TAFE courses have seen a notable upswing in the number of women on the tools. We speak to a couple of apprentices who are winning awards and breaking new ground.
It is not surprising that TAFE might prove to be an attractive option for Chelsea Hinds – she enjoys making environments better for people, and she loves hands-on, physical work. After years in retail, she was doing some landscape gardening when she realised her love of all things construction. Deciding on carpentry and cabinet-making, after a pre-apprenticeship she began working at Kubale Constructions full time, with three days a month studying at TAFE Gippsland. Chelsea is working towards a dual qualification; she has finished carpentry and is now in the second year of her cabinet-making apprenticeship.
“It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been trying to get into this kind of work since I was 18 and now I’m 29,” Chelsea says. Speaking at a recent state government press conference, she said the government subsidy covering her wages has made a quantifiable difference to her life.
Chelsea appreciates working with women. “It’s very important – to get away from the boys’ club. I would say to other women: if you want to do it, go for it. Don’t let anything hold you back.”
It hasn’t always been easy. “The negatives have been sexist comments from men who don’t see women as capable of this kind of work. I had one run-in with a freshly qualified apprentice, and I had a comment from a previous boss saying I should know better as I’m a mum.
“I still don’t understand that one. I went into shock and just laughed. He was constantly calling me ‘useless’. The banter is strong, but he crossed the line into bullying.”
At Kubale Constructions, where she is working now, Chelsea feels supported. “Here it’s the complete opposite. It’s very encouraging. They take the time to teach you and allow you to make mistakes.”
Chelsea says her boss is going to be looking for more women apprentices in the future. “We are reliable, loyal, honest, hard-working, careful with tools, and have great attention to detail. And we’re not mucking around – we’re more focused.”
While COVID has been disruptive, she says TAFE has been a positive experience. “I feel as though I’m getting better quickly. The amount I’ve learnt has skyrocketed.”
The confidence to belong
Jenneke Kijlstra-Shone is the delighted recipient of the regional award of Apprentice of the Year for the Gippsland region. She is about to finish her carpentry apprenticeship; works three days a week, and in the first three years, has spent three days of every month at Gippsland TAFE.
“I’ve got two kids. When they were young, I was at home with them and making things with them all the time. This motivated me to enrol in a furniture-making course at TAFE one day a week. TAFE made this possible for me by being very flexible. I loved being able to go there and use the workshop. The teachers were very easy about the projects I wanted to work on and what timbers I could use. This is how I started working with timber.”
Jenneke now works at Amber Creek Sawmill. “We use the timber to make oversized timber-framed buildings. It is like furniture-making on a much larger scale. I usually work alongside men, but there have been moments when almost half the employees were women.”
While Jenneke loves what she’s doing, she says it’s taken her a while to feel that this is an industry in which she belongs. “I felt like an interloper initially. Now, it feels completely normal and I feel like I fit in. I’ve worked with a few different builders and I have made connections, and so now people know who I am.
“At first, people weren’t used to having a woman in my role – they didn’t expect it. Suppliers and other tradespeople would think the job site was my house, rather than realising that I was working there as one of the carpenters.
“Initially, when I went to my local hardware shop, they’d tell me how to do things that I do every day, like use a handsaw. It’s patronising that they assume I don’t know how do these things.”
“The teachers at GippsTAFE were all very welcoming and supportive. They have years of experience, and all have their own tricks and tips, which makes the practical learning more interesting.”
She is quick to point out the uniqueness of the Amber Creek Sawmill. “My employers really value diversity. I don’t feel like I need to become one of the boys to be valued. They look at what a person can offer, not their packaging. This means you can be yourself at work.”
This attitude is becoming increasingly common as more employers appreciate the value of staff diversity, which has a positive affect on morale as well as the quality of the work, with input from various skillsets and backgrounds.
Jenneke has enjoyed the TAFE experience. “The teachers at GippsTAFE were all very welcoming and supportive. They have years of experience, and all have their own tricks and tips, which makes the practical learning more interesting.”
Jenneke has a strong sense of her future. “As long as my body holds up, I’ll be working on the tools. My boss was confident that I could do the work. His confidence gave me the confidence to try. Even when I was insecure and unsure inside, my boss never showed any doubt. That really helped.”
To get involved with the AEU’s national TAFE campaign, visit rebuildwithtafe.org.au.