Lego figures in various workers' uniforms. Photo: Getty Images

A chef, a plumber, a developer and an engineer on what it’s like to work in their field

Last week, a study was released listing the top 20 jobs New Zealanders should be studying for the future. This week, we asked those working in four of those jobs to explain how and why they chose their careers and what advice they’d give to students today.

Chef

Brody Jenkins (Little Easy/Jo Bros Burgers)

What do you do?

I’m currently head chef at Little Easy on Ponsonby Road. I’ve also just started a burger trailer called Jo Bros Burgers which just launched earlier this year.

Why did you decide to become a chef?

To be honest, I sort of just fell into it. I left school just before I turned 16 and I actually got my first job as a dishwasher [before working my] way through the ranks. I never really chose or wanted to be a chef – it kind of just happened, which I think might be the case for quite a lot of people actually.

Tell me about your study/training

I started as a dishwasher at a place in Henderson and they gave me the opportunity to start doing a bit of prep work in the kitchen. Then one of my family members who worked at SkyCity casino said an apprenticeship [at SkyCity] had come up that I should apply for. I applied for it but didn’t actually get it, so I took a dishwashing job at there instead. I then tried for the apprenticeship again the following year and I got it. I would’ve been around 17-18 years old when I got the apprenticeship.

How well do you think your training equipped you for the job you’re doing now?

I think the apprenticeship at SkyCity is one of the best ways to become a chef in New Zealand. In total, the apprenticeship is about three years of training which involves 10 weeks in each kitchen. At the end of the three years, you’ve worked at every kitchen at SkyCity. That way, you literally get a taste of everything, whereas if you studied [somewhere else], you’d learn the basics but you’d only get work experience at one or two places.

What were your job prospects like once you finished your training? Did you have any work lined up?

They guarantee you work after you finish training. I ended up working at The Grill after my apprenticeship in the pastry section. After a few months of that, I got put up to a demi chef which is the second rank up. After that, I’d kind of had enough of working as a chef and I went to America for six weeks to refresh my mind. Then I came back and did some casual work and other stuff like promotional and marketing.

I eventually went back to being a chef full-time working at Andy’s Burgers at SkyCity. After Andy’s, I went to work at The Grove which was my first fine dining experience. I was there for about nine months and that’s where I met Ben Bayly. Then I went to work for him at The Grounds out west. Then I left and worked a finance job  – I wanted to get out of the kitchen for a bit.

Is it quite common for chefs to jump around quite a bit?

Yeah, I guess in general chefs don’t spend more than two years at one place. When you’re in the lower ranks probably no more than a year. You try and learn as much as you can and then just go to the next place.

What are some of the best things about working as a chef?

I really like the team aspect of it. If you get a good team it’s an amazing feeling being able to turn up and work with a really good bunch of people. You get along, there’s banter all day, and you all just smash out work together.

I also know a lot of chefs that go overseas to work and travel at the same time. I haven’t done it [personally], but it’s a perk of being in hospo. You can go anywhere in the world and find a job, regardless of whether you speak the language or not. A lot of people in hospo are quite free spirits so I think it’s good they can go wherever’s best at the time.

What are some of the downsides about working as a chef?

For years on end, I didn’t really see any of my friends or family because of the hours [that I worked]. You’re either working night shifts or you’re working double shifts, and in the spare time you do get you either end up sleeping or not wanting to see anyone.

I think pay is the biggest thing. The amount of training and hours that go into becoming a chef is huge. Even after those three years of hard training, you start right at the bottom. When I finished my apprenticeship I was probably getting paid about $16.70-$17 per hour. A lot of people aren’t going to go through three years of training for that kind of pay. But I do think it’s changing though. More and more managers seem to understand that if they pay a bit more then people might show a bit more interest. But at the same time, people from overseas are willing to take lower pay than most locals, which I think is an issue.

Then there’s the pressure of the kitchen. Every minute of the day you work things get faster and faster. I think mental health comes into it as well. A lot of chefs working long hours and back-to-back shifts on not a lot of sleep builds up over time. To be honest, I think for a lot of people it just becomes too much. You don’t really have family or friends to bounce your feelings off of and then when you come to work usually the kitchen’s full of guys. You can’t really come into work and start talking about your feelings with each other. I like to talk about it but in environments like that, if you show even a little bit of weakness, you’d be looked at the weaker part of the team.

What would your advice be to people who are considering a career as a chef?

I’d say that before you put yourself through three or so years of training, I’d do some work experience and just ask to work in a kitchen for a few months just to see what it’s like. Because the love of food is the last thing you need to get you through. A lot of people love making food but have no idea of the ins-and-outs of a kitchen and the life that comes with it.

Brody Jenkins, right, with Jo Bros co-founder Josh Barlow, left (Photo: Supplied)

Developer / Programmer

Joe Swann (1/1 Studio)

What do you do?

I’m the technical director at 1/1 Studio where I deal with web design and development for our clients. I’ve been doing web development full-time for about half a decade now. 

Why did you decide to become a web developer?

I kind of fell into it by doing the occasional website on the side and I discovered I quite enjoyed the process. Mostly I just liked the challenge. In a lot of jobs, once you get to a certain point, you’re doing a lot of the same things every day. With programming, even when you think you know your way around, you can find yourself stumbling on things you didn’t even know existed.

Tell me about your study/training

I actually didn’t study web development or computer science – I did a Bachelors in Creative Technology at AUT instead. I did that because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I seriously considered product design and ultimately chose BCT because it seemed like it would be a good way to explore lots of potential career options. It didn’t really work since I still didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left.

With the BCT, I did learn some programming and a lot of interesting technical skills through it but I think the key skills I learned from it were more along the lines of managing deadlines and learning how to find things out for myself. And connections! I still work with people I met in university, which is pretty cool.

How well do you think your study/training prepared you for the job you do now?

I learned a lot of general skills, but as for actual technical skills, I remember thinking to myself that I learned more in the first six months of my new job than I did during my entire degree! The pace was completely different, and I always learned better when there was a concrete goal.

What were your job prospects like once you finished studying? Did you have any work lined up?

I did do an internship shortly after university which was really good, but as for work, I struggled a bit after graduating. I put it down to the fact that there isn’t (or at least wasn’t) a job called ‘creative technologist’. In retrospect should have thought about that earlier. Once I decided to go for a web development role I had to be pretty smart about getting my first job, but I ended up going freelance less than two years later and have been busy ever since! I think the first rung of the ladder is always the hardest.

What are some of the best things about working as a web developer?

High demand! I don’t think it’s a skill set that will go out of fashion any time soon. It also doesn’t get boring and solving a tough problem feels really good. It’s also great for working remotely.

What are some of the downsides about working as a web developer?

It’s a pretty mentally exhausting profession, especially to start with. It’s also easy to burn out if the deadlines get on top of you. There’s a lot of screen time involved as well, and you’ll probably start dreaming in code.

What would your advice be to people who are considering a career as a programmer/developer?

Don’t worry about getting a degree or certificate if what you ultimately want is a job. The resources online now for web development are so good and the landscape is moving so fast that most courses are out of date in no time. Focus on building a network and a good portfolio, find people whose work you like and learn from them. And above all I would say do it for the fun of it, insatiable curiosity and just trying things out will take you as far as you want to go.


Read more: The 20 top jobs New Zealanders should be studying for


Plumber / Drainlayer

Dion Pike-Taylor (Parkinson Plumbing/West Coast Drainage)

What do you do?

I work in Piha as a plumber and drainlayer.

Why did you decide to do plumbing/drainlaying?

My dad’s actually a drainlayer, he’s been a drainlayer for his whole life. He basically got into it when he was 15-16 and it just happened that I got into it too.

I sort of just got into it through school like a gateway course and then I’ve just pretty much been doing that ever since. I never really thought I wanted to be a plumber. It kind of just happened.

Did you have any other jobs you considered pursuing before you got into plumbing/drainlaying?

Not really. I got into it straight after school so this was my first real job. I didn’t really try anything else. I knew that I liked working outside and at school I did all the tech courses. I wasn’t very good at English or anything like that but I was pretty good at stuff like woodwork.

Tell me about your study/training

I did a four-year apprenticeship and every three months we did a course at uni for a week. So four years and then another two years to be qualified. That’s what I’m doing now: I’m in my last bit of study and then I’ll be certified. So in total, it’s a six-year process.

At the moment I can work and everything but I can’t sign off on my own jobs/be self-employed. That’s what those extra two years are for, it’s so you can be qualified to start your own business and be self-employed.

How well do you think your training equipped you for the job you’re doing now?

Really well I think. I don’t have any student loan, which is a positive. When you start it’s a bit of a struggle [since] I was on minimum wage for the first couple of years. But other than that, everything’s worked out well. I’m pretty much at the stage where I can do my last exam, become self-employed and start my own business. It’s set me up pretty good.

That’s the great thing about apprenticeships: you’re actually earning money at the same time. I think the theory is the hardest part for anyone in the trade really. Finding the time to put your head down and get stuck into the books.

What are some the best things about being a plumber/drainlayer?

Every day we’re working on different sites meeting heaps of new people. Working outside is awesome as well. There’s just so much variety of work, especially in Piha.

As long as you work hard for four to six years, you can do whatever you want and work wherever you want.

What are some of the downsides of being a plumber/drainlayer?

I’ve been pretty lucky with where I work. My boss is pretty cool and I work with a good bunch of people. There’s some early starts every so often and working in the rain’s not the most fun, but other than that, it’s actually pretty good. You get used to the [the physical work] after a couple of years.

What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about plumbing/drainlaying?

Maybe that it’s like a really dirty job? We get dirty sometimes but the majority of work is pretty clean and nice.

What sort of advice would you give to people considering a similar career?

Definitely go for it! I’ve talked to so many people who are a bit older who say they wish they got into a trade when they were younger. It’s only four years and you’ve got that qualification behind you for the rest of your life. Plumbing’s in big demand right now and there’s always going to be work no matter what. You just gotta put your head down and make time to do the book work.

Civil engineer Sulo Shanmuganathan, left, and civil engineering studnet Alexandra De Guzman, right (Photo: Supplied)

Civil Engineer

Sulo Shanmuganathan (Holmes Consulting)

What do you do?

I’m a civil structural engineer currently working as technical director at Holmes Consulting. I’ve been in the industry now for over 30 years.

Why did you decide to study engineering?

One reason is that my father was a civil engineer so there was a bit of influence there.I also thought that if you were good at maths and science, engineering was probably a good choice. 

Was it a hard decision to study engineering? When did you decide you definitely wanted to study this?

At the time in Sri Lanka, you had to decide at the end of year 10 (14-15 years old) before you do your A-levels. So my year 11 subjects were all based on what I wanted to do in uni. I know I wanted to do maths and engineering, even though engineering was very competitive. So I made that conscious decision in year 10.

Tell me about your study/training

I did my first engineering degree in Sri Lanka which took four years. Then in 1989 I did my postgraduate studies in Scotland at the University of Dundee. After I finished that I did my PhD at Nottingham University from 1991-1994. I then worked in the UK before coming to New Zealand. I’ve been working in New Zealand since 1997.

How well do you think your study equipped you for the job you’re doing now?

Looking back, I think it was good preparation for understanding the fundamentals [of engineering]. I don’t think you’d get that anywhere else unless you refer to a book or something. It’s a foundation for you to build upon. And then you have the internship which gives you a taste of what it’s like in the outside world.  You also learn in a team environment doing group work which is exactly how you work [in the real world].

What were your job prospects like once you finished studying? Did you have any work lined up?

When I graduated all of us got a job. I chose to become a teaching assistant at the uni I was studying at and I stayed there for almost two years before I went overseas. 

What are some of the best things about being a civil engineer? 

I think the most important thing is the fact that you’re at the centre of solving great challenges for communities. It could be a roading project, a motor treatment plant, an underground station, anything you do is really helping the community’s liveability. You could just a be a small part of it but you’re still making a valuable contribution. And the results are tangible, you can really see things changing, and the changes are really long-lasting.

I also really like working in groups. You get to work with people from different cultures and disciplines and come together to find a solution.

What are some of the downsides about being a civil engineer? 

Some of the paperwork perhaps. I’m not saying it’s not enjoyable but it’s kind of in the way when you’re busy.

There are also multiple demands because you’re often busy working three or four projects at the same time. That can be quite challenging, but that’s just life. Over time you come up with tools and techniques to manage that. It’s stressful and challenging but there are ways to manage that.

What’s your experience been like as a woman in an industry mostly dominated by men?

When I was studying in Sri Lanka, I think we had a class of something like 250 and 32 students were female, [and] when I first entered the industry, I wasn’t very happy to go to a site by myself. I didn’t feel confident, mainly because this was in the UK and there were more men than women on site. It was more of an intimidation thing than anything. I’d visit sites with a colleague – often a male colleague. I never had another female colleague working in the same department.

But everything changed when I came here. I was in charge of the Britomart underground station site and initially, I was a bit apprehensive. But I found things changed once we started.

What’s your advice to people considering a career in civil engineering?

I think engineering is changing now. It’s more about looking after the planet, looking after infrastructure: engineering is more nurturing than ever before.

You learn a lot of hard maths but you don’t use them on a day-to-day basis. That [hard maths] is just to prepare you if you ever need to go back to it. On a day-to-day basis, it’s more like how doctors see patients. You sit with your customer and try to come up with solutions. The only place where calculations come in is when you have to back up some of your opinions. So mostly it’s innovative and futuristic. 

Alexandra De Guzman (Engineering student)

What do you do?

I’m currently in my fifth year studying Civil Engineering and Arts at the University of Auckland.

Why did you decide to study engineering?

My dad’s an engineer but he’s an electrical engineer, which was one of the reasons why I didn’t want to do electrical! But I still wanted to be in the engineering space and I think I chose civil in the end because it’s very tangible. I thought civil was where you could influence the most and help the most people as quickly as possible.

Were careers prospects or money ever motivating factors?

No, not in high school. It was really just a matter of ‘I like calculus, I like physics’.

Tell me about your study/training

For my Bachelor of Engineering I’m specialising in civil environmental, focusing more on the environmental side.

How well do you think your study has equipped you for the job market?

A lot of what we do at the University of Auckland is theory-based and [during my first internship], the things we learnt at uni didn’t seem as relevant. But now in my second internship, I can actually see the theoretical side at work. But it’s not explicit. We don’t do calculations every day as we would at uni. 

As part of the degree, we have to do 800 practical hours and you can’t graduate unless you do it. It’s approximately two summer internships and because we have to do that, I think that gives us the practical side of engineering.

What do you think your job prospects will be like once you graduate? Did you have any work lined up?

A lot of my friends [from my engineering cohort] have already graduated and they’ve all got grad jobs lined up. A lot of them also got offers from several places.

What’s one thing that you really like about civil engineering?

I really like that it’s mostly project-based. There’s a high turnover of projects so there’s always a new problem to be solved. We often work in groups so I really like the idea that you work with a completely new group of people with each project.

What’s your experience been like as a woman in an industry mostly dominated by men?

My civil engineering cohort was about 35% female, which is quite high. And then within environmental, it’s about 60-70% female [which might come down to that] whole aspect of caring for the environment, sustainability etc.

What’s your advice to people considering a career in civil engineering?

If I could put myself in my high school shoes, I would’ve wanted to meet more engineering students and actual engineers and find out what they do day-to-day.

A common misconception of engineering is people thinking that ‘I don’t need to write anymore, I don’t need to talk to anyone anymore’. But actually, it’s the complete opposite. You have to communicate your idea.


Read more on the future of work: 

The new work order

The robots are definitely coming, but you might not need to be afraid

Three women on working in the man’s world of energy distribution

Turning beauticians into digital whizzes


The Spinoff’s business section is enabled by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.

Check out how Kiwibank can help your business take the next step.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.