When Natasha Kao was 23 she was going to university studying commerce. But when she got a chance to work with her hands as a welder helper, everything changed.
"I enjoyed that job a lot more and so I decided to become a welder," she said.
"It’s different every day."
The different kinds of welding, meeting new people on new jobs and constantly learning new skills had her hooked.
Kao started in 2010, beginning in structural construction and sawmill fabrication. She then moved to a heavy fabricating shop, catering to oil sands, mining, and chemical plants. After receiving her Red Seal, she shifted her focus to mining and logging, gaining service truck experience. With both shop and service truck experience, she then entered the pipe and pressure industry. Kao has also used her knowledge to teach up-and-coming trades students at the College of New Caledonia.
She currently works at the Red Chris mine, 80 km south of Dease Lake and 18 km southeast of the village of Iskut, B.C. The mine operates year round. The current workforce at Red Chris mine is 370 employees. About half the employees are from surrounding northern communities, over 35 per cent are First Nations and 16 per cent are female.
Kao is the only female trade worker at the mine. She said male or female, it takes a certain kind of personality to do it. The works is complex, the temperature can reach below -40 C and she works several weeks on and several weeks off. The physical demands are also high.
"I think there is a stereotype that it isn’t appealing and I don’t think things will change quickly," she said. "Lots of people don’t have general knowledge of any kinds of trades and are apprehensive. I had little knowledge about the trades."
Kao said it’s not always easy being one of the only tradeswomen on a site.
"Ninety-nine per cent of the time you don’t have issues with people," Kao said.
"But some can be kind of competitive and savage … you have to pick your battles. I don’t want to cause problems because then you get a bad name and your reputation follows you. Women have to brush off more than the average worker."
She said the best way to deal with other employees questioning her competence is to be unimpeachable.
"I would say make sure you are knowledgeable about what you are doing," she said.
"Then if someone argues with you, you can back it up."