I grew up seeing people helping us. I want to be a voice to those who don’t feel like they can say anything. That’s my goal.
Life wasn’t easy for Tra’Shunda McNair. Raised in rural Alabama, the oldest of eight children born to a teen mother, she found herself often caring for her siblings—sometimes living in a car. But she was also a hard worker willing to put in the time and effort. She loved working with her hands, and she was curious about a career in the trades.
“I wanted to do something they said most women couldn’t. I like to challenge myself,” says McNair. “I wanted to do something that would make money and be different.”
Turns out she had the perfect connection to find that exact career path: Her godfather is a relative-by-marriage to Boilermakers International Rep Erica Stewart, who was then president of Local 693 at Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. He reached out to Stewart, knowing that as a female welder she might have advice for McNair and guidance on getting in at the shipyard—the area’s largest employer.
“At the time, applications weren’t open,” recalls Stewart, who now also serves as the unions’ National Coordinator for Women’s Initiatives, M.O.R.E. Work Investment Fund.
“I talked to her about what it would take get a job at Ingalls, and I encouraged her to take classes so that when applications opened again, she would be ready. I gave her a little sister-to-sister information.”
McNair took Stewart’s advice and completed classes at Wallace Community College in Dothan, Alabama. Then, she began working anywhere she could find work, becoming a sort of “Jill of all trades.”
“I was working at metal roofing, building houses, building and fitting up beams and going all over,” McNair says. “I’d had a good teacher [at Wallace], and I went on the road with him. He’d call me because he knew I was a good welder, and I like to fix and build things.”
She even worked maintenance at a chicken processing plant.
And after five years, when applications opened at Ingalls, McNair was, indeed, ready. She credits Stewart.
“She gave me encouraging words and was such a good influence,” McNair says, adding that she joined Local 693 right away.
She hopes to pay that kindness forward.
“I had to have help,” she says. “Now I want to help other people who are coming up. I grew up seeing people helping us. I want to be a voice to those who don’t feel like they can say anything. That’s my goal.”
McNair aspires to eventually become a job steward so that she can be a support to her sisters and brothers on the job. She also hopes to inspire others who see what she’s achieved.
“Never let people tell you what you can’t do and can’t achieve as a woman,” she says. “If you put your mind to it, you can do it. My little brother wants to be a welder like me, and I say do it! It’s going to pay the bills, make you stronger, feed your family, and the benefits behind you are worth it.”
Plus, she finds the work rewarding, satisfying some of her wish to help others.
“I feel like me working at the shipyard is helping America. I go to work, and I build something good. I know the Navy is going to need it. I feel like I’m helping everyone. That’s what I get out of it. I’m helping America.”