On any given day, Kari Wilkinson’s duties might include crawling inside a massive tank, meeting with top Navy brass, or handing over a completed ship to the armed forces.
This is all just part of her role as vice president for program management at Ingalls Shipbuilding, one of the nation’s leading shipbuilders. Wilkinson, ’96, is responsible for all shipyard programs, which currently include the construction of 10 military ships for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. In other words, she is always dealing with a full deck (pun intended).
With 11,500 employees (everyone from pipefitters and welders to electricians and engineers) and located in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Ingalls is the state’s largest private employer. It has produced nearly 70 percent of the current U.S. Navy fleet at its 800-acre shipyard. Over the past two decades, Wilkinson has played a crucial role in the company’s success.
A native of Jenison, Michigan, Wilkinson was drawn to math and science at an early age—interests that eventually led her to the Naval Architecture & Marine Engineering program at U-M. One of approximately 25 graduates from that program, Wilkinson met with recruiters from Ingalls her senior year and soon found herself in Mississippi starting a career as a naval architect.
“I like challenges,” she says of her decision to enter a mostly male-dominated field. “The harder the challenge, the more I want to do it.”
Though she suffered culture shock upon leaving the Midwest for the Deep South (she resides across the state line in Mobile, Alabama), Wilkinson notes two similarities between the regions. “Deer hunting and college football,” she says. “Granted, it’s Big Ten versus SEC, but it’s still the same passion.”
Passion. It’s a word Wilkinson uses frequently to describe her work, particularly when discussing “the people on the waterfront.”
That passion might explain Wilkinson’s meteoric rise to a director’s position after only eight years with Ingalls. Barely 30, she found herself appointed director of sector administration, responsible for scheduling and logistics support, reporting directly to the company president.
“It was pretty quick,” she admits. “The company’s been very good to me. They’ve given me a lot of opportunities.”
Three years later, Wilkinson was named program manager for the San Antonio-class of U.S. amphibious landing platform docks (LPD). On her watch, Ingalls completed three LPDs: the USS San Diego, USS Arlington, and USS John P. Murtha.
Before that assignment, she became operations director when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. Wilkinson had the daunting task of overseeing the replacement of all damaged equipment at Ingalls.
“It was a huge challenge,” she says. “One thing about shipbuilders, they are passionate people. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been here 21 years,” says Wilkinson. “The people are amazing. They’re tenacious. They’re passionate about what they need and they’re not afraid to be vocal about what they want.”
The current Ingalls president, Brian Cuccias, says the same of Wilkinson.
“Kari is highly respected by our workforce and in our community,” says Cuccias. “Her high ethical standards, two decades of shipbuilding knowledge, and management expertise are vital to Ingalls’ ability to continue to deliver great ships for our nation and for the men and women who sail them into harm’s way.”
Wilkinson—a self-described “Type A” personality—confesses she has little outside free time, but has never regretted making ships her life’s work.
“I have seen the most amazing accomplishments in this facility,” she says. “People who are up against all odds and they’re not going to go home until they get it done. It doesn’t matter how tired they get. It doesn’t matter how hot it is or how sweaty they are. They’re going to make it happen. It’s just an amazing thing to see.”
Warren Kulo is a senior staff writer for The Mississippi Press, based in Pascagoula, Mississippi.