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Licensed electrician Sarah Pye: “The harder you work, the further you’ll go – you get out what you put in”

A woman’s work – the changing face of construction

Despite the fact that the number of women working in the construction industry is at an all-time high, females remain very much in the minority – particularly in trades.

Women make up just over half of New Zealand’s population, yet currently less than 4% of plumbing and electrical trade trainees are female. This huge potential market represents an opportunity for employers and respective industries which cannot be overlooked. 

Electrical Training Company (etco) chief executive Jeremy Sole says that while the number of women coming through their doors is growing steadily, there is massive potential for growth. “Nine women have graduated from the etco programme since 2012 and there are 36 in training, but our aim is to increase these numbers significantly,” Jeremy explains.
 
“Our number one priority as an organisation is to identify high-calibre candidates, which will ultimately raise industry standards. Increasing female participation is one way to achieve this. We find our female apprentices excel. They have a positive attitude and are determined to prove themselves as equal to their male counterparts, if not better.”
 
Early next year, etco will launch a recruitment campaign focusing on girls’ schools. “With the construction industry booming as it currently is, we’d be absolutely crazy not to ensure we target this extremely important market,” Jeremy says.
 

Meeting current and future demand

Master Plumbers chief executive Greg Wallace agrees that getting women (and industry) onboard is essential to meet current and future demand for competent, qualified tradespeople.
 
“A two-pronged approach is required. We have a big task ahead of us in promoting plumbing as a trade and making it more attractive to females. Employers also need to be more open to taking on female apprentices,” Greg explains.
 
“There will always be challenges and perceptions to overcome, but more and more companies are seeing the benefits of having women on their teams. Feedback from plumbing firms who have already taken on women has been very positive. We need to build on this success so females become the industry norm, rather than the exception.”
 

“You don’t look like an electrician!”

People tend to react with a mixture of surprise and curiosity when licensed electrician Sarah Pye tells them what she does for a living. “Once they have recovered from the initial shock they usually say ‘Oh wow!’ The majority of people see it as a good thing,” Sarah says.
 
The reaction from her colleagues at Setpoint Solutions in Dunedin has been equally positive. “I’m just one of the team and we all get treated the same. The fact that I’m female doesn’t come into it.”
 
Although female electricians are still in the minority, Sarah has noticed they are becoming more common. “There are a few of us around,” she says. “Employers are generally quite open to bringing women into their teams.”
 
Customers are generally receptive too. “It’s a bit of a stereotype, but we’re perceived as being tidy and neat. We also tend to be good at building a rapport with people.”
 
Like many others working in construction trades, Sarah originally planned to go to university after high school, but didn’t feel inspired by any of the courses on offer. “Nothing really grabbed me, so I decided to do an electrical apprenticeship instead. The big focus on technical skills and problem-solving really appealed to me.”
 

The right career choice

Sarah has no doubt she made the right career choice. She enjoys working in a wide variety of settings – homes, university buildings, hospitals, hotels and even casinos – and gets huge satisfaction from working on a project from start to finish.
 
The most satisfying part? “Seeing things work. It’s the best feeling when you’ve painstakingly set up 100 lights and finally get to switch them on.”
 
Ultimately, Sarah feels choosing the right career is a question of personality and interests. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female. To be a good electrician you need to enjoy practical, hands-on work. A sense of humour is also a must, but I guess that’s true for most jobs. It also helps if you’re interested and willing to learn. The harder you work, the further you’ll go. You get out what you put in.”
 

Bringing a different vibe to plumbing

A ‘typical girly job’ just wasn’t going to cut it for Esmey Parata. “I couldn’t see myself as a beauty therapist or a healthcare assistant. And working in an office or studying at university weren’t for me,” says Esmey.
 
As luck would have it, she got chatting to a teller at the bank one day and mentioned she was interested in plumbing. The lady put her in touch with Roger Herd at Masterlink and the rest is history.
 
Today, Esmey is in the first year of a four-year apprenticeship at Gas and Water in Dunedin. She is working towards qualifications in plumbing, gasfitting and drainlaying, and is one of a growing number of female Masterlink apprentices in the country.
 
“I was very lucky to be placed with Gas and Water,” Esmey says. “They are a small family business and treat all their staff as individuals. My boss, Sean, is my biggest supporter. He’s very wise and is an amazing teacher. Sean’s wife Shelley looks after us all and makes sure we’re okay.”
 
So far, Esmey has only had positive reactions from people working in the industry, although customers sometimes do a double take. “People often assume I’m the daughter or girlfriend. It’s a wee bit frustrating because I’m there to work, but I just get on with it and don’t dwell on their comments.”
 
Esmey feels women bring a fresh dynamic to a male-dominated environment. “We have a different way of thinking and doing things. We bring a whole different vibe to a team.”
 
In future Esmey hopes to run her own business. She’s also keen to become an ambassador for the plumbing industry. “A lot of people think a career in plumbing is just fixing toilets, but it’s way more than that. I’m passionate about opening people’s eyes to the possibilities.”
 

 


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