Thousands of Christchurch women turning to the trades

Liz Abey, left, Sarah Fitzpatrick and, Kimberly deVries work in what are traditionally male dominated jobs and love it.
DEAN KOZANIC

Liz Abey, left, Sarah Fitzpatrick and, Kimberly deVries work in what are traditionally male dominated jobs and love it.

Women in dust-covered work boots and hi-viz gear are not an uncommon sight in Christchurch but in other parts of the country women tradies are few and far between. Amy Jackman and Lois Cairns report.

In post-quake Christchurch a growing number of women are doing jobs in traditional male fields.

Ann Marie Edmonds is an automotic electrical engineer and spends her days building fire trucks.
LIZELLE OLIVER/WELTEC

Ann Marie Edmonds is an automotic electrical engineer and spends her days building fire trucks.

But if the gender pay gap is to close the Ministry for Women believes more women need to be encouraged into high demand jobs that offer high wages.  It is keen to see more women working in the trades and is holding Christchurch up as an example of a city that is leading the way in increasing women's work choices and their participation in the construction trades.

A 2015 report by the ministry reveals 8600 women are employed in construction in the Canterbury region, a jump from 3600 two years ago.

At last count nearly 18 per cent of Canterbury's construction workers were female, compared with just over 14 per cent nationally.

Since the quakes the number of women training in trades at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT) has jumped by around 800 per cent.  Last year nearly 10 per cent of the 3763 students enrolled in the polytech's trade courses were women.

Walk past building sites or road works in Christchurch and it is not uncommon to see women hard at work alongside the men. Women make up 23 per cent of the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team's workforce and many of them are in operational and trade roles at the crew level. 

To help raise the visibility of women working in operational roles Scirt has set up a Women in Construction group. It is working to challenge biases, provide role models and explore ways the industry can be more welcoming of women.

Its initiatives include working with suppliers to develop personal protective equipment to fit women and challenging construction organisations to lift their representation of women in operational roles in construction.

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Kimberly deVries, 29,  works for Scirt as a project engineer.  She initially wanted a career in environment management but since joining the construction industry she hasn't looked back and has steadily worked her way up the ranks.

She loves her job, finds the process of turning plans into reality rewarding, and enjoys the company of her colleagues.

"I like the people - they are just an awesome bunch of people. There are no egos - they're just there to do a good job," deVries said.

She was not fazed by being a woman in a male dominated industry: "There are more and more females popping up all over the place," she said. 

Liz Abey has worked for Scirt as a traffic management leading hand for the past two years. She was looking for a job that allowed her to work outside and heard Scirt was looking to recruit through a relative.

"I love it. Doing set-ups, working with people. It makes me think," the 30-year-old said. 

Sarah Fitzpatrick, 45, works for Scirt on a pipe bursting crew. She used to run a horse stud but had to find another job when she left her husband. She loves working outdoors and the physicality of her job but admits she has had to learn to pace herself.

Fitzpatrick said being the lone woman on her crew had not caused any issues. "I was a bit of a novelty for a week but that was the end of it.," said Fitzpatrick, who thinks it is good more women are getting involved in the industry.

In Wellington you have to look harder to find women in the traditionally male dominated trades.

At WelTec last year only 5 per cent of students studying in the main trade areas of construction, engineering and automotive were female.

Women like Ann Marie Edmonds and Jen Rodgers are the exception. They graduated from WelTec with electrical automotive qualifications and now work as as production assistants at Fraser Engineering in Lower Hutt. They spend much of their working day building fire trucks.

Rogers has always loved cars and originally wanted to be a mechanic, but the course was full when she applied about five years ago, so she switched to electrical automotive engineering. 

"Then I found out I was pregnant and you can't do gear boxes and things when you're heavily pregnant, so I stuck with electrical. It's the way the world is going as well, so it is good to get in quick."

When people first heard about her new job they were shocked, she said.

"People ask, 'what do you do for a job?' I tell them I build fire engines. That's when you get the shocked faces, but I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else," Rogers said.

"My daughter tells all her friends at daycare. She will grow up seeing me do this in a male-dominated world and will know that she can do the same.

"She doesn't have to go out and do a traditional female role."

Edmonds was a full-time mum of three and moved to Wellington from Auckland because she wanted to show her children a different path in life.

"Ten years ago I was not up to anything good. If I was to go back to the people I was around then they wouldn't recognise me," she said.

"I wanted to show my kids that they can do whatever they want to do without having to follow protocol. I have three teenagers and the direction that they were heading in was not a good one. I had to change that. They're proud of me without a doubt."

The work the two women do at Fraser Engineering changes each day, from installing cabling to wiring up the fire truck pumps.

They said that they had been accepted without question by the workers and the fun environment was part of what made the job a good one.

"I like the workers and I love being able to do this job," Edmonds said.

"It's like having a big head really, you think  'I can do this and you can't'! It gets people to think outside of the box of what's normal."

Fraser Engineering chief executive Martin Simpson said the two women were an asset to his company and that the opportunities for females in the automotive field were endless. 

"They are great workers and we would hire more if we could."

WelTec Trades Academy tutor Mandy Regan has been a tiler for 23 years. She entered the industry in 1988, when the thought of a woman in construction was so foreign a polytechnic was shocked when she applied.

"Because I had the gumption and I knew I wanted to do it, I was able to push back and get on the course. It wasn't that they didn't allow me, it was that it wasn't heard of. They said things like, 'we aren't set up for women, we don't even have a female bathroom'."

She said that there would never be the same numbers of women in the trades as men because often it wasn't something that females wanted to do but, importantly, if they wanted to there were now no barriers.

"Most women aren't interested in construction. It's just not how they are built. So it's not really that imperative that women to go into construction, but it's important that the pathway is there for them to follow if they want to."

In 2014, the Ministry of Education had 14,580 females in industry training nationally, including apprenticeships, compared to 25,675 males. The figures had held steady for the past five years - sitting at about 10,000 fewer females than males each year. The industries counted included engineering, electrical, agriculture, health, creative arts and hospitality.

In her years as a tiling tutor at WelTec, Regan had taught one or two women a year, often older rather than straight out of school, and said nearly every time there was a woman in the class she would finish top.

"The ones who go are motivated to be in the trades and always blow the guys out of the water. They have great skill, intelligence and attention to detail."

Many males and females study through a industry training organisation or polytechnic.

This year there are 263 females training at the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO), up from 202 in 2014. Most of the women are in carpentry (39), flooring (66), kitchen and bathroom design (36) and painting and decorating (87). However, BCITO also has 9298 men on its books.

Chief executive Ruma Karaitiana said the industry was seeing a growth in the numbers of women entering construction apprenticeships, however it was still low.

"There is real growth in the finishing trades, such as interior systems, painting and decorating. However, the heavy outdoor trades like carpentry, brick and block laying, and cement/concrete display the smallest growth for women.

"We think this is due to a stereotypical image of construction, being a career choice for men. The industry is trying to move away from this stereotype, but it will take time.

"The 'girls can do anything message' is strong at the moment and is helping to encourage growth, there are also some good female role models in the industry."

 - Stuff

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