More women taking on apprenticeships but numbers 'still shocking'

Anna Clearwater is a 24-year-old apprentice builder.

Anna Clearwater is a 24-year-old apprentice builder.

Anna Clearwater is used to people assuming that she's only a building site to hang out with her boyfriend.

The 24-year-old is two years into her training but the sight of a young female apprentice builder mucking in doing physical work on the tools still comes as a shock to some.

"People often ask me at work if I'm one of the builders' girlfriends hanging out for the day because there's no other reason I could possibly be there," she says.

While there are increasing numbers of young women opting for apprenticeships, they still make up a very small proportion of the total number. And young women working in the trades say some people still have a way to go to accept that there are no "men's" or "women's" jobs anymore.

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Josh Williams is chief executive of the Industry Training Federation, which represents the country's Industry Training Organisations, which oversee apprenticeships.

He said there had been a steady increase in the number of apprentices in New Zealand to about 42,000 this year. "To put that in the context of the 1980s when people talk about there being lots of apprentices, there were about 25,000. In terms of the overall workforce, it's about the same as in 1987."

That's partly thanks to the economy - during periods of high employment, young people tend to opt more for apprenticeships but when jobs are harder to come by, university courses rate more highly.

Williams said there was a lot of effort under way to make sure that young women were aware that apprenticeship opportunities were just as much as possibility for them as they were for young men. "But the statistics are still shocking, it's about 10 per cent – 5015 of the 42,000 are female and we think that's too low."

In fact, as a percentage of the total, it's barely moved. In 1975, there were 1276 female apprentices – 1187 of them were in women's hairdressing.  That is about 7.8 per cent of the total number of apprentices.

Clearwater got into her apprenticeship after leaving school with little idea what she wanted to do.

She had been successful at Auckland's Glendowie College and no one had ever suggested anything other than a direct path to university.

"I enrolled in uni because I felt I should but after two years I realised there was not much future in it for me. There weren't many jobs and I'd be competing with a whole year of people who wanted it more than me so I started researching how to do a building apprenticeship instead," she remembers.

She got a job with her brother's friend's building company to try it out, starting off with the most basic of tasks, such as sweeping floors.

"I said 'can I work with you for a couple of weeks and see if It's what I want to do?' ... two years' later I'm still there."

But she admits the decision to step foot on her first building site didn't come easily. She second-guessed herself, wondering if she could physically do it, with no experience. She also feared her parents' reaction to her decision to ditch an international politics degree two thirds of the way through. "I knew the reaction would be: 'What?!'"

She is used to being utterly outnumbered as the only woman on a site and says she has met men who made it obvious that they did not think a female apprentice was a good idea. 

"It's such a small percentage but you remember them more than everyone else. I went into it knowing it's traditionally a man's world so I couldn't get too sensitive. You just turn it into something that fuels you, you can't let it be a negative thing."


Tori Colonna, an operations manager at Saints Electrical, can relate.

It wasn't until a year ago that she was able to buy her high-vis gear in female sizes.

Before that, she would have to settle for the smallest men's size available and live with the fact that it did not fit properly around her torso – the extra fabric almost creating another hazard in itself. She also stocks up on the smallest men's steel-toe boots she can find because what is available in women's sizes does not cut it.

Colonna was encouraged into a trade by her father, who suggested it as a good back-up option until she worked out what she wanted to do.  A professional children's entertainer, he warned her that if she didn't, she could end up making balloon animals with him full-time.

Colonna also dabbled in university part-way through her training, but came back to it.

"I've always been fascinated with how things work and why and those elements keep me mentally occupied."

She has encountered discrimination but has learned to adapt.   "You can feel a bit isolated. There's always a couple of idiots but once you put them in their place, that stops that behaviour. I don't cry myself to sleep at night."

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But she said it would be useful if there were more support networks for women in the construction industries.

Many firms would love to be able to hire more women but could not find them, she said.  "We need to get into the schools and showcase females in trades. They can be role models; 'if she can do that, I can do that'. The more we get out and show we can do it and it's a bloody good lifestyle, we're supporting ourselves and independent, more will want to give it a go.  But society needs to change the way it views its daughters going into trades, I'm sick of being an anomaly, I'd far rather be a forerunner.'


Electrician Lisa Albiston, from Hamilton, knows the value of a good role model. It was not until she met a female electrician in her hometown of Te Aroha that she started to get interested in pursuing the trade.

She was accepted into the four-year Mighty River Power apprenticeship programme. Once she qualified, she moved into specialising in the technical side of the job, particularly working with high-voltage. She has now worked her way up to becoming a technical team leader.

At the start, she says she had to prove herself over and over again at every new site she wet to. "I was the only girl in the company I worked in for a while, it was hard. The guys had to change as well with me being around but in the end you just adjust. You take the banter they give you and it flies off the top. You have to have a thick skin but if you really love it, you get through."

Apprenticeships do not have to mean construction or plumbing. Young people can also get into careers in cheffing, hairdressing and a range of other industries through an "earn as you learn" model.


Leah Reuben, a 23-year-old hairdresser at Vibo in Christchurch, says it seemed like the sensible option when she was deciding what to do. She had always wanted a career in the beauty industry.

She was working as a wool handler when she managed to get the apprenticeship at the salon after three or four months of submitting applications.  Being able to earn while she trained meant she could live wit her partner and save for a house. It took a couple of years to get beyond the point where she was paid minimum wage.

She started doing hair washing and folding foils – the things the other stylists did not want to do – but now is almost fully qualified and able to hold her own on the floor. "You push yourself you can get there fast. If you studied full-time you wouldn't get the same experience as working in a salon," she said, "You wouldn't know if you have the passion  - you could think it's going to be really exciting and then get to a salon and hate it. I think my passion grew faster this way."

Amanda Wheeler, manager of workforce capability at The Skills Organisation and deputy chair of Got A Trade week, said it was good to see more women willing to break down the stereotypes of what an apprentice should look like.

But she agreed there was still room to improve female participation in trades. "There needs to be stronger emphasis put on increasing role models for females and showcasing the different pathways they can take. Although some employers are really happy with more diversity we can always encourage more to look at that."

As with any role, it hasn't been all smooth sailing for any of the apprentices.

Clearwater says she still has "what have I done" moments, when she has made a mistake on site. "I remember thinking 'I've really made a mess of this', and all the doubts come back to the surface, thinking everyone's looking at me thinking this girl doesn't know what she's doing but that passes very quickly.

Every time I doubt it and think can I do this, I think how far I've come." 

 - Stuff


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