Saturday, December 16, 2017

Lorraine Francis

A real woman in a man's world


Lorraine Francis. Photos: Robert Taylor

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IF you want to know what sheer determination and hard work looks and sounds like, observe Loraine Francis in action.

It was curiosity that led us to Francis's doorstep on Ifill Lane, Arima in the first place. Word had spread about a female welder who could teach her male counterparts a lesson or two in the art of metal fabrication. So impressive is her body of work that many have expressed shock upon learning that the person who did the welding is a woman. Some men, we're told, have paid visits to Francis's workshop just to see it with their own eyes.

It was for the same reason and with just as much anticipation that Express Woman made the trip to finally meet the woman who is highly recommended by her clients. We're in luck - Loraine's truck is parked in the driveway and Loraine herself is in her shop, busy tacking a French style window that is 90 per cent complete. She does not hear my footsteps as I approach, so loud is the sound of grinders and machines all around us, the never-ending soundtrack of a welder's workshop. Everything about Loraine's appearance looks tough - from her green T-shirt stained black after a morning of tending to metal to the heavy boots on her feet. Underneath that exterior, however, is a charming woman with a disarming smile. Francis looks up and flashes me a grin before signalling for me to turn away while she finishes some tacking. From the corner of my eye I see the blinding white ultraviolet light. It will take her one week to finish seven of these window frames. She sees the surprise register on my face when I notice she's not wearing a protective mask.

"Bad habit, eh?" she asks as if reading my thoughts. "Not everybody does perform without the masks. Everyone has their own style. It's faster for me this way. This work is about speed and accuracy."

The 45-year-old mother of one has been welding for the past 25 years. It wasn't always the career path she desired.

"I never liked welding in the beginning," she says. "I just used to come and dabble in it, trying to make something for myself. Then I said, you know what, this is not a bad trade, let me learn to use it to my advantage."

In the early days, Loraine just hung around her brother's workshop. Back then she was kept on the sidelines and out of the way. No one had ever really heard of female welders before. But she was persistent and wanted to show her brother, Wayne, that women could weld just as well as any man. So she asked one of the workmen to teach her how to weld and she began seriously learning the trade behind her brother's back.

"One day, none of his workers showed up. I told him: tell me what you want me to do. When he came back he saw that I did everything, from cutting to welding to polishing. After that day I was officially hired."

Over the course of time, she began training other young men, including her nephews. "He know me welding since he was this small," Loraine says of her nephew Craig while placing her hand to her knee.

"You were one of my best recruits," says Wayne who has joined the conversation. "I'm scared to carry her anywhere. Everywhere we go and work, people just stand up and watch. She has learnt a lot and perfected the thing but she is still able to put a woman's touch to it."

What exactly is involved in a day's work? The process begins when Loraine cuts the iron to suit specifications. Everything is laid out on a nearby table where the measurements are checked over to make sure everything is accurate. Then the fabricating begins. Since heat reshapes the iron, Loraine must set it back. To do this she takes an iron hammer, places a plank of wood over the area of concern to avoid damage and she proceeds to 'straighten' the iron. Once that is completed, the iron is ground or polished before it is coated in an anti-corrosive paint. Some customers also request that she paint the completed product in a colour of their choice. Francis can complete two windows in one day.

Throughout the years, business has been good. Sticking with this trade has been a wise choice.

"This is how I was able to build my house and buy my truck," she says with a look of satisfaction on her face.

Weldling is her source of income and it's a job she takes very seriously.

"Sometimes they get angry with me," she says referring to the young men who have trained under her. "I let them know what's going on. If I see something I don't like I ask them: Will you give this to your mother? If not, then you can't give it to the customer. The customer musn't see all that you go through, they must just see it looking nice. I can't give you something that doesn't look good, then I would look bad. I'm a perfectionist. I don't play with my work. The day I start to under-perform then I know it's time to come out of the trade."

And as she's found out, hard work really pays off. She has never had to leave her workshop to find jobs. Most, if not all of her jobs come from referrals.

"You see this?" Loraine asks, pointing to the almost completed window at her feet. "Someone recommended me for this job."

As one would expect, there are dangers that come with the territory. One can suffer burns, get a nasty shock and the sparks that fly during the grinding process can get into one's eye, not to mention the obvious damage that can result from exposing one's eyes to the dangerous ultraviolet light.

After a long day, there is one thing that relaxes Loraine the most.

"I pray and ask God for patience then I take a sweat with my little nephew, we go and play basketball, that's one of the best ways to take my mind off of stresses," she says.

As we talk, Loraine doesn't miss a beat, while her nephew is busy grinding the first window, she is already getting started on the second. Her advice to anyone: love what you do.

"I always say you must love whatever you're doing. Find an area you like and just throw yourself into it. Don't short-change yourself or anybody. Give your best. Put God first and everything else will fall into place."

For anyone wishing to contact Loraine Francis, she can be reached at: 769-4119.

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