Holley's story: how an inherited love for hands-on work lead to a rewarding but unexpected career

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Shadowing dad from the start

“As a little girl, I followed in my dad’s footsteps—literally,” says Holley Thomas.

“Carpentry has always been his hobby, and he had a workshop in every house we lived in.”

“I followed him around, watched him build things out of wood, and asked a lot of questions along the way.”

It’s an approach that has served Holley very well later in life.

Going to college like dad, too

When it came time to apply to college, Holley says she again followed in her father’s footsteps.

“I enrolled at Mississippi State—just like he had decades earlier.”

“But I learned very quickly that college wasn’t for me.”

After her freshman year, Holley left Mississippi State and moved back home to live with her parents.

“At that point, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in terms of a career,” Holley says, “but I was sure that a traditional four-year degree wasn’t the right path.”

Finding her own way

After a few months of soul-searching back home, Holley says she had a conversation with her dad about her future.

“He told me about a robotics program he’d heard of at the local community college,” Holley says.

“I’d always liked working with my hands, and always trusted my dad, so I made an appointment to talk to the Program Director.”

Holley says her instincts proved right.

“After our conversation, I signed up for classes.”

Degree requirements

A year and a half into her two-year robotics program, Holley says she had a surprising realization.

“As I was reviewing the course requirements for graduation, I saw a welding course on the list.”

“I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to do this. I’ll probably be in a hot shop with a bunch of smelly guys.’”

“But I was truly enjoying school for the first time in my life, and I was so close to finally earning my degree, so I bit the bullet and signed up.”

An unexpected love

The first day of welding class, Holley says she showed up in shorts and flip flops.

“I learned very quickly that it wasn’t the proper attire,” she says.

After that initial hiccup, Holley says, everything changed.

“The second week of class, we went to the shop to weld for the first time.”

“I fell in love that first time I struck an arc.”

“After I earned my two-year degree,” Holley says, “I stayed on an extra year to get my full welding certificate.”

More than a model employee

Today, Holley is Lead Quality Inspector at KBR, a global engineering and construction company.

During the day, she manages the welding operations on complex construction sites in Oklahoma.

Four evenings per week, she is a welding instructor, teaching courses to her KBR colleagues.

Throughout the year, Holley says she travels the country to talk to high school students about her experiences in the construction industry.

In 2015, Holley’s hard work was formally recognized when she was named Craft Professional of the Year by Associated Builders and Contractors.

She was nominated by her colleagues at KBR, who submitted an essay celebrating Holley as a top welder, a generous teacher, and a leader in her field, helping to recruit women to a traditionally male-dominated industry.

“It feels so good to know that I am viewed as a positive light for my company and for the industry overall,” Holley says.

An open mind, and an attitude to live by

Holley says she owes her professional success to two things: parents who encouraged her to pursue her own path—and a positive attitude.

“The coolest thing about my parents—and especially my dad—is that they’ve always been supportive of my siblings and me, no matter what,” Holley says.

“They encourage us to follow our dreams, and are there to help pick us up if we fall or fail.”

Holley says the personal mantra she’s developed as a welder is rooted in their positivity and open-mindedness.

“I come to work every day with a great attitude, wanting to learn something new.”

“Taking the initiative to expand my skillset makes me a better employee,” Holley says.

“And it makes me a better instructor and mentor, too.”

Looking forward to the future

Holley says that in the future, she plans to become more involved in recruiting new members to her industry.

In particular, she says, she wants to offer support, advice, and encouragement to young women considering a career in construction.

“I was once in their shoes, unsure of my future,” Holley says.

“Without that encouragement, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

“Now it’s my turn to pay it forward.”