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.

The Study

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.”

Working Environment

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.”

The Future

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.

Harrison West – Dyslexia No Obstacle for Plumbing ‘Rockstar’

Harrison West has been a plumbing apprentice for just over two years – but his boss, Dave Henderson from Quix Commercial, says he’s already a rockstar performer.

So much so, Harrison has already been promoted to Junior Foreman.

What’s particularly impressive about that is that Harrison is not only just halfway through his Plumbing Gasfitting and Drainlaying (PGD) apprenticeship, he’s also dyslexic – meaning he’s had more challenges than most when it comes to his apprenticeship.

Getting a helping hand

It all began when Harrison approached his boss about six months ago to let him know he was struggling with his course work.

“Harrison came to me and said ‘I’m having a bit of trouble at Tech’,” says Henderson. “And we said ‘look, that’s okay, there are a lot of people who have dyslexia and you are not alone’. We could see that Harrison was a motivated and driven young individual – we saw that in him from the start. It’s all about attitude not ability, and Harrison certainly fitted that bill.”

Once Dave and the team at Quix were made aware of Harrison’s dyslexia, they put him in touch with Garry McKenzie from training body Industry Connection for Excellence (ICE). Garry then steered Harrison to Skills for assistance. Now Harrison is about to begin his second gasfitting block course using a reader/writer for written examinations and has been enrolled in literacy tuition that will help him with course assessments.

“It’s great that the help is available,” says Harrison. “Skills organised for me to have an indicator test for dyslexia, and then I was able to access the literacy class It was all pretty responsive.”

Living with dyslexia

In Harrison’s own words, he struggled with school for a number of years as a child, until he was finally diagnosed with dyslexia.

“When I was about 6 or 7, I struggled a bit with my reading and then spelling as well as I got older,” says Harrison. “When I began at Quix Commercial, I sat exams like everyone else. The plumbing was the easiest part but I realised I needed more help with gasfitting because the wording is more technical. I felt like I really struggled with that and fell behind.”

Advice for employers

According to Dave, though Harrison might find certain written elements of his training challenging, in other areas, such as his verbal communication and people skills, he excels. This, he believes, is an important thing for employers to remember – that everyone is different and even though they may find one area challenging in the workplace, they can be stronger in other areas.

“So if they do ask for help, or as their employer you see they need it, do go and seek it,” says Henderson. “Because there are some great resources they may not even know about. Or they may just need some mentoring to get through it.”

The support available

Part of the role of Skills is not just providing support to the apprentice but also to the employer.

Margi Eade from Skills’ Vocational Literacy Team says it is very much a collaborative approach: “All parties are in regular communication – the account manager, the training provider, the employer, the Skills Literacy Team and any providers of extra tuition, such as Literacy Aotearoa.

“The Literacy Team provides support to employers through information on how they can best support employees with dyslexia. We designed a booklet too, Dyslexia in the Workplace, which gives employers useful strategies; so by giving dyslexic employees the right support, you can truly help them thrive and succeed.”

This is certainly the case for Harrison, says Margi, who calls him a real success story. She says that by showing employers the skills dyslexic employees have to offer and how they can support them, they have the ability to grow employees who will be a wonderful asset to the business.

Onwards and upwards

As for Harrison, dyslexia or no dyslexia, he has big plans.

“I now know there are resources there, which is great,” says Harrison. “I want to own my own company one day, and my goal for the next five years is to become a projects manager and run multiple jobs. It is great to know that the help is available to me.”

He also has some simple advice for others who may have a learning challenge and feel a bit daunted at starting a new career or putting their hand up for help.

“Just ask someone,” he says. “Don’t think that you are on your own. And don’t be scared or worry what others think. When you have a learning disability, you feel like you are put in a category, but don’t worry about that. You may be in that category to them, but you may be phenomenally better than them at something they are rubbish at. Everyone has their advantages and disadvantages – that’s life.”

Jackie Mason -Do what you feel you can do and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise

“Do what you feel you can do and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you feel like you can do it, you will always be able to succeed.” Jackie Mason has lived her life with this family motto in the front of her mind no matter what life has thrown at her.

One thing Jackie always knew about herself from a young age was that she wanted to work with her hands. When her dad started up his own business, Peter Mason Plumbing, she jumped at the chance to work with him on the weekends while at school. She instantly felt a passion for plumbing and started applying for jobs in the industry. Jackie applied for over 300 plumbing associated roles in Auckland and was continuously turned away. “We don’t have any female facilities, so can’t take you on,” and “we can’t take you on because you are a female and you can’t handle it,” were the most common reasons she heard.

Jackie’s motto of not letting anyone tell you what you can and can’t do meant she didn’t get disheartened and decided to keep working for her dad. She worked unpaid for two years, and little did she know her dad was in contact with the plumbing board trying to get Jackie approved for a plumbing apprenticeship. Jackie would have been the first female plumber in New Zealand at the time. The board was hesitant, as they weren’t sure she would stick with it because it would be a tough industry for a female. Again, her family kept fighting and after two years she was finally able to prove herself, go for an apprenticeship and get paid for her hard work. She hasn’t looked back since, “if you love something you don’t give up on it, you have to stick with it.”

Jackie never once considered a university education as she is severely dyslexic and has struggled with it her whole life. She knew a textbook education wasn’t for her and she explains she has always been talented at working with her hands.

Jackie doesn’t really have an ‘average day’ on the job because every day is so different. She is the sole employee for Peter Mason Plumbing, so her role has a broad scope as she doesn’t have a team behind her helping her along and making sure there are no mistakes. She must get everything right the first time around, especially because a lot of her customers watch her while she works as they don’t believe she is entirely capable of doing a good job.

Jackie holds herself to a really high standard so there’s no room for any doubt. She mentions that although she feels there has been a slight shift in the treatment of females in the trades it’s still something she battles with on occasion. Jackie doesn’t get bothered by it though. “I treat it like water off a duck’s back”, she explains that it’s best to let it go and prove them wrong in the work that she does rather than giving a snarky comment back.

Despite it being a tough industry for women, Jackie would recommend plumbing to other females as there is a whole world of trades out there that need to be opened up to women. These days she usually gets comments like, “are you sure you can do the job” rather than what she used to get which was more along the lines of, “no, you’re not coming to do this job because you’re a female.”

Jackie explains she thinks women have a lot to offer the trades as they go about the job differently to men. “Women are usually tidier, more organised and more efficient in their work, we often get it right the first time instead of having to go back and fix it up.” Because of this, and how unique she is in such a male dominated industry, she has found herself to be quite sought after. For now, she is happy where she is working in the family business, with the people who always believed in her.

She is keen to support women in the industry and has taken women out to sites and has shown them the ropes to see if it’s the right decision for them or not. Getting into the trades is a much bigger decision for women than it is for men because women have a lot more pressure riding on them to succeed as they are expected to fail. “It’s not an easy job but it’s as easy as you wish to make it. The days are what you make of them and if you love it, then it’s worth it”

Jackie knew she was going to work in plumbing one way or another and never gave up hope that one day she would be a certified plumber. She convinced her dad that she was just as capable and passionate as any man would be. Since then, she has been convincing the whole of New Zealand of the same thing. Jackie explains her journey and her career success comes down to one thing; attitude. The determination and perseverance Jackie has across every aspect of her life meant that giving up was never an option. And we think that’s pretty damn cool.

Nikita Ward – There’s more to plumbing than you think

The idea of working in tight spaces, with grime and sewer pipes gives most people the heebee jeebies. But Nikita Ward gives a different perspective. She’s a young woman in the third year of a plumbing apprenticeship and loving it. Last year, she achieved ‘Highly Commended Student or Apprentice’ in the National Association for Women in Construction Awards.

“Everyone thinks ‘plumber’ means sh*t,” says Nikita. “I’ve been doing this for three years and only had to deal with it maybe ten times. The grubby stuff is crawling under houses. You get used to it. I quite enjoy it now. I like the challenge of squeezing into small spaces.”

Nikita has some hilarious stories. “I was under a house once capping off an old heater and there was a funny noise. There were blue penguins living under the house. The guy I was working with kept shining his torch on them and they started making a racket. I shouted, stop shining the torch, you’re pissing them off! I’m still under here and I don’t want them running towards me!”

Nikita was planning on an Arts degree, but decided she didn’t like studying and doing essays, so ended up working at an After School and Holiday Programme – after three years she decided that dealing with kids all day was not for her! Her partner, who’s a builder, suggested a trade. “Electricity scares the crap out of me, so being a sparky was out the window, and I couldn’t be a builder because if I was better than him he’d get upset! So I thought sh*t doesn’t really bother me, how about plumbing?”

Nikita did a 17-week Pre-trade course at WelTech and topped her class. Trying to get an apprenticeship proved more difficult – but she was determined. “I rang and emailed heaps of people.”

Finally, she got a call from Colleen Upton at Hutt Gas & Plumbing. They weren’t looking for an apprentice but, after meeting her, Colleen immediately offered Nikita an apprenticeship, asking if she could start the next Monday. “I went what the…? Sweet!”

It’s a four-year apprenticeship involving study (the kind Nikita likes because she’s doing something she loves) and exams for a tradesman’s licence, followed by certification two years after that. “I’m in my third year and I’ve already sat my tradesman’s licence for gasfitting,” says Nikita. “Next, I want to get my licence for plumbing. It’s not easy but well worth it.”

Out of around 30 workers in the company there’s one other girl. “We work together a lot. It’s fun. We bounce ideas off each other. You can talk differently to girls than to boys. There’s things you wouldn’t say to a boy in case they get weirded-out!”

She says the attitude of the guys has been really good. “They take what I have to say on board, and they teach me their way of doing things.” Nikita’s boss, Colleen, says the boys didn’t blink an eyelid when Nikita joined, as Hutt Gas and Plumbing had already had a female plumber/gasfitter working for them.

One of the biggest challenges for Nikita is sitting down and studying. “School wasn’t the best thing for me because I’m dyslexic. I can read something and go… what the hell! But then one of the boys explains it to me and I get it.”

Colleen says, “I wish we could get more girls like Nikita into the trades. She’s brilliant. Girls are more consistent and mature than young boys. And customers love them.” But she says girls need a bit of fortitude. “The ones who make it are made of stern stuff.”

How does Nikita find the physical side of plumbing?

“You don’t have to be a massive body-builder. I’ve just had to work out how to tighten and loosen in my own way. Girls give it a bit more thought.” For example, to get more leverage she’ll use a longer tool than a guy might. “You do build up a bit of muscle though.”

One of the big things she likes about the job is variety. “You’re doing multiple things, dealing with different people and different situations.”

Nikita has been specialising in gas-fitting. At the end of a job she can stand back and say: I did that, I can do this. “It’s not just about pipes. There’s evidence of your work in front of you. You take pride in that. And when it works, that’s always a bonus!”

She gives a big laugh and comes out with the best line. “Plumbing’s not all about poo. It’s really rewarding.”