Like a steel magnolia, Karen Hackney is a study in contrasts.
A welding lab technician/instructor at Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), Hackney is strong, possessing the fortitude necessary to enter a field that is typically a man’s domain. She is feminine yet able to turn carbon steel to liquid with a steady hand and a fiery torch.
Her path to the SVHEC is a long and storied one.
“My father was a welder in New York during World War II, welding fighter planes, so you could say it is in my blood,” she said.
“I remember as a young girl, instead of playing with dolls and toys I would take apart my father’s electronics, piece by piece, and put them back together again. Almost like homework,” she said. “I had a curiosity about how things worked. I guess I was always mechanically inclined.”
Hackney entered the workforce in 1973, going to work for textile manufacturer J. P. Stevens in South Boston, working there for 25 years. As the closing of the plant became imminent, Hackney decided to start her own business designing and making window treatments, bedspreads, shams and bed skirts.
Sewing these soft, intricately stitched items would seem to be in stark contrast to her affinity for all things metal, but Hackney thinks these two fabricating occupations may not be so different.
“To me, welding is a lot like sewing, it’s just that you’re doing it with fire,” she said. “Instead of scissors to cut cloth, you use a torch to cut metal. Just like you’d measure cloth for a pattern, you measure the metal.”
And both trades require precision and a keen eye.
After a few years in the sewing business, Hackney changed direction once again and started the journey that would eventually lead her to the SVHEC. In 1999, a job opening presented itself as a laborer at Virginia Power in Clover, now Dominion Energy, and not being afraid of hard work, she applied.
“I started off as a laborer, and very shortly got in as a mechanic,” she said. “I completed a five-year mechanic program and was working as a journey mechanic when we were offered an opportunity to take the welding course. I jumped at the chance and went through the three-year welding program with Dominion, so I’ve actually had eight years of schooling in the trade.” Hackney is now a Class A Certified Welder and is trained in welding all types of metals.
“I was in what is usually a man’s environment, and some of the guys weren’t real happy about me being there,” she said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 there were 633,000 welders employed, with 5.4 percent of those being women.
“My instructor, Karl Bentley, encouraged me, telling me that women pick welding up quickly, that they have more patience,” Hackney said. “And he said that women tend to do things differently than the men. He would watch me work and once even told me that I had exceeded the instructor.”
In 2013 while still employed with Dominion, Hackney was injured in an automobile accident. She decided to take an early retirement and spend time with her grandchildren. But retirement was not in the cards for the hard-working welder, as another opportunity presented itself, this time as a welding lab tech/instructor for the SVHEC.
She took the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) exam in December 2018 and started with SVHEC in April 2019.
Hackney is earnest in her desire to pass along to others what she has learned in the trade. “I’ve got this inside of me that I want to share,” she said, placing her hands over her heart for emphasis. “And I want to teach it to someone else. You need to have the desire to work in this field, and if your mind is set to learn it, you can pick it up. If the students get frustrated, I tell them not to resist it, it will come to them.”
Anyone interested in a hands-on career in a growing field is encouraged to consider Welding@SVHEC, a short-term, accredited training program providing students with instruction in MIG, TIG, stick and pipe welding.