If you ask anyone on the workshop floor at Ocean Kinetics who the best welder in the company is, the chances are they’ll point at one person: Katie Roe, who just happens to be the only woman who wears overalls here. Katie specialises in fabrication, especially oil and gas pipelines, but also heavy equipment for Shetlands’ fish farms and more. While she’s a lovely interviewee, she seems more at home afterwards, when she gets to put on her mask, with ‘Katie’ scrawled on it in black marker pen, and get to work amid a flurry of sparks. She also drives a mean fork-lift truck.
If you want an overview of work in Shetland, Ocean Kinetics isn’t a bad place to start. In a large modern warehouse on the edge of Lerwick, Shetland’s biggest fabrication and engineering company supports all the key industries here, from oil and gas to renewable energies, fishing, aquaculture and more. How they help varies — they might install a tidal energy turbine, send a diver to inspect an underwater pipe, help decommission an oil rig or create a wastewater treatment system for a salmon farm.
The company was started by a local, John Henderson, in 1992, and has become globally recognised, with a client list that includes the likes of BP and BAE Systems. It has completed a series of big international projects, like repairs on the Rothera Research Station in the Antarctic, or an underwater protection system for the cruise terminal at Dover harbour. In 2013, the company moved into its current premises, a state-of-the-art, 3,600sqm warehouse that cost GBP3 million to build, and the company has since grown to include more than 70 permanent staff and upwards of 30 contractors. This being Shetland, though, if someone walks in and wants their sheep fence repaired, they’ll do that too.
And, for Katie, it’s a nice place to work, even if she admits she sometimes wishes there was less talk about football on the work floor. “I’ve always found people really accepting and friendly here,” she says. “People want to see you progress and pass on their knowledge. It’s been so good for me, and it would be great if more women got into this kind of work.”
Still, you suspect Katie would cope pretty well in most places. She moved up from Doncaster, Yorkshire, a little over eight years ago, initially working at the Sullom Voe terminal, the centre of Shetland’s game-changing oil industry, which has processed oil since 1978. At first, her biggest problem was that she didn’t have a clue what people were saying — but, even before her ears had fully adjusted to the local dialect, she was falling in love with the place. “It was the people, the scenery, the pace of life, everything,” she says. When her contract ended, she decided to stay, and took up a job delivering the mail, which she says was a great way to get to know people.
By the time the job at Ocean Kinetics came up three years ago, she’d already started playing rugby for the Shetland women’s team, who play in a mini league that also includes Orkney, Banff and Inverness. “From the start, I’ve been surprised how many groups there are to join, whether that’s a sport or a leisure activity,” she says. “The rugby club were super to get involved with — no matter your experience, your shape or your size, they really get you in there and get you involved, not just in exercising but in doing things in the community.”
After watching Katie weld bits of metal and drive fork-lift trucks, the same evening we watch her attend rugby training at the Clickimin leisure complex, next to the Anderson High School, which is the meeting place for a decent portion of Shetland’s sports teams. In a game of touch rugby, she’s unfussily effective, moving the ball quickly, bringing other people into the game. Everything’s done crisply and well, and you can just about see in her rugby why she’s so respected at work.
Even if she’s now a fully-fledged local, with even her family moving up to join her, the things that attracted her in the first place still haven’t worn off. “Even though I’ve been here a long time, I still get that feeling like I’m on holiday,” she says. “You can be 20 minutes from home and feel like you’ve gone miles to the coast. It’s got that escapism about it.”
Like many locals, one of the things she raves about is the light up here. “Some of the sunrises on a winter morning are incredible,” she says. “And, in the summer, the evenings just drag on — it’s like you’ve got all the time in the world to just sit and enjoy the scenery.”
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