Female Fusion: First Cut’s ‘First Women’ of welding

Although traditionally a male-dominated profession, welding is increasingly becoming the domain of women, who are widely acknowledged for their skilled abilities in this field. From mining to maritime, fabrication and beyond, women are making headway in every aspect of the industry.

First Cut, a leading South African provider of cutting, welding and grinding consumables and equipment, recently employed Thabelo ‘Thabi’ Rabedzwana, an experienced female welding specialist, to join the company’s new welding division.  Rabedzwana is the company’s first female welder and safety trainer. She has also recently been joined by Zelda Vorster, the welding division’s regional manager in Mpumalanga and their other ‘woman in welding’.

Climbing the welding career ladder

Rabedzwana joined the First Cut team as a Risk and Training Officer, and has proudly embraced the challenges thereof. With over 20 years of welding experience, she has highly sought-after welding industry knowledge and competence behind her. Not only is she a welder of many years’ experience; but she is also one of the only female advanced welding trainers and safety inspectors in the country.

Like many of her peers in the South African welding industry, Rabedzwana knew nothing about welding when she started her career. As a school leaver, her impressive technical skills secured an administrative position in a large local industrial company. After working her way through the ranks, she finally landed her dream position as a safety support specialist and trainer in the welding division of the same company, and has never looked back.

“I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my previous employer, who really believed in me! He realised that a woman is capable of bringing great skill to the welding space,” she adds.

Welded to safety

2015 saw Rabedzwana take her skills to yet another level when – after seeing a gap in the market for welding safety training – she boldly took the step to start her own company as a welding safety advisor and trainer. 

“I could see that welders and boiler makers were not aware of the many hidden potential dangers in the welding process,” explains Rabedzwana. “This motivated me to set up my welding safety training business to do educate welders accordingly.”

 Advocating change  

In early 2021 when First Cut approached Rabedzwana to join their newly-established welding division, she saw it as another great opportunity to share her wealth of skills. For First Cut, breaking with convention and employing a woman welding trainer was an easy decision:  “I truly believe in an approach of ‘the right horse for the right course’, and Thabi is one of the best at what she does,” says Wayne Labuschagne, New Business Development Manager in the welding division at First Cut.  

“She can effectively communicate with everyone she meets – from welding engineers to operators on the factory floor – and this earns her the respect of all with whom she engages,” he adds. 

First Cut has always advocated the upskilling and development of all their staff, and so gender was not something which defined the company’s requirements for the position. “The fact that we have a woman of Thabi’s career track record and skills set speaks to the fact that it is possible to break with convention as an individual and as a company. Thabi is an integral and invaluable part of the First Cut team,” Labuschagne points out.

During the course of her career, Rabedzwana has overcome great challenges, and stands firm in the belief that women must not be intimidated by the old-fashioned notion that welding is only a career for men: “Women often overlook the opportunities which present themselves in this industry, because they are ‘programmed’ into believing that it is too tough for them to play a useful role in it,” she observes. 

Regulating the industry

According to Rabedzwana, although the number of female welders is increasing, overall South Africa has yet to see a real groundswell in this regard – particularly in smaller companies. 

“This can be attributed to a lack of knowledge about welding as an industry for women. Saying that, government has recently passed legislation which enables women to opt for welding as a career, which has made a significant difference to public awareness,” she explains. 

Rabedzwana believes this is where the role of mentoring can play a significant part in encouraging women – or men – to develop their skills in the welding sector. Having mentored  women throughout her career, she feels strongly about the positive role which this can play. 

A ‘welded’ mind set

“Welding is all about having the correct mind set,” she maintains. “It is not about how long you have worked in the industry – but rather what skills you can bring and how keen you are to improve them. As a trainer, I too need to be open to learning and I am mindful of this.”  

Rabedzwana remarks that students are often shocked when they realise that a woman will be their facilitator and assessor. “However this perception quickly changes when they realise I know a lot about welding and can teach them a lot!”

Customers appreciate her training and interaction with their welders; and the fact that she can speak several African languages – a very powerful training aid and differentiator.  

An evolving work place

Fortunately for women, welding as an industry is evolving, and automation has also changed the game with user-friendly technology. 

There is also a demand for additional skills sets which First Cut has recognised with the employment of Rabedzwana and Vorster, to offer to their customers. These include equipment inspection, welder supervision or the writing of welding procedures and methods. 

These are all alternative options that do not require physical strength, but are essential components in any company which does welding.  

Safety driving welding sales

With over a decade of successful financial and sales management within the welding sector behind her, First Cut’s Regional Sales Manager for Mpumalanga Zelda Vorster – in common with her colleague Thabelo Rabedzwana – is also driven by a passion for safety.

“In the welding sector, consistency and safety are key: all equipment must comply with prescribed industry safety standards. Welders need to follow prescribed procedures and align with the standard required – which for welding in South Africa is SANS 10238. Operators also need to use equipment that is in good working condition and not damaged,” Vorster explains. 

“However, over the years, I have seen that this is often not the case. Welders frequently weld with damaged or incorrect equipment; or ‘cut corners’, not bothering with safety items such as flashback arrestors. When queried, they maintain that they have always worked this way, and nothing has happened! This is what motivates me to educate customers about the potential risks of poorly-maintained or incorrectly-used equipment – and what we can provide to improve their overall welding safety – not to mention their productivity,” Vorster enthuses.

She adds that First Cut’s welding division is perfectly positioned, with an optimal mix of welding expertise and industry knowledge – as well as cutting-edge equipment and consumables from international suppliers such as Messer – to play a pivotal role in the sector. 

“Mpumalanga as a region includes mines, power stations and many of the fabrication shops which service their welding requirements. We see customers struggling to get their welding equipment certified and their equipment regularly tested, in the face of their tough daily operational demands. We are able to assist with all of this and solve their problems – drawing on our many years of experience and understanding of welding challenges. 

Furthermore, I have many strong customer relationships built over the past decade and have really proven to them that a woman can excel in welding sales,” she comments.

Speaking to her convictions that women are well-suited in this industry, Vorster is very positive: “Research shows that women can bring different skills to the welding sector:  their welding technique tends to be more focused and steady. They comply with the rules, and work with precision, patience, consistency and attention to detail – ensuring they are well-suited to welding.”

Women who love welding

 “For me, welding offers so much! I get to do a lot of travelling, interacting with many different sectors, businesses and people and making valuable connections. I find the welding industry so rewarding,” Rabedzwana enthuses.  

Vorster agrees: “It takes a particular type of woman to make a success in the welding sector…To see a great weld or a machine and say ‘that’s beautiful!’ But I do, and I thoroughly enjoy helping customer’s address their welding challenges – and ensuring we improve their safety while we do so!”

“We are very proud of Thabi and Zelda, and look forward to having more ‘female fusion’ in First Cut’s welding division team! We need more strong, independent, skilled women to lead the way and take the welding industry in South Africa to the next level,” concludes Labuschagne.