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Welding Inspector Holley Thomas Receives ABC’s Top Honor for Craft Professionals

“A lot of people ask me, ‘what opportunities are available in the construction industry for females?’

“My response is short and to the point. It is: ‘What opportunities are available in the construction industry for males?’ It’s the same. Any opportunity that’s there for males is the same opportunity that’s there for females. It’s not about gender. It’s about how successful you want to be in your life and in your career. It’s about setting a goal for yourself, no matter what that is.”

Holley Thomas, a certified welding inspector and instructor for Houston-based KBR, was named Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) third-ever female Craft Professional of the Year at the association’s annual Workforce Conference, March 3 6 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. ABC presents the award each year to a construction craft professional who excels in his or her field while also demonstrating a commitment to safety, training and the merit shop philosophy.

Thomas is a shining example of succeeding on one’s merits—and never letting factors like gender or youth get in the way of success. She inspires her fellow craft professionals in the field and in the industry at large through her can-do attitude and dedication to mentorship, not to mention her careful eye for detail in a highly competitive environment.

“I’ve pushed myself to learn every day,” she says. “In everything I do, I’ve not only pushed myself, but I’ve also pushed other people to show them that they can progress in this industry.”

Thomas began her career with KBR more than five years ago as a welder-helper and rose quickly to the role of piping general foreman. Most recently, she became an American Welding Society Certified Welding Inspector and was promoted to become an inspector and QA/QC leader on a major gas processing plant expansion in Enid, Okla.

She has competed in ABC’s National Craft Championships (NCC) twice, becoming the first woman to win the gold medal in the structural welding competition in 2010. On the jobsite, Thomas’s crews consistently achieve superior productivity rates and maintain a zero accident and zero injury record.

Welding: Finding a Career Fit
Like many people who flourish in the industry, Thomas never planned to be a part of it—at least not when she was a teenager. But choosing a career in construction wound up being the best decision she ever made.

“When I was 18, I had no direction. My parents said I should go to a four-year school, so I enrolled at Mississippi State,” she says. Like many teenagers first leaving home, she had too much fun away at school, didn’t focus on her studies and received poor grades. “I went home to very unhappy parents,” she jokes.

Then, after a few years back in her home town of Alexander City, Ala., Thomas suffered a heart attack at age 21, requiring her to undergo double bypass heart surgery. “After I healed, I had to do some soul searching, and so I enrolled in community college in a robotics program,” she says.

One of her required courses was a welding class—one that she’d put off until her last year in school. “On my first day, I wore shorts and flip flops. I wasn’t prepared at all,” she says. “But once I started it, I loved it.”

Thomas decided to switch directions and stay in school for another two years to earn her welding certificate. “In doing that, it really opened up a huge door for me in my career. I found something that I enjoy doing, so it didn’t seem so much like work.”

Mentorship on the Job
Today, Thomas holds a high-pressure position in which she is often the final manager to inspect and sign off on welds that affect the long-term strength and safety of multi-million-dollar projects for top industrial construction owners.

In her role, she often oversees work performed by craft professionals who’ve been in the industry 20 or more years longer than she has. However, Thomas refuses to let fear or intimidation play a factor in her job.

“Everything I do is about respect. I don’t go into anything boastful,” she says. “One time, I had to test a welder who was 40 years older than I am. But I thought, I can learn something from him, and I told him that.”

In addition to her full-time responsibilities, Thomas teaches structural welding and pipe welding classes after work for two hours, four days a week, for KBR employees.

“I’m a mentor to those guys and gals that come into these classes unpaid, on their own time, as a way to move up in their careers. As they progress on the jobsite, I’ve had a few of them come up to me after they’ve become certified welders, and they will ask me for help or to look at welds. I’m lucky enough to be in the position I’m in, where I can break free for a couple minutes on the jobsite to work with my colleagues,” she says.

Industry Role Model
Thomas is committed to mentorship off the jobsite as well. She helps fill the industry’s massive skills gap by getting involved with programs intended to change the mindset of the parents, teachers and counselors who guide young people—particularly women—in their early career choices.

“We’ve got to hit the kids at a young age. When you think about it, kids are always doing something with their hands. So, by doing a simulation for them and letting a kid try building something in a safe environment, we can get them engaged,” she says.

Every summer, Thomas participates in the KBR-co-sponsored Summer Welding and Technology (SWEETY) Camp in Priceville, Ala., and volunteers at the Bechtel-co-sponsored MAGIC (Mentoring a Girl in Construction) Camp in Houston, where girls are exposed to a variety of crafts.

“I hang out with them throughout the day, and then I tell the story of how I got to where I am today. Every time I go to SWEETY Camp or MAGIC Camp, I give my cell phone number out. I tell the girls, if you decide to go down this path down the road, just call me or text me for advice,” Thomas says. “We can’t be successful in our industry without being a positive light through these personal mentorships.”

Top Accolades
Thomas also served as a volunteer judge for the recent structural welding competition at the NCC (read 'Passion & Pride' article here).
“It felt great coming back as a judge for welding because I’ve been in [the competitors’] shoes. I know the 10 different emotions they’re having as they’re walking onto the show floor for the first time, and I know the pressure they’re feeling throughout the day. All of the competitors worked hard, and they should be proud of themselves,” she says.

The NCC competitors were honored in a final ceremony in Fort Lauderdale—the same ceremony where Thomas’ name was announced as Craft Professional of the Year.
“I didn’t even hear them say my last name. When the loudspeaker said, ‘and the Craft Professional of the Year award goes to…’ all I heard was ‘Holley.’ It was so overwhelming and exciting at the same time,” she says.

Thomas received a brand new 2015 Chrysler truck from the award’s exclusive sponsor Tradesmen International. The truck included custom upgrades donated by ABC business partner Ram CommercialBosch Tools and Ram Commercial provided additional prizes for the winner and finalists.

“In life, we all strive for recognition for our efforts throughout different stages in our careers. I looked for validation from my peers when I was a welder. Then, I wanted recognition from my bosses and superintendents when I was a foreman. Once I was upgraded to a QA/QC leader and teacher, I was seeking validation for my hard work from ABC and the best merit shop craft competitors, which is what I got when I won gold in the NCC welding competition. The only thing left was getting recognition from the industry as a whole—and that’s what the 2015 Craft Professional of the Year award means to me,” she says.

Top of the Class
The three other nominees for the 2015 Craft Professional of the Year Award were:
  • Bernard Balz, company foreman, Messer Construction Company, Cincinnati
“Safety performance is the most important skill of a leader, and Bernie is always looking out for his crew and everyone else involved in the project. He has always delivered his projects on time, with superior quality and within the resources he has available. Bernie does an outstanding job in letting others grow into their potential by allowing them to experience success and work through challenges.” —Kimberly Garn, Cincinnati craft manager, Messer Construction Company
  • Brad Dutton, foreman, Price Electric, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
“With his self-disciplined personality, hard work ethic, compassion for customers and employees, knowledge of his craft and attention to quality and detail, Brad has always been an employee that I knew I could count on and trust with any project. He is one of the most dedicated and motivated employees that an employer could hope to have.” —Jason Miller, residential division manager, Price Electric
  • Matthew Kohles, jobsite supervisor, Signature Electric, LLC, Omaha, Neb.
“A proactive and tactful manner has enhanced Matt’s reputation as a great partner of others working on any project. When instructing apprentices, he provides the necessary direction, instructions and demonstration. He has good judgement on when to stay close and when to let them work independently. Matt is humble, but very effective.” —Lori Buchanan, principal and partner, Signature Electric, LLC
For more information about nominating someone for ABC’s 2016 Craft Professional of the Year award, visit www.abc.org.

Lauren Pinch is managing editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email pinch@abc.org, visit www.constructionexec.com or follow @ConstructionMag.


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