Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate, and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.
In this article, we shine the spotlight on the two recipients of the Virginia Ship Repair Association’s Tradesperson of the Year award—Heng Hy with BAE Systems and Danual Pearce with Colonna’s Shipyard—representing the best of the best in ship repair.
The Virginia Ship Repair Association (VSRA) is a regional association representing companies engaged in, or supporting, the ship repair industry in Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic region. Their mission is to focus and coordinate member resources on issues, challenges, and opportunities facing the ship repair industry in Virginia and across the nation.
I caught up with Heng and Danual about getting into the industry, continued education, and advice for someone just starting out in ship repair.
Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Heng: I have been working for BAE for 15 years. I started welding in 1983 and just kept working to support my family.
Danual: I’m a native of Norfolk, Virginia, so I was born and raised here my whole life. I graduated from Atlantic Shores Christian school, did my college at Howard University in Washington, DC. I came back here and started in the shipyard with Colonna’s Shipyard about 6 years ago. I started as a helper, but was laid off, and then the opportunity to join the apprenticeship program came up and I jumped on it. Five years later, I’m a graduate, a supervisor, and Junior Tradesman of the Year.
Why were you nominated to receive the Senior Tradesperson of the Year award?
Heng: I started BAE in 2006 and before that I was with a couple of other companies. I do my best to help and support the company. I do quality work for the company and the customer. I work on Navy boats and support the country and I am very serious about my job. My priority is “safety first.” I make sure everything is safe before we start to do anything. I remind my crew to be aware of what’s around them. The same as when you drive a car. We try our best to prevent accidents, but sometimes accidents look for you, so we are always aware and alert.
How did you get your start in the trades?
Danual: Being around this area, there are a lot of shipyards and there’s a lot of work in the shipyards. I was just trying to find something to provide and take care of my family and that was the best option I had. I was just trying to get my foot in the door. I had heard about rigging and once I got in there, I started to take a liking to it. From there it just took off. I excelled at a variety of things as far as rigging and I moved up pretty quick. As soon as I graduated from my apprenticeship, I moved into a Lead Supervisor role and that’s where I’m at right now.
What do you do specifically and what do you like most about your job?
Danual: On a day to day basis as far as rigging, we deal with a lot of cranes, we do a lot of movements in the yards. Of course we can deal with things anywhere from 50 to 50,000 lbs. A lot of times we get to jobs and other trades ask “how are you guys going to get this out?!” and I like the fact that, once we get there as far as rigging, you do a lot of jobs multiple times, but also a lot of jobs that you’re going to see for the first time. In my five years here, I’m still seeing new jobs as the years go on. Aboard vessels we do a lot of rigging and moving things like computer cabinets, valves, things of that nature. Today we had a valve that was in the ballast tank all the way down in the fifth deck, so we’re the ones who’ve got to rig it all the way from the bottom of the fifth deck and out of the ship to where it needs to go to be worked on. That valve was about three inches wide, weighed about 250 lbs and we had probably 3.5 feet of clearance to make it through the manhole. It’s a lot of precision work with very big things.
Heng, I read that you have continued to learn throughout your career and have continued your education to become a highly skilled aluminum welder. What drives your passion to learn more?
Heng: Learning never ends. The more you learn, the more you know, the more you understand. You’re always open to more learning and experiences.
Danual, what did you major in at Howard University and do you feel that your education helped you excel in your current position?
Danual: I went for business management and I did take some management classes, so I do feel like going to Howard has helped me out in terms of stepping into this leadership management role. I also went there on a full football scholarship as well. I was a team captain, so that also helped out with my leadership and people skills as well.
Many welders believe that gaining certifications is “just a piece of paper.” What would you say is the value of obtaining and keeping up with your welding certifications?
Heng: Number one, because every year the technology changes and advances. In the 70’s and 80’s we used to use rotary phones and now we use iPhones, and welding is the same. Materials, machines, are always advancing, and you always have to learn to get better and improve.
What do you like best about being a welder in the Ship Repair Industry?
Heng: Anything I do I like. I like welding because it’s like art. Also, I’m not in the military, but I can support the military by helping to repair the ships that help defend our country. I help support the company, the company supports the Navy, and the Navy supports our country. It’s a good way to be a part of something bigger.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in Ship Repair? Or Danual, for starting as an apprentice like you did?
Heng: I have apprentices join the company every year. While you’re young you have a lot to learn. Don’t waste time. When you’re young, it’s important to know that. If you’re wasting your time, you’re wasting your life.
Danual: I would say that you have to take pride in and love what you do. Me personally, I love getting up. I enjoy what I do, so me coming to work every day, I’m coming to work with a positive attitude, motivating the guys. I would just say find something you love to do, stay positive about it, work at your craft. Like my father always taught me, “First you learn your craft, then you master it.” Just be consistent and give it everything you’ve got. You have to find something that you love, though.
Who would you say has been your biggest mentor in life and how did they help you be a successful person?
Danual: By far, my father. Rest in peace. He just always went above and beyond for his family no matter the situation, he always did what he needed to do to provide and take care of his family. He was a hard working man. Something I will always remember about my father is that he always got up and went to work to provide. As far as me playing sports, I played sports since I was 5 years old, and all the way through college, I can only remember my father missing one game. He was very supportive. A hard-working and family-oriented man. I say a lot of my traits come from my father.
What do you do in your spare time?
Heng: Sometimes I watch the news. Local news. When I came to this country I was 17 and I have four brothers. I helped them and supported them while they were small. Finally, the four of them found success in life. One graduated UVA in Chemical Engineering, one graduated ODU in Chemical Engineering, and I have two working in the shipyard on nuclear. After that I got married and have two kids. We opened a business, a small family business, a nail salon. I have two kids who go to college. One wants to be a doctor and the other wants to be a Computer Scientist. I’m still working with BAE.
Danual: I have a 16 year old and a 5 year old and when I get off work, my main thing is spending time with them. My oldest son plays ball. He’s a sophomore this year and starts for Kempsville (High School). Like I said with my father, he was always supportive, so anything they do, I always try to be supportive. I used to coach when he was younger, but now my main thing is spending time with my family.
Our thanks to Heng and Danual for making time to share their stories and industry insights with us.
Photo credits: Heng Hy, Danual Pearce