BABE #89: PIERRETTE SWAN, Career Pathways Rep @ Newport News Shipbuilding
Pierrette is a bonafide badass. She graduated with Highest Honors from Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School, was the only female representative on the Director of Welding’s advisory team in 2015 & 2016, and currently works with the GEMS (Girls With Engineering Minds in Shipbuilding) after school program in addition to her full-time job as a Career Pathways Representative in the shipbuilding industry. We'll let her tell you the rest. Thanks so much for chatting with us, Pierrette!
Babe you admire and why?
My mom was such an absolute badass. She was a stay-at-home mom, but she just did it all. She knew how to fix anything, she cut our hair, pierced our ears, helped with our homework, and was just a super smart, hilarious, big-hearted kickass woman. I strive to be like her every day.
Favorite beauty item?
Eyeliner. Even if I have nothing else, it makes me feel pretty. I'm also totally that girl that gets asked if I'm sick or tired when I'm not wearing any.
Biggest pet peeve?
I hate when people don't say goodbye. I’ve lost some important people in my life, pretty unexpectedly, and I feel like people don’t realize how important a little thing can be. Saying goodbye takes two seconds.
Favorite social media account to follow?
I actually just started following red_fraggy on Instagram. It’s basically a puppet that travels the world and posts pictures. I think it’s just the cutest thing.
What’s one thing you wish you knew more about?
Ancient Civilizations. There are so many interesting cultures that just disappeared. They don’t teach you about that kind of stuff in history class like I wish they did.
Queso or guac?
Gotta have that quac. (It costs extra.) Girl, I know.
Tell us about your hustle:
I have worked at the shipyard in Newport News for about 6 ½ years now. I started as a Structure Welder and in a fairly short time, I worked my way up to an X-Ray Pipe Welder. Last year, I transitioned into a position as a Career Pathways Representative, where I go out into the community on behalf of the shipyard to work with students on career acquisition and readiness skills in the industry.
What does your typical workday look like?
Typically, there are two types of days. I coordinate all of the activities that we do with students, so half the time I am doing all of the logistical behind-the-scenes stuff like creating event agendas, emailing the school POCs, contacting volunteers, ordering food, writing articles for our publication, packing up supplies for upcoming events and other administrative tasks. The other half of the time, I am actually attending the events and working hands-on with kids ranging from preschoolers to high school seniors. I get to have a lot of fun talking with them about their experiences, giving advice, and introducing them to new things.
When did you become interested in industries like shipbuilding, welding + manufacturing?
When I graduated college, I had a Bachelor’s Degree in Art and no prospects, with no idea of what I wanted to do. I heard about The Apprentice School and found out that I could actually get paid to further my education while learning a trade. Even though I had already graduated college in 3 years with a 3.8 GPA, it took me a year to get accepted into The Apprentice School. Because of my background in Art, I thought welding sounded interesting, so that’s what I applied for. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I ended up loving it.
What draws you to your profession? Did you always know you would pursue a career in STEM?
I never dreamed that I would be working in manufacturing. I mostly wanted to be an actress or an artist. I graduated college right around the time the economy was taking a nose dive. You couldn’t get hired without experience, and you couldn’t get experience if you couldn’t get hired. When I entered The Apprentice School, they trained me on how to weld, and I turned out to be really good at it. It was definitely not the path I thought I would take. For the first five years I worked at the shipyard, I didn’t even know a job like the one I have now existed. Now, I get to take my experiences and share with younger girls that they can be welders too. They can be engineers, electricians, foremen, and all the other jobs that were previously only thought of as "for the boys." It's truly rewarding, and I think it helps them to see me as an example of what women are capable of these days.
What is your work environment like?
When I worked as a welder, the environment was tough. I wore coveralls, steel toed boots and a hard hat every single day. I crawled around on metal, climbed tall ladders and carried around a heavy tool bag. I worked outside, so the summer days were sweaty, and the winter days were freezing. It kept me in great shape though, and it was always an interesting new environment every day. Now I get to work in an air conditioned office, at a desk with a computer, and wear fancy girly clothes and makeup. It’s completely different.
How do you manage all of your responsibilities?
LISTS. I make a ton of lists and cross things off as I go. If I didn’t, things would surely fall through the cracks.
Did you receive any negativity/flack for pursuing your current career?
Yes. There was definitely some jealousy from people around me, but luckily I also had such a huge showing of support, so I didn’t let any of the haters get to me.
What is the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
I believe that in the manufacturing industry, women make up only 27% of the workforce. I believe that at the shipyard it is even less, somewhere between 16-20%. And the year I graduated at The Apprentice School, it was only around 14%. My industry has a long way to go, but I do see it evolving. There is a real focus on getting women more interested in pursuing manufacturing jobs, and I have seen the industry change for the better in just the brief time I have been a part of it.
How would you say being a woman has affected your professional experience?
Being a woman has had a major effect on my career. Things are very different for a female in a male-dominated industry. Sometimes things work in your favor, sometimes they don’t. I learned very quickly that I had to put my foot down because people would simply do things for me if I let them, and that is not what I wanted. I wanted to earn my accomplishments fully. To be honest, I felt like I had to work twice as hard to be taken seriously, only for many people to turn around and assume I was handed things, but it only made me stronger and better at my job.
What do you feel your industry needs to do in order to encourage more women to pursue STEM careers?
I believe the industry needs more female role models. If girls don’t have examples to look up to, they won't think they have the option of going into certain professions. A major milestone that just recently happened at Newport News Shipbuilding is that they just named their very first female President, Jennifer Boykin. It is such a huge accomplishment for all women and it definitely gives girls someone wonderful to look up to.
How does your work with Girls with Engineering Minds in Shipbuilding (GEMS) motivate you?
The GEMS program is actually one of the things that really got me started in Career Pathways. I began as a volunteer before I was hired as a welder. Being a mentor and example to middle school girls is so fulfilling for me, and they also inspire me so much in return. These girls are so smart and funny, and I am excited to see them grow and explore the STEM field.
What are some common misconceptions about your job(s)?
That it's easy. I think people see me having a lot of fun (which is totally true) and they forget about all the work that goes into it. It's honestly very socially draining, and can be emotionally draining as well. You see these kids, and you just want to help them succeed, and some of them are struggling with things you cannot help them with. However, knowing that you can help them with something, and inspire them to be independent and successful, is very rewarding.
What is one of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work? How’d you overcome it?
A few years ago I got in serious trouble at work. I was trying to do the right thing, and maybe I didn’t go about it in the best way, but I pissed a lot of very powerful men off. I was punished pretty severely, and for a period of time it really hurt my career. I think people expected me to give up, to stop coming to work, or to stop performing to a high standard, but I just kept going. I didn't let others' opinions of me change my work ethic or my morals. It took a long time, but in the end I think I came out much better for it. The men who said such horrible things about me were proven wrong, and I think the people that saw me fall and get back up respected me much more for it.
What kind of support system do you have behind you and your work?
I have an amazing group of friends and family. My family has always been close and I know I can always turn to them for anything. I am also lucky enough to multiple close friends who have become like a second set of family members to me. We support each other no matter what.
What motivates and inspires you?
I think that success motivates me. I’ve always been super competitive when it comes to school and work, and I am always striving to be better than I am currently. I always feel good when I accomplish something that I set my mind to. Right now I am not sure exactly what I want to do, but I know I want to move up within my company and make a difference. In the meantime, however, I just want to be the best I can be at my current job, and I want to make a difference in the student's lives that I work with. That, to me, is success.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Simply never give up. There will undoubtedly be people who knock you down and want to see you fail. Do not let them influence your hustle. It's okay to fall down sometimes, but what is more important is how you get yourself back up, dust yourself off, and keep working hard.
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