“We were coming home with no job and no place to live,” said Jessie Kohgadai, a Navy veteran
By ELIYAHU KAMISHER | Bay Area News Group
It has been a whirlwind few years for Jessie Kohgadai. In January 2020, she had an unfulfilling desk job in Oakland. So she quit and found temporary work at Walgreens, unsure of where life would take her. Then the Navy called.
Kohgadai is a reservist and in May 2020, when the Navy needed a skilled hand to fix submarines she jumped on the opportunity, hauling her husband to Washington state just months after they tied the knot. The 15-month stint keeping submarines afloat was eye-opening for Kohgadai. When she landed back in the Bay Area, Kohgadai didn’t know where her career path was heading, but she knew it would no longer be behind a desk.
“We were coming home with no job and no place to live,” said Kohgadai. “We ended up moving in with my inlaws. It was wild . . . Between August and March, I was just trying to find work and I was selling flowers. I did an accounting gig.”
That’s when Kohgadai connected with Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based non-profit that helps struggling veterans find everything from housing to employment and legal support.
Swords to Plowshares placed Kohgadai in a job training program with PG&E called PowerPathway, part of a unique partnership between the veteran advocacy organization and the gas and electric utility company. It would not be easy, PowerPathway is a grueling 10-week training course with 16 tests diving into the fine print of gas utility inspection. The final 64-question exam – affectionately known as OQ-2101 – required 100% correct answers to pass.
But those who pass could land a well-paying job and possibly a lifelong career as a PG&E Gas Pipeline Inspector.
“It’s very intense. It is like a semester in a master’s or undergraduate degree,” said Justin Real, the PowerPathway Program Manager. “This is an occasion where an A minus doesn’t pass . . . at that time of the test, you can hear a pin drop.”
that is the bible of gas pipeline inspectors. Kohgadai was entering a field dominated by men, where pipeline inspectors need a strong backbone to stand up to seasoned contractors who may be looking to cut corners. Sometimes interactions with contractors get heated – as part of their training, pipeline inspectors are taught conflict resolution.
“I had a hard time being assertive. How do you get on a job site when some guy who’s been around 30 years tries to push his weight around? What do you do?” said Kohgadai. She sought advice from a female inspector who told her: “You fake it, until you make it, until you believe it.””]
While the coursework is demanding, one of the toughest parts of PowerPathway is the training is unpaid, leaving financially strapped veterans scrambling to juggle their families and dwindling savings. Around week seven is when the “wheels start to fly off,” said Kohgadai. “You need to make sure that your family is behind you and you have everything squared away.”
That is where Swords to Plowshares comes in. The nonprofit provided students with hundreds of dollars in gas and food stipends helping to defray costs. For some veterans, who lived as far away as Monterey, Swords to Plowshares paid for hotel rooms, sparing them hundreds of dollars in gas and hours of commuting. “They were really there to support us,” said Kohgadai. “They were like our moms.”
Through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which has raised millions of dollars from readers for local nonprofits serving the most vulnerable, Swords to Plowshares is looking to bolster its partnership with PG&E, along with providing much-needed services to veterans throughout the East Bay. The non-profit is hoping to raise $25,000 to help veterans like Jessie Kohgadai with transportation vouchers and basic need services.
Since 2013, 120 veterans have landed jobs at PG&E due to the Swords to Plowshares partnership, which was praised by then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2016. Many other graduates remain employed with PG&E subcontractors.
Real of PG&E said veterans need assistance to make it through the program. Swords to Plowshares, he said, alleviates the intense financial and personal strain.
“We’ve had students that are really on the verge of being homeless, if not homeless,” said Real. Without Swords to Plowshares, “we would be nowhere near as successful.”
For two and a half months, Kohgadai – the only woman in her class of 15 veterans – hunkered down in a Vacaville classroom, where she sifted through the Greenbook, a 1,050-page manual that is the bible of gas pipeline inspectors. Kohgadai was entering a field dominated by men, where pipeline inspectors need a strong backbone to stand up to seasoned contractors who may be looking to cut corners. Sometimes interactions with contractors get heated – as part of their training, pipeline inspectors are taught conflict resolution.
“I had a hard time being assertive. How do you get on a job site when some guy who’s been around 30 years tries to push his weight around? What do you do?” said Kohgadai. She sought advice from a female inspector who told her: “You fake it, until you make it, until you believe it.”
In November, having passed the dreaded test on the third try, Kohgadai started her new career as a gas pipeline inspector. She will travel across the Bay Area making sure pipes are buried at the proper depth (at least 18 inches in most cases), the right materials are used, and all the connectors are up to spec. It’s a crucial job that typically goes unnoticed until catastrophe strikes – or your house is getting a remodel.
Kohgadai has also put her inspection skills to use on her own home. In large part because of her new job at PG&E, Kohgadai and her husband moved out of the inlaws’ house and bought a place of their own in San Pablo.
“My husband and I look at each other and we say ‘we did it,’” Kohgadai said. “This is a complete 180 from where we were 18 months ago.”
How to Help
Donations will help Swords to Plowshares to raise $25,000 to help veterans like Jessie Kohgadai with transportation vouchers and basic need services.
Donate To Share the Spirit DONATE