James Baxter – From Engineering Student to Plumbing Apprentice
James Baxter sounds like a model employee who’s got his work/life balance just about right.
He likes what he is doing and knows where he’s going. But there were a few changes he had to make along the way.
At school James was good at the more academic subjects. “Not so much literacy, more numeracy,” he says. He enjoyed physics and maths and it was assumed he would go to University.
wo years into a Network Engineering degree he had a change of heart. “I decided it wasn’t for me. I felt I should open my eyes to other options.” Keeping his eyes open, he drove diggers for two years, but knew he wanted a qualification.
Then he met an engineer who had once been a plumber. “He suggested I try to get the same qualification he had.”
So, James contacted John Garratt, the boss of Hockly Plumbers. At the end of the interview John asked if he wanted to work for the company. James said yes and was chucked straight in. “I wasn’t holding someone’s tool bag.”
It was supposed to be a three-month trial. After just four days John Garratt said, “Do you want to sign up now?”
“The age thing definitely helped,” says James, “They could see I wanted to work.”
Now, aged 24, he is three years into his four-year plumbing and gas-fitting apprenticeship. But James wants more qualification. “I will do the drain-laying ticket as well.” That will mean five years to qualify with certification two years after that. He’s keen.
Is James’s knowledge of maths and physics useful?
“Yeah, 100 per cent. It’s useful when it comes to things like pipe sizing and gas supply. The pressure of going to university means that the trade misses out on a whole lot of people like me.”
James is diligent. Every day, he gets to work an hour before he’s supposed to start. “I study in that hour – Essential Skills and study guides. But I also like hands-on learning as opposed to rote learning from a screen.”
What he likes about the job
James likes that he gets to put into practice what someone tells him to do. “I like the problem-solving aspect to it. You don’t know what the issue is. You have to figure it out.”
He likes the feeling of specialisation he gets. “I like knowing a lot about a specific thing, something not everyone knows about.”
He gives the example of what he calls ‘reactive maintenance’ on big buildings. “A work order comes in and a whole building won’t have hot water. You have to go in and work out why not. It’s exciting, like solving a puzzle.”
Every day is different and the variety of the work is stimulating. “I really like that I’m not stuck in the same place all day. You get to meet a whole lot of other people. There’s a lot of skills I have now that I’ve picked up from being around other trades.”
James recounts working in a building in Wellington where everyone could smell sewerage. “We went into the basement and the stack where all the toilets fed into had fallen out. The smell of sewerage was going into the vents for the entire building.”
An important part of what James enjoys is the working environment in the company, starting with the boss.
“Johnny is really cool. He’s cruisy, but he’s always checking up on everyone. He wants to make sure everyone is happy.”
James talks about a TED Talk he watched recently, ‘Leaders Eat Last’. “If you’re in a work environment that isn’t stressful, everyone feels secure and there’s a culture of learning.” In stressful environments people are often sick, James says. “Johnny’s mentality is that if everyone in the company is happy, then everyone is healthy. You’re going to want to do a good job and the client will be happy.”
James really likes the people he works with. “I like hanging out with them. I get a really well-rounded education from them. We have similar interests. I’m an avid skier and half the company is also into snow sports. At 5 we don’t just go home, we’ll go somewhere and do things. It’s a really good culture. The older guys look out for you too. They call you out if you make mistakes. But you’re expected to.”
And how does James see his career progressing?
“I want to finish my trade and then specialise in as many things as I can. Like getting my ticket for testing backflow in a building.”
And he wants to get his abseiling ticket. “We contract out a fair amount of work on the outside of buildings to abseiling companies. If I had my ticket we could do all that in-house.”
Given how hard James has worked and how much he seems to be enjoying himself, his last comment hardly comes as a surprise.
“At some stage, I would like to work for myself.”
For the moment he is happy at Hockly.