It was never my intention to make myself a minority. I always had a chip on my shoulder about my upbringing – as does any teenager who gives up their weekends for their parent’s business – but it never drove me to intentionally seek uncommon pathways. Yet, growing up in business is the very reason I plunged head-first into a pathway without considering the cultural and social peculiarity of my decision. I believed I was capable, that was all the consideration I needed to push off from the start line. This left me running a race without knowing where the finish line was or what I wanted it to look like.
Did I have the endurance to reach the unknown depths of the future?
I didn’t ask myself this question until I was running, and by then it had already begun, and I wasn’t the type to give up.
This strange race and my movement into a minority group began with a work experience opportunity. Transitioning into a new school to begin year ten alongside my peers, I was ripe with excitement about the new environment and the ‘adult’ expectations of the faculty.
“This was it,” I thought. “These were the years I read about in books. I am finally mature enough for real adventures.” But I made a misstep out of my eagerness to explore. I raised my hand after attending a presentation from a local employer about trade careers. I was one of a dozen girls in the classroom. Out of the dozen girls, most of them attended the presentation to get out of class for half an hour. Trades were a “man’s job”, there was no reason for more girls to attend. Yet, I watched the presentation (without fully comprehending the opportunity offered) and raised my hand to sign up.
I could have left it there. A week later when I’d heard nothing back about the work experience opportunity I could have let it die. They’d forgotten I put my name down. But, it was never in my nature to forget. It wasn’t in my nature to let anything slip through the cracks, so I hunted down my career advisor and formalized my work experience with Cummins. At the time I had some idealized image of working on cars for a week like a sexy Megan Fox in the first Transformers movie. I was convinced working on cars would make me more desirable… Right?
It was a moot point. I hadn’t signed up to work on cars. Cummins was an engine business… A truck engine business. When I learned the true nature of my work experience, I immediately thought: “No way in hell can I do that.”
I imagined a dirty, greasy, male-dominated environment. Not even considering my gender, I had a small build and was short. How was I going to achieve anything on equipment with tires that were taller than my hips? I wasn’t even interested in mechanical work and knew nobody in the industry.
Yet, neither of my parents went to university and they ran a very successful small business, Pizza Party Hire, catering wood-fired pizzas. They insisted that there was no harm in trying. It was one week, and the work experience program was mandatory – I had to do something, so why not fix truck engines?
When I arrived at the workshop that dreaded Monday morning, I was extremely nervous. I sat in the tiled reception area watching a video play on a loop about the application of the Cummins engine. The video showed mining trucks as tall as houses, small boats, and ferries gliding across choppy water, and trucks towing shipping containers down the freeway.
My only thought was: “What am I doing here?” Apparently, I wasn’t the only one thinking that.
Upfit into blue and orange overalls that were twice my size, with the legs rolled up three times each and wearing safety boots which were heavier than any shoe I had ever worn, I made it into the workshop. The service manager, an impressive woman with a distinct Scottish accent, led me to stand in front of the supervisors, fidgeting with my over-sized sleeves. They were as surprised as I was by my attendance, yet that said nothing. They assigned me to a technician and sent me off into that strange new world.
It wasn’t as dirty and greasy as I imagined. The truck tires were big but there were steps to climb onto them safely. Yes, I stuck out like a sore thumb as the only female in the workshop, but no one treated me any differently.
For that entire week, I learned the names of tools as I passed them to the technician. We were carrying out a major repair with one of the first-year apprentices, a boy nicknamed ‘Hingy’ from his last name ‘Hinge’. The entire engine needed to be disassembled and rebuild due to internal damage. I learned about pistons and con-rods, about movies like ‘Happy Gilmore’ with Ben Stiller, and heard a few scary stories that taught me there was the potential for injury in the trade, but if I was vigilant, I would be safe.
It was like being introduced to colours for the first time. It was like there was an underwater world hidden inside the engine. Complexity existed inside the big red box in a way I could never have imagined.
I don’t remember any time I felt as exhausted as I had that week. I was hooked. That one week shaped my entire high school experience. I sacrificed one of my VCE subjects to sign up for an automotive class in my school and attended more workshops as I tried to find my place.
I learned a few things as I branched out into the mechanical industry:
- Car mechanics complain more than truck mechanics.
- Car mechanics earn less money than truck mechanics (their favourite complaint).
- Majority of car work (in a workshop) involved servicing, and that can get boring very quickly.
Before I had even made my decision, I was decided. It was a common conversation for me to tell my parents what the break times at Cummins were even as I completed my year twelve VCE. Despite being ‘undecided’, I never signed up for university courses – I didn’t even google courses – and by midyear, I applied for an apprenticeship.
That one week of work experience led to me becoming the second female apprentice in the branch despite completing VCE with results in the top 5% of the state. Even now, it is the most life-changing decision I have made, and I would never go back.
I joined a minority group. Not only was I a female in a male-dominated industry, but I was also a female and academic in trade.
At the start line, I had no idea how an apprenticeship or full-time job would shape me into the woman I am today. I never signed up expecting the opportunities I have received throughout my apprenticeship. I’ve spoken at business events, school conferences, and on-camera to advocate for women in trade careers. I earned the nickname ‘Super Apprentice’ within the first few months of employment because, despite my small stature, I had a great attitude towards learning.
No one held my hand at the start of my journey and told me how valuable I was as a woman in trade. Instead, I share that message for others in the community who need to hear it regardless of gender, skill-set, academic success, or physical build:
“Just because you carry out the work differently, doesn’t mean you are less valuable or capable.”
I performed my job to accommodate my weight and size, and that didn’t hinder me from completing my apprenticeship seven months early.
I joined a minority group, but that status is changing. Gender diversity in trade is increasing. Women in trades is a growing reality here in Australia, and the minority is not afraid to share their message:
“You are capable.”