AK: Welding

(Photo by Emily Files, KRBD - Ketchikan)
(Photo by Emily Files, KRBD – Ketchikan)

There are more than 100 people employed at Ketchikan’s Vigor Industrial Shipyard. Out of all of them, Cat Wong might have the most unusual story about how she got there.

The 25-year-old is a pipe fitter and welder. She was born in the U.S., but grew up with her family in Singapore. When she was 21, Cat made an unusual choice, and moved to Ketchikan.

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“That’s a three inch pipe that I’m welding on there,” she said. “It’s gonna be a water main pipe.”

(Photo by Emily Files, KRBD - Ketchikan)
(Photo by Emily Files, KRBD – Ketchikan)

When I talk to Cat, she’s welding a pipe for an Alaska Marine Highway ferry. She’s 5’2” and her thick work jacket and boots look like they were made for someone twice her size. Cat says, back when she was 18, she never would’ve guessed she’d end up here. She was working two part-time jobs at a bar and a restaurant in Singapore, hoping to become a restaurant manager.

“Got to the point where I needed a full time job cause I was working long hours as a part timer,” Cat said. “I sent out resumes to whatever companies would hire me. An industrial training center hired me, I was admin assistant.”

She hated that she was sitting at a desk all day, but that job was actually what put her on the path to shipyard work. She started to get interested in skilled labor, like welding and maritime trades. The more research she did, the more interested she became.

“Conversation with family, yes,” Cat said. “Mom wasn’t too sure about it. Office worker daughter wants to work in a shipyard?”

“They thought I lost my mind. Friends [said], ‘Cat are you serious?’ Yes I am very serious about it.”

Cat decided to sign up for a welding class, but the industrial training center where she worked wouldn’t take her.

“They thought I would get hurt,” she said. “Why? Women….welding…fragile.”

So she went to a different center and they were hesitant to train a 20-year-old woman as well.

“They said you’re a girl you can work in an office,” Cat said. “[It] made me more determined. Here’s the money do you want it or not?”

They took her money and she took the welding class. After that, she tried to apply to skilled labor jobs in Singapore, but realized the chances of a good-paying gig were slim. But she had another option – because she was born in the U.S., Cat was an American citizen.

(Photo by Emily Files, KRBD - Ketchikan)
(Photo by Emily Files, KRBD – Ketchikan)

In Singapore, you’re not allowed to hold dual citizenship. So, if Cat really wanted to, she could choose to give up her Singapore citizenship and move to the US. She gradually realized that was her best option. So, a month after her 21st birthday, she went to the immigration office and gave up her Singapore passport.

“It was sad,” she said. “Then I realized that if you keep staying in your comfort zone you don’t know what you’re capable of.”

Then the U.S. job search began. With the help of Google, Cat decided the Ketchikan shipyard looked promising. And she realized the only way she would get hired is if she went there in person. So she left Singapore, and moved to Alaska, her future riding on the hope of a job at this shipyard. She arrived in late October 2011 on a day where the wind whipped the rain sideways. After she settled in, Cat started showing up to the shipyard nearly every day.

“It was daily process of coming here every day, writing name in log book just to show that I’m here,” she said.

She applied for jobs there and signed up for an advanced welding class at the University of Alaska Southeast. And then about two months later, she got a call from Troy Tackert, a shipyard supervisor.

“Got a call from Troy [and he said], ‘Are you interested in interview?’ Yes, when do you want me to come in? Tomorrow?” Cat said.

“It was very interesting,” Tackert said. “She’s a super intelligent young lady. She was just looking for somebody to give her chance. All she wanted to do was work in a shipyard and I thought why not?”

“He called a week or two later, go to TSS for drug test and then report at 8,” Cat said. “How’d you feel? I’m not unemployed I’m so happy!”

Now Cat has been there for two and half years learning nearly every aspect of ship repair. She’s paid $20 an hour.  Over a year ago, her mother and brother moved here from Singapore and her brother, Felix, also works at the shipyard now. So, in a matter of about 5 years, Cat went from a bartender and office assistant in Singapore to a pipe welder in Alaska.

Files: “Do you ever feel like, ‘how did I even end up here?’”
Cat: “I do feel like that, I’m a churchgoer, I have faith in God, did some praying. I felt prompting that I have to leave my comfort zone. I kind of did that.”

Cat says her story shows that if you just put one foot in front of the other, eventually you’ll climb a mountain –or end up in an Alaska shipyard.

Emily Files is a reporter at KHNS in Haines.

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