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Humans of Manufacturing

Career as a Machinist is Challenging, Rewarding for Mother of Three

Fran Barker Can Now Spend Quality Time with Her Family while Embarking on a Lucrative, Rewarding Career at Specials Metals Co.


Fran Barker was not satisfied with her job in customer service in the restaurant industry. She had erratic hours and a nonguaranteed pay structure, and her husband had recently become disabled with complications from diabetes. Because of night hours, she felt she had missed out on raising her three teenage boys. It was time for a career change.

When the West Virginia Women Work (WVWW) Pre-Apprenticeship Program popped up on an employment search website, Barker thought, “I need this. I can do this!” At age 37, she applied for the program and was accepted.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty with my husband’s condition right now,” she explained. “I didn’t have a set schedule where I worked before. And with a manufacturing job, I knew I could get more time with my kids.”

The program included flexible online workforce education from Tooling U-SME and hands-on lab work at the Robert C. Byrd Institute machine shop. “It was really hard juggling my husband’s needs and my three boys,” Barker said. “Having the flexibility to work on my Tooling U-SME online classes at home helped a lot.”

“The favorite part of my job is learning new things. And being a woman who is able to operate one of the large grinders!”
Fran Barker

Fully committed to the manufacturing pre-apprenticeship program, Barker focused on CNC machining, but also learned blueprint reading, manual lathe and millwork, and how to make parts. Her favorite class project was building a nut and a bolt, including the threading. During a class competition, she learned the value of teamwork and was determined to meet her goals. “The classes gave me the confidence to work a very physical job,” she said.

Barker had fallen in love with manufacturing and couldn’t wait to get a job. Near the end of the program, Barker applied to a local manufacturer, Huntington, W.Va.-based Special Metals Co., located on a 130-acre campus for the development, production and sales of high-nickel alloys for critical engineering. She would need to take an exam at Special Metals, so she immediately went to her Tooling U-SME classes and previewed everything she would need for the exam, which she aced.

It wasn’t long before Barker was fully employed, making close to $16 per hour with additional overtime, full health benefits, a 401k, life insurance, vacation pay, and annual free equipment for her position.

“The favorite part of my job is learning new things,” she said. “And being a woman who is able to operate one of the large grinders!”

The men she works with are interested in what she can do, such as change the wheel on the huge grinder she works on. “If I ask them for help, they’ll help me, but they just want to see how much I can do on my own,” she explained.

Two departments are already vying for her to work with them. She’s put in a bid to operate “Big Red”—a forklift truck three times larger than a regular forklift—which would get her on the day shift. “The more I learn in the different areas of the facility, the more job security I have,” Barker said.

She added, “One year ago, I never thought I could do any of this. I learned that if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish it. One foot in front of the other—don’t be intimidated. Give yourself a pep talk.”

Barker recommends the WVWW program to all her previous restaurant associates, telling them, “If you want a serious career change, try this! It is challenging and equally rewarding.”

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