phoenix, AZ
Women Who Weld, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that teaches women how to weld and find employment in the welding industry, has launched a new program - Arclight - in which we showcase women who create, ideate, and collaborate across specializations and trades.
Letty Rodriguez learned how to weld at Arizona Automotive Institute in 2015 and is now a welder/fitter at a workstation crane manufacturing company outside of Phoenix, AZ. Letty also runs her own custom jewelry business called Saguaro Blossom Jewels. Below is an edited and condensed interview between Samantha Farrugia, the founder of Women Who Weld, and Letty in March 2021.
Where are you calling from today?
Buckeye, Arizona. I'm from Phoenix, but my boyfriend and I just bought our first home in Buckeye, which is a farming town about 30-40 minutes west of Phoenix. We moved here because the housing market is pretty cheap.
Do you like the slower pace of life in Buckeye?
Oh, definitely. Phoenix is not too much city, but it's very busy and it's growing very fast. Buckeye is nothing but lots of land and farms. It’s very quiet out here, which I prefer.
You seem to love classic cars. Is that true?
Oh, yes, very true.
Which types of classic cars are you specifically into?
When I first got into the workforce, I worked at a classic car shop and did restoration for all sorts of different builds. I appreciate all car builds, but I'm team Chevy. I love the 1940s Chevrolet Fleetline – they call them old bombs. Nowadays, in the lowrider style, they'll have a little siren, like the old bomb warnings. That's kind of how they got their nickname; and they're just hunks of metal, so they're super heavy like bombs. I own a 1954 Chevy 210, which is similar to the Bel Air model, but slightly different. But yeah, I love all cars, and trucks!
The lowrider style is really cool. I lived in Los Angeles for a brief period and observed the lowrider culture that exists there. Is there a big lowrider scene in Phoenix?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I wouldn't say it’s as big as California, but we have an amazing car scene here. My parents started their own lowrider car club in the early ’90s. I was born in ’96, so I grew up around the car scene my entire life. We'd go to car shows and do car-related things with the family almost every weekend; it had a huge impact on my life growing up.
Have you had a chance to visit Cuba?
No, I've had a few friends who’ve been to Cuba and they say it's beautiful there.
I visited several years ago and the architecture and classic cars are incredible; it was like stepping into the 1950s. There are some 1980s, Soviet-era vehicles here and there, but the majority of cars are classic cars. Some have been restored, but most are in their original condition.
And if you haven’t been to Detroit, it is – as I’m sure you know – where nearly all classic cars were manufactured. And, on the third Saturday in August each year, over 1 million people attend the Woodward Dream Cruise, the world's largest one-day automotive event, in which over 50,000 classic cars, street rods, and muscle cars cruise along a stretch of Woodward Avenue. It’s packed and busy and people get frustrated because it's essentially just a traffic event. But it is amazing to see.
That is incredible. I've never heard about it; thank you for telling me!
You own a 1954 Chevy 210. Are you doing the restoration yourself?
When I graduated high school and decided I wanted to go to welding school, my parents gifted me this car because I really wanted to get into restoration since I was so passionate about cars. When they bought it, it was definitely a fixer upper. It kind of depresses me how long I've had it. It's just been sitting, which is sad, but I wasn't making the greatest money back then and I didn't have my jewelry business, which is helping me fund it now.
I definitely want to do most of the restoration work because I have the experience. I'm not a mechanic, but I understand some of the components. I can take something apart and put it back together; but why things run the way they do, I don't understand that part of mechanics. I just brought the car to our new house, so seeing it every day will get me motivated to get her going. I was trying to decide what to do with it, because as badly as I would like to get it on the road tomorrow, I think the smarter decision, in the long run, is to do a frame-off restoration. I'm going to upgrade the engine to maybe a small-block 350 and upgrade the tranny so I can drive it across Arizona without having to worry about it breaking down on the road. And it's obviously going to be a lowrider since that's the style I like the most. I have an idea for paint colors, but that could change once I start the bodywork on it.
What are you thinking as far as colors?
I love purple. My hair is purple. So I am hoping to do purple on the body and a lace pattern top. In the lowrider style, they have some crazy designs. I want my car to be pretty wild when it's done.
Do you have an idea as to what sort of custom elements you want to add to your car?
Eventually, I would love to make it a show-worthy car. I’m in the process of taking the engine out, dropping the tranny, and then lifting the cab, so we can take the frame off and have it powder coated then pinstriped. A lot of the lowrider style cars have mirrors on the ground showing off the undercarriage, which is really done up. That's why I love lowriders because people go above and beyond for their vehicles. I would love for the engine bay, under the hood, and the trunk to be really nice and pleasing to look at.
You mentioned you kind of understand auto mechanics. Is that something you want to learn more about, or are you more interested in the auto body element?
I would love to learn more about mechanics. When I did restoration work, I did some mechanics, like suspension, so I got to learn a little bit. But I just love seeing mechanics take things apart and put them back together. I think it's incredible. It’s definitely on my list to learn. I don't know if I would go back to school for it, but I have a bunch of friends who are mechanics. Hopefully, with my car, they could show me a thing or two. One of my good friends has taught me a lot about auto body. I love it. I love the whole process of restoration.
“Pass on your knowledge because someone helped you once upon a time, so be that person for somebody else.”
Why did you choose welding as a career path?
When I was in high school, as an 18-year-old getting ready to graduate, there was a lot of pressure to go to college, but I wasn't really interested in spending four to eight years in a university. I've always been really hands-on and I've played sports all my life, so I don't mind getting dirty. And with my interest in cars, I figured it would be cool to find a profession that would allow me to be around what I'm passionate about. So, when I graduated high school in 2014, I was researching different trade schools and was actually thinking about an automotive program for mechanics, but when I took the tour of my trade school, the welding part just spoke to me a little more. So I enrolled in an 11-month welding program at Arizona Automotive Institute that summer, and I learned TIG, MIG, stick, and oxy-acetylene welding, and plasma and pipe cutting. Then in 2015, about a year later, I graduated with my welding certificate.
What’s your favorite welding process?
My favorite is TIG welding, but all of my jobs have involved MIG welding. Hopefully, maybe someday down the road, I will find a TIG welding job.
Where do you currently work and what do you do there?
I am a welder/fitter at Gorbel, it’s a company in Goodyear, Arizona. I’m coming up on my 2-year anniversary here. We build overhead workstation cranes for a range of businesses and industries: Tesla, big warehouses, manufacturing companies, rehab clinics in hospitals to help people walk again. We recently merged with another company that makes conveyer belts for moving packages in and out of trucks. I think we’re moving into the fast-shipping, Amazon sort of world.
For those who are unfamiliar, a fitter is someone who skillfully aligns or “fits” pieces of material together before welding or joining them.
What’s a typical day on the job like for you?
I clock in at 6 a.m. and I go to my bay. All of the welders fit our own jobs, which is nice because you get a lot of fitting experience. If it's a fresh job, I get my cart with my materials and bring it to my bay. I use a crane to move the materials onto my workstation and I fit up the specific job that I'm doing. Once it's fit up, I start welding, and then clean it up and send it off to paint. I clock out at 2:30 p.m.
Which days of the week do you work?
I work Monday through Friday. Rarely do we have overtime on the weekends, but if we do, it's usually on Saturdays.
Do you work with any other female welders?
Yes, her name is Rachel. We went to the same trade school, but we weren’t in the same class. A few years later we started following each other on Instagram, and she mentioned that the company she worked at, which makes staircases and stair railings, was hiring. I had just been laid off from the classic car shop, and was desperate for a job, so I reached out. I got an interview and was hired on the spot. But that was the worst company we’ve ever worked for! It was a toxic environment.
Rachel and I worked together for a few months until she left that company for Gorbel. She wanted me to go with her, but I was still new at the stair company and I didn't feel comfortable enough yet with my skill set, so I stayed, which I regret till this day. Rachel tried to get me into Gorbel, but they rarely hire; it’s such a great company that, once you're in, you're there for a while. Then 6 months went by and there was a job opening at Gorbel, so I immediately applied and got an interview. They were super impressed and hired me on the spot. Luckily, I was able to quit my former job and move on.
Why was your previous job a toxic environment?
At my previous job, the supervisor, manager, and owner were all buddy buddies, so you couldn't really turn to anybody higher up to complain about what was happening. Everyone who worked there dealt with harassment, especially the women – we were sexually harassed almost daily. I was learning how to fit the stair railings and I was using the forklift to move material around. And these are big industrial forklifts and I'm 5’1” – super tiny compared to these forklifts – and I was having trouble moving the forks apart because the company hardly maintained anything, so nothing was oiled, which is dangerous, and my supervisor was standing a couple feet behind me watching me struggle. And then he made an inappropriate remark about my body. And I was so shocked, I froze, I didn't know what to say. I uncomfortably laughed, but after that, I knew he was looking at me in that way and I felt so uncomfortable. I didn't say anything right away. There was another woman who worked there, she was fresh out of high school, and something happened to her with another co-worker. So, the manager called us in about harassment, and he said they want us to feel safe there and, if anyone is bothering us, that we should feel comfortable to talk about it. That was my opportunity to tell the manager what the supervisor had said. I came forward and told him what happened and what had been happening, because the supervisor had made other snarky comments to me as well. And the manager was like, “Okay, yeah, we'll talk to the owner and we'll talk to the supervisor about this.” So, they confronted the supervisor about what he said and, after that, oh, my God, he treated me so terribly. He took me off the fitting table, he took me away from the welders, and he put me on the grinding table. I was literally grinding for two weeks straight. I wasn't welding at all. And he told all of my coworkers that I was suing the company for sexual harassment, which I wasn't, but now that I think about it, I probably should have! My supervisor was the type of person to harass you to the point where you just want to quit. But I'm prideful and I didn't want to leave on his terms – I wanted to leave on my own terms. I stuck it out and it was terrible, miserable. Then a group of seven of us, my male and female co-workers, came up with a game plan. We wrote letters to the owner with the hope that he would realize who's running his shop. But nothing came of it, the owner just swept our whole effort under the rug, which was super discouraging and disappointing. Then, Rachel reached out to me about Gorbel hiring, and it was the answer to my prayers!
And now I know how to handle that situation in the future. I would definitely tell this person off because I'm much more confident with my skill set and where I stand in the industry.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment is something that most women have dealt with. When it happens, you feel shocked, uncomfortable, disgusted, and afraid, especially when it occurs at work. It’s really hard to continue working in an environment that allows for that type of behavior, it’s demoralizing. And, I assume most people don’t want to work at a place where harassment goes unchecked. So, in order for this industry to grow and diversify, all forms of harassment need to stop. There should be a zero-tolerance policy.
When did you start your jewelry business, Saguaro Blossom Jewels?
Two years ago I took some beginner and intermediate jewelry classes at KP Studio in downtown Phoenix. My family inherited sterling silver and turquoise jewelry from my grandparents and I have been following some silversmiths on Instagram for years – seeing them post the process of jewelry making really got my attention.
After I took those classes, I felt comfortable enough to go on my own and I invested in a few tools. Luckily, my welding tools kind of transferred to jewelry making so I didn't have to spend a bunch of money. Then I just started creating and, two years later, here I am!
Do you work only with silver or other metals too?
Mostly silver, but I do like to mix in metals like brass and copper. Eventually, I would love to work with gold but it’s really expensive. So that will be the long-term goal – to eventually get into fine jewelry making.
You’re only 24 years old, what are your future career aspirations?
I would love to look into the Ironworkers union. I have so many friends who have gone that route. And I love the pictures and stories they tell me about being able to travel. I love to travel; it would be awesome to be able to travel for work. So maybe I will end up in ironworking. But I would like something with good hours, because it would be nice to continue to run my jewelry business. I know with a lot of the union jobs, they're very, very busy. So, I might have to put my jewelry on hold.
Several former Women Who Weld participants are apprentices with the Ironworkers union in Detroit. They work long hours, 60-70 hours a week, but they love it and it’s a lucrative career path.
You occasionally dress in a 1940s vintage style. How long have you been into this style?
I've been collecting vintage since I was a teen in high school. I love the pinup look. It is a lot of work, so I only dress that way when I'm in the mood for it. I don't really dress like that too much these days, just because all my free time is spent working in the garage. And, with Covid, there’s nowhere to go.
What do you like most about being a welder?
I love how many different paths you can take as a welder: art, structural, restoration. And I take pride in knowing that I built this and now it's going to support a building, or this crane I built is now going to lift a part for a plane.
That's what I love about it, too. And that's what inspired me to start this initiative and showcase the important work that people like you do. As you mentioned, the materials you’re fitting and welding together are used by other businesses across a range of industries to support their day-to-day operations or their output, which, in turn, directly or indirectly affects so many people in so many places – it’s very inspiring.
What are some challenges you've encountered as a welder?
Self-doubt. When I'm learning something new, it can be very scary because I don't want to mess it up. I take longer to learn it properly, but I remind myself that everyone starts from somewhere, so I try to not have so much self-doubt.
When I first got in the industry, I didn't really have other women to talk to. I try hard to be there for the younger generation, not just female welders, but also men who are interested in joining the industry.
Do you have advice for women who may be interested in pursuing a path in welding?
If you are interested in joining the trade, start off by shadowing someone to get an idea of what you're getting yourself into; to see if it’s for sure what you're interested in doing. And then I would research at least a few different trade schools – they’re all going to teach you the basics of your trade, but it's about finding which school works for your budget. Everyone starts from somewhere, so ask all the questions you can and be confident. It takes years to obtain a skill set. And pass on your knowledge because someone helped you once upon a time, so be that person for somebody else.
What are your hobbies outside of welding?
Car shows and jewelry making. I love the outdoors so I try to go up north a lot, especially in the summertime, everyone likes to escape up north because it's a little cooler. I go to Prescott, it’s very forested up there. I love going to old mining towns like Globe or Bisbee or Kingman – they have so many great antique shops and I love finding unique pieces for my house or my wardrobe.
Is there anything else on your mind that you would like to share?
I’m glad you asked! I love sharing this part about my family. My grandma has been a heavy machine operator and forklift driver for the last 30 years. And my great-grandma was a truck driver in the early 1930s. So being a tradeswoman runs in my family. It's really cool.
That is really cool! What do your parents do for a living?
My dad is a police officer and my mom is a teacher.
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and why?
My great-grandma was part Sicilian and, apparently, we have family in Italy. I really love old buildings and architecture, so I would love to travel around Europe and see more of Italy.
My boyfriend’s family is from Taxco, Mexico, and it is well-known for sterling silver, and back in the 1930s and 1940s, there was a unique style of sterling silver jewelry that originated there. My inspiration comes from Mexican silver, so I would love to see some of the vintage designs up close and personal.