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Kelli Gilliam: A Mom's Guide to Manufacturing

WHRO’s American Graduate: Getting to Work initiative promotes and celebrates local pathways to the many skilled careers that offer rewarding jobs in Hampton Roads. Historically, these careers are predominately occupied by men, however, these are great careers for women who are typically steered to retail and hospitality. Careers that can be unstable and often do not pay a wage that can support a family. We are fortunate, there are local champions that are role models for women in these careers. One woman we are particularly proud of is Kelli Gilliam.

Gilliam wears many hats — wife, mother, professional welder, beauty pageant competitor, and now, author. The North Carolina native is a mother of 5 and recently concluded 10 years of shipbuilding at the world’s largest shipbuilding yard, where she achieved numerous recognitions including being their Apprentice School's first female Welding Craft Instructor. In 2018, Gilliam was 1 of 30, to receive the national recognition of Emerging Leader STEP Ahead awardfrom the Manufacturing Institute in Washington D.C. In 2019, she also placed as 4th Runner Up at the Mrs. Virginia America pageant.

As someone with such a versatile skill set, you can imagine that Gilliam has several passions. One she is extremely committed to is exposing young students, especially girls, to the vast career opportunities that can be found in skilled careers like those within the manufacturing industry. Gilliam first entered this industry after fleeing an abusive relationship and becoming homeless for a time with two small children. It was welding that gave her the opportunity to build a career and become financially stable. As she gained experience, she rose from welding trainee to pipe welder to foreman and eventually to instructor—all within a trade that she found she absolutely loved.

Gilliam said that as she spent time at her children’s school during career days, she learned that students are rarely exposed to these in-demand, skilled trades. That’s when she determined to help others become aware of the many opportunities within manufacturing. She started within her own home, teaching her then 8-year-old daughter how to weld. That experience inspired her to write a children’s book in which the main character “Willow” becomes curious about her mother’s occupation.

Willow Discovers is a series in which a curious young girl gets to experience the many facets of manufacturing,” Gilliam explained. “The true story of my daughter, Laila, being curious about my work was the inspiration to create a way for young children to go on adventures with Willow exploring how things are made and how they work, as well as, learning to read. As a female first in the welding industry, I believe this series can be a place for children to create, innovate, and explore manufacturing industries.” The first book in the series, Willow Discovers Welding, was published last month.

How's That For A Costume Change?

Follow Kelli’s journey at her website.

About American Graduate

American Graduate is a collaboration between WHRO Public Media and area businesses, educational institutions and community service organizations to help students, parents, educators and counselors help young people, adults and veterans re-entering the workforce to find pathways to career success in high-demand jobs that do not require four-year degrees.

A specific demographic that would benefit the most from steady employment in these high demand jobs is women. Historically, jobs available for women without training or secondary education, such as retail, childcare, and hospitality, do not provide a sustainable wage. And traditionally, young girls are not exposed to these skilled careers as options. Having women role models in these careers can be great opportunities to create awareness and interest around these career paths. They can also help to dispel many of the negative perceptions of them and highlight them as jobs women can excel at. Though we hear about women facing challenges in male dominated industries, one way to help address that is to have more women in these industries.

Through the American Graduate initiative, we’ve shared the stories of several people working in these industries, both men and women. Watch their stories at amgrad.whro.org/videos/.