HERStory | Katie Neilson

Red Seal Welder

My name is Katie Neilson and I am a 32 year old welder from Vancouver, British Columbia. I entered the trades about 3.5 years ago with no prior experience and in a few short months, I will be embarking on my 4th and final year of provincial apprenticeship training at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). After being awarded ‘with distinction’ at the ‘B’ level, I wrote and passed my Red Seal exam and am now looking forward to returning for my ‘A’ with a goal of distinction as well.

Prior to my entry into the trade at 29 years old, I was living life as a professional downhill skateboarder. I travelled internationally earning a Women’s World Championship title and participated in a variety of film and marketing projects. Unfortunately, I injured my shoulder quite badly and never got back on board.

About 4 months into surgery recovery, I went bowling and found myself having a drink with a girl named Lindsay. Lindsay was a welder. She was in love with it and you could see it in her eyes. She was A Level trained and couldn’t shut up about how much she enjoyed her job, or how much she thought I would love it if I got into it, too. I stayed quiet and listened to the same conversation I had heard many times before, but for the first time, instead of sweeping that well intentioned suggestion under the rug, I actually considered the one thing I had always ignored; going to school for welding.

I asked her where she went to school and how long she did it and if she remembered any of her instructors. She told me she went to BCIT and that it took her about 4 years and that she completed her training a couple years prior. She went on to explain that she had a few different instructors but by the time she got to advanced TIG welding, her A level instructor is who really stood out. At that point I had enough information and asked her if his name was Kerry. She looked at me with a blank face and replied “how do you know Kerry?”, so I smiled at my new friend and told her, “Kerry’s my dad”.

By the time it was my turn to bowl again I had already applied to the program through the website. Within a month, I was back sleeping in the same room my crib once was and going to school full time with my father. I did the first 3 years of training and employment living under his roof and I only left this year as like many, he retired and moved to a different region.

For the first year, I ‘paid my dues’ welding at a foundry that manufactured parts to crush rocks for the rock mining industry. When my dad’s buddies would ask what kind of work I was doing he would get this certain grin and say with a chuckle, “go ahead sweetie, tell them”, and then stand there proudly as I told them the details. It was dirty and hot and challenging and nobody expected me to survive there but I thrived there. I was the first and only female to ever work there and I stayed with those men until the day the doors closed and they all lost their jobs due to a move of manufacturing to China.

For almost 2 years now I’ve been working at a custom fabrication shop called ‘Aggressive Tube Bending’. Once again, I am the only female on the floor and I’ve worked hard to improve every single day and bring the welding critique I was developed with to the table. We manufacture a majority of our components in house via manual/CNC machining and hydraulic/air bending processes and my job is to skillfully fit and weld all of these components together. I am fortunate enough to be involved in many civil art projects, construct valuable resources for oil spill and ocean waste cleanup and also do things I find fun like create stainless water guns for some of the most incredible parks you would ever lay your eyes on. The majority of my work is TIG welding.

My goals in welding are simple. I want to remain prideful in the projects I am a part of and inspire those around me to be patient and challenge the limits of themselves and their material. Today, I do this by being critical with myself and what I am producing, challenging coworkers to critique their own technique and investigating the root causes for weld quality as its happening. I make mistakes, but they are starting to happen less each week as I gain experience and transition into someone who knows enough to start helping others.

If I were to have the privilege of receiving CME’s Women in Manufacturing Scholarship I would put the money towards my training to become an Instructor. At Vancouver Career College, the Provincial Instructors Diploma course has a $3517 course fee. I would still like to pursue work in aerospace and pneumatic fabrication as I believe that when women develop these delicate TIG welding skills, they can become some of the most talented hands available due to their gentle touch and patient nature; and then my goal is to continue working and teach part time until my life moves in the direction of full time instruction.

I want to be a set of eyes and hands so skilled that every young woman I come in contact with is validated and challenges herself to exceed what she ever thought she was capable of, and I intend to train the next generation of young men so well that they never doubt a woman’s space in the workplace.