Archived Story

Holley Thomas

Published 7:18pm Friday, April 1, 2011

Holley Thomas with her welding gear.

Central Alabama Community College-trained welder recognized as one of the best in the nation

In February of 2010 in San Diego, Calif., during the Associated Builders and Contractors’ annual National Craft Championships, a curious thing happened – for the first time in the competition’s 60-year history a woman walked away with a national title.

Holley Thomas not only put herself on the map with the feat, she also put Alexander City, Ala., and the technical program at Central Alabama Community College, which is under the direction of one of its instructors, Michael Mann, in a national spotlight.

The craft skills showdown covers the role of virtually every type of skilled labor found on a residential or commercial construction site. Carpenters, electricians, pipe-fitters and welders, to name a few, descended upon the convention center in Southern California for the challenge and honor to prove, over the course of three days, that their work and knowledge was better than the rest in their field.

“There are two portions to the welding competition – structural and pipe,” said Holley. “I entered the structural welding (category) and won. Part of the competition was hands-on, part was a written test. I trained for the competition for several months before I went.

“I was very confident … I had trained hard and I knew I had worked hard. I knew if I gave it my all – 100 percent – that whatever the outcome I would be happy with myself.”

That outcome was witnessed by Holley’s mother, Betty, her father, Glenn, and a friend, Shelby McIntire.

Holley’s road to a national NCC title began a few years after she graduated from Benjamin Russell High School, where she was a varsity athlete who lettered in softball and volleyball. Although she was born in Amory, Miss in 1985, Holley and her family, which includes older sisters Loretta Thomas and Lynn Easterwood, have called Alexander City home since she was 2 years old.

“I took a couple of years off and worked,” she said. “I went to Mississippi State for a year and I came back. I just worked and stayed out of school a little while because I didn’t know what to do.”

A conversation with her father about the CACC robotics program piqued Holley’s interest. She immersed herself and took flight when she got to the meat of the curriculum – the technical aspect of her automotive manufacturing major under the tutelage of Mann. That portion of her studies included classes on hydraulics, pneumatics, sensors, robotics, AC/DC electronics and programmable logic controllers (PLCs).

“It was a very hands-on program,” said Holley, a CACC student from spring 2007 until spring 2009. “I’ve always been the kind of person who liked to get their hands dirty. Since my teens I’ve always wanted to know how things work. I think I got a lot of that from my father.”

Holley’s interest in welding sparked when, with a few courses remaining to complete her associate study, she had to take a required stick welding class. Even though many factories employ the services of mechanized welders, the course is meant to acclimate the students to welding and able them to identify quality work from a shoddy, imperfect effort. Holley finished out her automotive manufacturing degree and returned with the intention of getting an associate’s in welding.

In May of 2009 Holley earned her short-term certificate which allowed her to go to work. The next month, with the help of CACC welding instructor Danny James, she landed a job with the international conglomerate KBR, the company that sponsored Holley in the NCC competition.

The majority of her time as a KBR welder has been spent in Louisiana, with the remainder of her time spent in Florida. During a trip back home between assignments, Holley found out through James that she was only four classes shy of earning a full welding degree – as opposed to the short-term certificate – which would make her eligible to be an instructor. Holley plans on finishing when and if all of the classes can be taken during one term, possibly this summer. One of her ultimate aspirations is to then collect three years of field experience so she can sit for the welding inspector exam.

In training for the NCC, Holley spent months of her own time practicing and preparing. On top of her 50-hour work schedule over five days per week, she spent another eight hours working on the written and hands-on aspect of the competition. Some nervousness, however, did set in once Holley got to her hotel in San Diego and met other competitors and people from various organizations in the lobby.

On the third day of the skills tournament when the winners were announced, whether it was butterflies from the first day or the response from the audience, it took Holley a moment or two to process that she had won even though she could see the next category on the teleprompter from her position on the stage.

“I didn’t even hear my last name called,” she said. “I heard my first name – that was it.”

For her accomplishment, Holley received a Miller wire welding machine, some Hilti power tools, a couple of Klein hand tools and a cash prize. The significance of her accomplishment was not lost on those in attendance and it was soon impressed upon her.

“There were a lot of people who came up in the moments after the ceremony saying, ‘Congratulations, you’re the first woman to win this in 60 years,’” said Holley. “When I got back to the job site in Louisiana I was welcomed back.”

In the male-dominated industry that Holley finds herself in, the experience, she says, has been nothing but positive. On the KBR job sites Holley said she has encountered only supportive and helpful co-workers. Her favorite things about her work have included traveling and numerous chances to meet new people. She does have an eye on what may lie down the road, though.

“My ultimate passion is about teaching and training,” Holley said. “One day, in the future, I would like to be an instructor. One other passion I have is the recruitment of minorities in nontraditional roles – especially females in technical careers.”