BOLD opens doors for new skills and a second career for Birmingham woman

Birmingham, Ala. — Spurred mostly by the wishes of others, Sharon Davis studied nursing and worked in the field for 17 years. Then, she cared at home for her bedridden sister who suffered with heart issues and end-stage kidney disease.

When her sister died, Ms. Davis knew she wanted a fresh start, but she didn’t know where or how to begin. She had no pension. She had no Plan B. Then she saw a Facebook post offering an opportunity for people to join the BOLD Women in Welding program at Jefferson State Community College.

Ms. Davis was, to say the least, intrigued.

“I had been wanting to go to school,” she said. “And I’m a crafty person. I like doing things with my hands. I immediately saw the arts side of welding as opposed to the industrial side.”

She made a call and learned that she wasn’t the only woman who had been drawn to the opportunity. All the initial slots were taken. But her disappointment was short-lived — just days later, Ms. Davis received word that someone had backed out and left a spot open for her.

Ms. Davis and six other women completed the 16-week course under a program funded by the city of Birmingham and its BOLD initiative.

BOLD — short for Building Opportunities for Lasting Development — was created by the city’s Office of Innovation and Economic Opportunity to promote a wide range of economic opportunity for Birmingham businesses and residents. The city has distributed $2.5 million in BOLD funds over three years, using a competitive process that favors organizations that work together and achieve real results.

Jefferson State’s Women in Welding program was among the first to receive the BOLD funds, and the goal went beyond just providing students with new technical skills.

“In addition to the welding training, the BOLD program took a holistic approach in supporting the women,” said Christine McLain, a career/success coach for Jefferson State’s Center for Workforce Education. “The program provided wrap-around support services through a career/success coach with collaboration from community agencies that offer child care and other supportive services.”

The program offered students encouragement and tangible support to overcome barriers that might stand in their way. The students also encouraged and supported each other. “Many times, it was this camaraderie that kept them in the class,” Ms. McLain said.

Ms. Davis acknowledged the reinforcement from Jefferson State and her classmates made a difference.

“I wasn’t afraid, per se, but it was new territory: I had never welded before in my life,” said Ms. Davis, who lives in Birmingham’s Green Acres neighborhood. “I knew there were people out there to support me.”

The welding program ran from January to May in 2019, and in addition to welding skills, it offered training in job readiness and life skills, as well as basic English and math. Most participants were single moms and/or going through a life transition, like Ms. Davis.

When Ms. Davis finished the fast-track BOLD welding program, she liked it enough to enroll in the school’s regular welding program. She will soon have an associate degree, and she has already put her newfound skills to work.

For a time, she worked as a welder in an industrial setting, but the long hours — 12-hour days, seven days a week — proved a bit much for a woman approaching 60 with two teenage children at home.

Instead, she has found that her skills allow her to be her own boss. Clients hire her to weld air conditioning cages, wrought iron furniture and other items. Plus, the welding program opened the door for other construction-related jobs, such as painting vacant units for a rental company.

Ms. Davis grew up in public housing in Bessemer as part of a largely blue-collar family. She had a limited vision about the possibilities open to her. Nursing was a clear pathway for women. Welding was not on the list of options — until the BOLD program and Jefferson State blazed a new path for Ms. Davis.

It is not the life envisioned by Ms. Davis’ mother, who pushed hard for her daughter to become a nurse. But it’s a new direction that offers Ms. Davis personal satisfaction and a way to provide for her family.

“I’m really grateful for the opportunity,” Ms. Davis said. “It’s not your typical female job, but it’s a fine opportunity, and I’m hoping that other women will go into the field.”

It is not the life envisioned by Ms. Davis’ mother, who pushed hard for her daughter to become a nurse. But it’s a new direction that offers Ms. Davis personal satisfaction and a way to provide for her family.

“I’m really grateful for the opportunity,” Ms. Davis said. “It’s not your typical female job, but it’s a fine opportunity, and I’m hoping that other women will go into the field.”