The Alaska shipyard where the ‘manliest men’ meditate each morning

Vigor Alaska aims to build a more productive team by developing soft skills meaning daily stretching and socializing on the clock

In the dark hours before sunrise, Vigor Alaska’s shipyard bosses circle up their crews. Dwarfed by vast steel segments of a new ferry, welders, painters, and electricians twist their bodies. They roll their heads, shoulders, and wrists. They ask about each other’s families. They celebrate pregnancies, raises, and second chances. They jump. They lunge. They do push-ups and backbends. Seagulls call. Rain drizzles. Then – in jeans and work boots, sweatshirts and hardhats – they meditate.

“I thought it was kind of weird,” said Irineo Munoz, 33, who started working for Vigor Alaska as a machinist in 2015. A former gang member from California, Munoz moved to Alaska after his release from prison.

As public debate remains intense over gender roles in society and the workplace, Vigor’s morning routine defies gritty, masculine stereotypes associated with industrial labor.

Crews meditate, stretch and socialize – on the clock – for a few moments at the start of each work day. Every Wednesday, around lunch time, they’re given more time to meditate. Smaller groups of employees get routine leadership training. Some are so committed to the transformative leadership style that they’re mentoring other employees in their off time, sharing interpersonal skills and self-mastery techniques. An hour of employee-led peer counseling is available, once a week, during the workday, paid.

Munoz, who goes by Alfonso, has become a meditation convert and might just turn his shipyard gig into a career. “I am glad that they give me time to connect with my higher power.”

Irineo Alfonso Munoz at the Vigor shipyard, where he works as a machinist. Photograph: Ash Adams for the Guardian

Vigor Alaska said it hoped to instill “soft skills” in its industrial workforce, in pursuit of a more productive team with less turnover. Finding a good job and keeping it helps prevent recidivism, and Vigor considers itself a second-chance employer, foregoing background checks and giving felons – and anyone else who has struggled in life – a fresh start.

In Vigor’s shipyard, strength is measured by more than physical power, big builds and heavy machines. Self-esteem and personal success also matter.

“My coworkers are some of the manliest men you’ll find. The men of men,” said Scott Jackson, 36, a lifelong resident of the island, career firefighter, and the shipyard safety officer.

At 6ft3in and 250lb, he is hard to miss as he walks the yard, tying down unsecured cylinders of compressed gas, remedying potential hazards that catch his eye. Skeptical of Vigor’s methods, he had heard rumors of guys standing around sharing feelings, chanting and doing “mushy, gushy” stuff. When he experienced men like himself tearing up as they spoke about life’s frustrations on and off the job, he was sold.

“It helped me communicate in a more effective way rather than outbursts of feelings,” said Jackson, who had a self-described reputation for being stern and abrupt.

He and other employees have said the skills they have learned at work have carried over into their home lives. They are not as stressed or frustrated, leaving them with more energy to put into family and free time.

Chris Comstock and his wife, Kelly Chick Comstock, and daughter, Adelaide, pray before dinner. Photograph: Ash Adams for the Guardian

Trained on the job as an electrician before learning to weld, Chris Comstock, 37, arrived in Ketchikan seven years ago as a former meth addict with a life in a shambles.

When the shipyard took him on as a general laborer, he said, he used anger to conceal his insecurity. Eventually, he learned real confidence did not come from bravado. After several promotions he now works in recruitment, screening potential new hires.

He is also devoted to helping current employees overcome tough times.

“We don’t see their trauma when they walk up to us,” said Comstock, a tall, energetic man quick to flash a smile. “We just see the person in front of us. And if they are in their trauma, chances are we consider them a problem. ‘They are a troublemaker. They didn’t show up for work. They smell like alcohol.’ On the surface that’s what we’re dealing with.”

“It’s really about an employer willing to look at the whole individual and see the skills that the person has,” Bigler said.

“I was a felon on probation and the day I got off of probation I started drinking,” said Marita Fuller, 27, a former heroin addict, single mom, and one of 22 women employed at the shipyard, outnumbered 10 to one by men.

When Fuller relapsed, instead of firing her, the company helped her get into treatment and back on her feet.

Marita Fuller: ‘I focus on my breath, and I tell myself I’m going to have a good day.’ Photograph: Ash Adams for the Guardian

For her, morning meditation is a welcome pause before the bang-clang of pounded steel cuts through the buzz and hum of heavy equipment, before safety bells sound and welding sparks fly.

“I focus on my breath, and I tell myself I’m going to have a good day,” she said.

The practice also appears to be good for business. Turnover reduced by nearly half from 2016 to 2017, and safety has improved, according to Doug Ward, director of shipyard development.

Passionate about personal mastery, Vigor Alaska’s general manager at the time, Mike Pearson, introduced the soft skills trainings in 2014 as a component of a “whole human model” approach to employee development. Pearson has since transferred to Vigor’s Seattle-based headquarters, where he has initiated similar practices.

Yet for some shipyard employees, a good day means having no part of the “mushy gushy” stuff of feelings and trendy talk.

Bob Gilman: ‘We should be out there getting something done.’ Photograph: Ash Adams for the Guardian

“We should be out there getting something done,” said Bob Gilman, 64, a career journeyman and self-described “fix-it guy”.

A shipyard employee since 1992, Gilman is frustrated about limits on vacation pay, a turnstile entrance he calls a “cattle guard”, and new paint lines showing where to walk – changes implemented after Vigor took over in 2012.

Still, he acknowledges seeing some wisdom within the changes. Each morning after Gilman rolls out of bed, at home and before he heads to work, he stretches. “I think it’s probably a good thing. That meditation shit? Not so much,” he said.

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