Celebrating Women’s History Month: From Cosmetology to Machining

Guest Author: Laura Hood, CAO, CNC Software, Inc.

The following is a guest blog from CNC Software, Inc.’s Chief Administrative Officer, Laura Hood. Laura interviewed Anna Hill about her progression from high school student exploring options for technical education to becoming a machinist and CNC programmer at Joint Base Charleston Air Force Base. Anna is an example of how women can challenge expectations to find success in any field, including manufacturing.

Most of us remember that moment in high school when we were introduced to a trade school or vocational school opportunity. This type of education is perfect for students who want to begin building skills in a trade to help them prepare for careers post-high school. For Anna Hill, this introduction to trade school during high school was serendipitous. This moment, while unplanned and unexpected, was the launching point of a machining career that has her now running the Machine Shop at the Air Force Joint Base Charleston.

Anna always enjoyed craftsmanship as something she did with her father. She had helped him build the house that they lived in, and she was handy with vehicles as well. Her dad had a rule that all seven of his children (two boys and five girls) would not only be able to change oil, but would also understand how an engine worked before they were allowed to get their driver’s licenses.

Despite a passion for building and creating, Anna never considered it as a career option. The day she was introduced to trade school opportunities, she marched into the room for cosmetology and took a look around. She saw thirty to forty female students standing in the cosmetology room, waiting to learn the trade. Anna felt uninterested—there were too many people in the room, she wasn’t excited, and she wasn’t invested in the idea of cosmetology. So, she walked out.

The next option that popped into her head was automotive. It felt familiar. She knew about cars from working with her dad, so she made her way to the automotive room. Unfortunately, the automotive class was full. She glanced across the hall where the machine shop was located.

She didn’t know anything about machining, but there were only six students in that room. Anna was relieved, and also curious. What were these machines? Her dad hadn’t taught her about machining. Her interest was piqued, and she walked in and signed up.

Anna attended traditional high school classes for half days and spent the rest of the time learning machining. She says the first thing she learned about machining was that you would, “take chunks of metal and make stuff.” At home, she told her father that she had joined the machining class. Little did she know, her father was a machinist. She had never known that because he had never spoken about it. She knew that her dad would go to work, and come back home. She knew that her dad was skilled, but she hadn’t known he was a machinist.

This revelation made the choice to study machining feel “right,” and now Anna connected with her father on a new level. Her passion for craftsmanship transferred into a passion for working with metal. In class, she was first given a square block of metal with one band saw blade and a file. This taught hand tool control, and it showed Anna and her classmates how to move the tools and metal.

Her instructor was retired from the Charleston Naval Shipyard. Anna was the only female in the six-person machining class, and the instructor treated her exactly the same as the rest of the class. He made sure that each student had the skills they needed to get the job done.

I asked Anna how she felt about being the only woman in the trade school, and she said:

“I didn’t even think about it. I wanted to perform just as well as every other man there, and I was able to.”

Anna Hill, Machinist and CNC Programmer

One day, a school counselor approached Anna with a Student Hire Co-Op Program opportunity at the Joint Base Charleston Air Force Base. The position was a “Machinist helper,” which was an entry-level opportunity. Anna jumped at the chance and took the position. Here, Anna began to work with different instructors and was able to shadow experienced machinists.

Anna’s first trainer in the program was tough. He was a talented machinist, and he knew it. Anna said she would try something ten different ways before asking him any questions, because she didn’t want to deal with his comments. She and this trainer didn’t always see eye to eye, but looking back, she appreciates that he never treated her any differently than the male students.

Her next trainer paid careful attention to what Anna was doing and offered too much help. She could feel the extra attention, and it wasn’t warranted. One day she told him, “I’ve got this—I’ll come to you if I need help.” Anna and this trainer ended up becoming great friends in the end. She also ended up training him on how to program CNC machines. This was a full-circle moment because he taught her how to program manual machines.

After trade school, the Student Hire Co-Op Program, and summer machining jobs, Anna was getting ready to graduate and needed to find a full-time opportunity. She desperately wanted to be hired at the Air Force Base machine shop, but there were no openings that she was qualified for. So, Anna began interviewing at local machine shops. She completed two machine shop interviews for an apprenticeship at Bosch and was getting ready for her third when she was asked if she wanted a job in the survival equipment shop at the Air Force Base. This was not a machining job, but if she took the job then, she would stay “in the system” for the Air Force Base and be able to keep a close eye on the machine shop in case something opened up.

Anna took a leap of faith and accepted the position. In the survival shop, she worked on inspecting and packing parachutes, manufacturing upholstery for cockpits and fiberglass covers inside aircrafts. She stayed in that job waiting for something to open up in the machine shop. Finally, a spot opened up in the machine shop, and she was given one day to decide if she wanted the position. Of course, she said yes.

Even with Anna’s training and Student Hire Co-Op Program experience, her new job in the Air Force Base machine shop required on-the-job training. They didn’t have a CNC person in the shop, and in fact, they didn’t even have a computer. Everything was manual. She remembers getting their first CNC milling machine in about 1993, an Apollo Bridgeport, and thinking, “I’m not ready for a CNC yet, I’m still learning setup!”

The other machinists wanted her to use the CNC machine because she was the youngest and most familiar with computers. The older guys didn’t want to touch it, but Anna was always up for the challenge. She would go to the parts cabinet and grab a part and the drawings and start machining it. She would keep doing that until she found a part that she couldn’t figure out. When that happened, she would seek out the person who had made the part to help her understand how they created it, and then she would try again.

Anna was a problem solver, and everyone could see it. Because of her willingness to find answers and figure things out, when software systems became available, Anna was the one they would send to training. When a supervisor spot opened up at the shop, Anna was the lead CNC person. Her boss pushed her to take the opportunity, but she was hesitant. She thought, “Don’t you have someone with more experience? Should I really be supervising instead of working on the shop floor?” Her boss was reassuring and told her she would still be able to go to the floor occasionally, and she had already completely proven herself.

Anna earned respect in the shop. She understood machining and quickly became the go-to person there. Being a woman machinist never slowed Anna down.

“I never let them help me. I would seek out the heaviest toolbox and carry it myself. If a part was complicated, I would try, fail, ask questions, and try again.”

Anna Hill, Machinist and CNC Programmer

Still, Anna rarely sees women in the shop, and she’s not quite sure why. According to Anna, it’s not about being a “woman” machinist, it’s about being a machinist. With the right work ethic and drive, she knows that becoming a skilled machinist is completely possible.

Today, Anna is the Aircraft Metals Technology Supervisor at Joint Base Charleston Air Force Base. She’s been there for thirty-one years, and has used Mastercam for more than twenty years. Anna switched her shop to Mastercam because they found themselves using too many different software programs and none of them could handle 3D. They were looking at parts coming off of the C-17, and they needed something powerful that could handle contours and surfacing.

Anna reached out to Jimmy Wakeford, owner of Barefoot CNC, a Mastercam Reseller. Jimmy set up a training class for Anna’s shop. He came in and worked with the shop for a full week to get them trained and comfortable with Mastercam.

Anna recalls reaching out to Jimmy again when she had several planes down, waiting on a complicated hinge part that was going to take months to receive. She had her shop work on the part, and they figured it out, but it was still taking twenty-four hours per part. Jimmy came into the shop again to teach Anna’s team about dynamic high-speed machining, and they got the part down to eight hours. Anna and Jimmy have been in this business for a long time, and are not just fellow machinists, but also good friends. We’re honored to call them both part of the Mastercam community.