Women learning a trade at Unitec's Mataaho trade school (Photos: Yuki Zhang)

We need more houses and we need women to help build them

New Zealand is in desperate need of skilled tradespeople, which means it’s past time we got women onboard and on the drills.

In Mount Albert, on the land where a psychiatric hospital once stood, houses are about to be built. Earlier this year, the government announced it was purchasing 29 hectares of land from Unitec with the intention of building up to 4000 homes there. Those homes will be neighbours to Unitec’s brand new trades teaching facility, Mataaho, where homes are literally being built. The 7000 square metre building is like a giant lego warehouse. Except instead of blocks, it’s filled with all the ingredients needed to solve what has become New Zealand’s latest and most urgent crisis: an acute lack of affordable housing.

The floor area is split up into the different trades; electrical, plumbing, carpentry, mechanical engineering and welding, and automotive. Upstairs are virtual reality welding machines and dismantled car interiors. Downstairs are rooms built by the carpentry team, and plumbed by the plumbing students. On the day I visit I see thousands of screws, hundreds of wires, dozens of young men, and, by my count, seven women. Three in electrical, two in mechanical engineering, two in carpentry, none in plumbing.

At Unitec, the percentage of women in trade courses has risen from 16.9% in 2009 to 33.7% in 2018. The biggest increase has been in construction, where almost a third of students are now women. Interior design is an unsurprisingly reversed situation where 77 of the 83 students are women. But the most shocking number – or lack thereof – is in plumbing. This year, 466 students are enrolled in a plumbing course. Of the 466, just one is a woman. I’m not sure that gender breakdown, or its inverse, exists anywhere else in education.

I asked two of the plumbing tutors if they could give a reason for there being only one girl enrolled in their course for the whole year (she wasn’t there that day). They couldn’t. “I’ve been trying to figure that out for years,” one said. “In the nine years I’ve been here I’ve had eight women in total pass through the plumbing course.” Perhaps it’s simply that there are so few women plumbers, girls believe it’s not a viable career choice. But while it’s true that drainlaying (a portion of the plumbing course, along with gas fitting and roofing, of all things) is physical work, the vast majority of plumbing involves minimal grunt work. Could it be the… shit? One of the tutors laughs. “A new parent would touch more shit in six months than a plumber would in their whole career.”

It’s a puzzling stigma. Women doing ‘dirty’ work would be seen by many as being unladylike. Sure, clean up your baby’s shit and vomit, wash the skid marks out of your gross husband’s undies – but if a pipe bursts, don’t touch it cos it’s dirty and that’s a man’s job. Women have been conditioned and taught for centuries to maintain households. There’s no reason they can’t now learn to fix them.

If you asked me to draw a plumber, I would draw a middle-aged white man in cargo shorts, t-shirt, and work boots. If you asked me to draw an electrician I would draw the exact same man. A builder? Same man. If you asked me to draw an apprentice in any of these trades, I’d draw the man’s son.

In all my years around construction and renovation sites growing up, I never once saw a woman. Sadly, despite heartening social changes in the past decade, women in trades remain an anomaly.

Inside the big lego house, one such anomaly is examining an electrical outlet with long-nose pliers in hand. Sela Pohiva is 19 and always wanted to work in medicine. That is, until she neared the end of year 13 and realised actually she didn’t know. “You know when you’re in high school and you’re not 100% on what you want to do?” she says, once class is finished. “My focus was on health studies until I realised it wasn’t something I really, really wanted to do. I wasn’t passionate, really.”

Sela Pohiva studies electrical engineering (Photo: Yuki Zhang)

In the lead up to the 2017 general election, young people across the country celebrated as Jacinda Ardern pledged to make the first year of tertiary education free. It was good news for those young people who had their sights on a career in medicine or law or any other job requiring a degree. It was also good news for the many, many people who would go to university not knowing what they wanted to do but who now knew it would cost a whole lot less.

Industry and trade schools were included in the first year free plan. But unlike a bachelor of arts or commerce, the country urgently needs more people to go into trades because of, you know, the lack of housing. There are thousands of students every year who leave school and are willing to give anything a go. Give them a reason to give trades a shot and in the process, fill up the massive shortage in the industry.

For so long, kids have been told to do their best at school. Do their best, and if it’s good enough, go to university. And if you’re really good, study law or engineering or accounting or medicine. But there aren’t enough legal jobs for every law graduate to work in the industry. There aren’t enough jobs for every accountant. Yet there are currently more jobs than can be filled by trades students. The path of a successful member of society has long been believed to pass through universities. So while thousands of school leavers drift aimlessly to the university lecture theatres, trade companies desperately search for young people to employ.

The stereotype of trades being only for those who weren’t suited for the classroom is due for erasure. And with jobs like plumbing and construction only being pitched to half the population (men), it’s no wonder there’s a shortage of labourers.

Sela’s introduction to what would become her area of study came the way it’s meant to. “A youth worker at my school introduced trades to me,” she says. “Myself and a group of other guys went and tried plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and stuff. After doing some practical work I decided to pursue it.” It was that simple. Thousands of students visit career advisers searching for direction, and more often than not, they follow it. The work to destigmatise trades in general, but particularly for women, can begin in the counsellor’s office.

Of the five women I spoke to at Mataaho, Sela was the only one who had heard about trades as a career option at school. The rest were drawn through a familial link. “I chose to do welding because of my dad,” said Stevilee, who’s studying mechanical engineering. “He was a welder and engineer.” But the work itself also appealed. “I guess I just have a passion for doing practical things.”

For Sharon, a former baker and chef, training to become an electrician was also a practical move. “I do a lot of DIY work. I’ve done a lot of woodwork, I’ve put fences up for myself. I’d never wired stuff because I wasn’t qualified but I’ve always been very interested in how electricity works and in trades generally, so I think electrical is a good start.” She hopes to one day combine her skills into a new, unique business. “Maybe I could open an electrical appliance shop with my own little café next to it.”

Sharon studies electrical engineering (Photo: Yuki Zhang)

When asked why they thought there were so few women in all their courses, each woman I spoke to cited the lack of role models. They had never seen a female tradie before and didn’t think many girls would have. That’s why Rocsan, 22 and working full-time while she studies, chose mechanical engineering. “There aren’t many women in this course. I don’t know why,” she told me, while filing down a piece of metal to make a welding clamp. “You use your brain and then get to use your body, it’s exciting. Women can do both.”

My mum grew up in Samoa in the 50s and 60s. She was skinny and tanned, and hated it. To her and her siblings, the most beautiful girls at school were the pale, overweight ones. Because being overweight and pale meant you weren’t working outside on the plantation and always had enough food. The avoidance of physical labour has always been a sign of privilege. So what happens when physical labour becomes an avenue to that very privilege?

It’s the aesthetic of trades that seems to put people off. One of paint, grease, sweat, hard work, creation. Somewhere along the line, somehow, this aesthetic – this work that actually looks like work – became something to avoid. The ability to work physically and fix things day after day was seen as less than the ability to sort out someone’s taxes. But now, with so many jobs becoming automated and a housing crisis in our midst, suddenly the ability to build something, to fix something, is highly sought after.

Rocsan studies mechanical engineering (Photo: Yuki Zhang)

The lack of skilled tradespeople has only grown more evident with the increasing demand on construction. The Immediate Skills Shortage list by Immigration New Zealand shows that of the 57 areas listed across every industry as needing more workers, 29 are in construction and trades.

Next year, the government aims to build 1000 new homes as part of its Kiwibuild programme. In 2020, that number will jump to 5000, followed by a massive 12,000 new homes every year until 2028. When applications opened in July, 6000 aspiring first home owners applied by the end of the first week. Questions were raised around the criteria. Was the cutoff for earnings too high? Would there be considerations made for those with children? What about everyone who isn’t selected? There were so many questions but few were asking perhaps the most important : who’s going to build the 100,000 homes?

Hopefully, Sela. And Sharon, Stevilee, Rocsan, and countless other women. But at the current rate, it will take a long time or a full trade culture change for that to happen. While the overt sexism and sexualising of female tradies has lessened, there’s still an assumption by men, both qualified and students, that women need their help.

Going to university, regardless of the degree or its career viability, is encouraged and ‘good’. But if you’re unsure of what you want to do, it’s just as easy to learn a trade, something practical that will always come in handy. So next time you’re speaking to a young woman, or man, about what career path may be right for them, be sure to include the trades.

Because sometimes it’s good to get your hands dirty.


Unitec offers a friendly and diverse learning environment with flexible study programmes, lots of support, and hands-on experience to build the skills you need for your future. So if you want a career – professional, vocational or trade – then visit unitec.ac.nz and apply today.

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