Lady tradies: my advice to women thinking about an apprenticeship, by Jessica Drady

I was never cut out for an office job. I grew up on a farm with three brothers and loved helping dad fix things in the shed. As a kid, I was always making, fixing or changing things, but it never occurred to me that building, or carpentry, could be a viable career option for a woman.

This all changed in my early 20s when I worked for my brother in his carpet laying business. It was physical, rewarding and gave me a great sense of achievement. That’s when I decided I wanted a career on the tools and started studying a Certificate III in Carpentry. It took six years to complete, in between having babies and raising two young kids, but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

Women in Apprenticeships

So here is some advice for other young women looking to start an apprenticeship in trade-based work to hopefully make your transition a little easier.

Stereotypes shouldn’t define you

There’s no doubt that stereotypes are a barrier for women wanting to enter the industry. I’ve seen and heard it all. Women aren’t strong enough. Women don’t perform as well as men in traditional trades. Women are better suited to being teachers or nurses or working in an office. These very specific ideas about gender are ingrained from an early age.

Then there’s the fact that some workplace cultures can be non-inclusive, traditionally masculine or ‘blokey’, and there may be biases against recruiting women, which can be intimidating for a young woman starting out in the industry.

I’ve used the male toilets on building sites (if there are toilets!). I’ve worn ill-fitting uniforms made for male bodies. I’ve hidden my pregnancies for as long as possible while trying hard to keep up with the physical demands of the job. I’ve spent countless hours at the gym working on my physical strength, so I don’t have to rely on my team mates to do the heavy lifting for me.

But I haven’t let any of that stop me from being confident and proud of what I’m doing. I love being a builder, and I think my response to people has even helped to change their attitudes.

Manual trades are often perceived to be ‘masculine’ professions, so females don’t generally consider careers in these fields, but I’m here to tell you they should.

The world is changing, and many women go into lower-paid jobs and careers without even considering a trade. But how many women have painted at least one room of a house or have made their own home improvements and enjoyed it?

There’s a huge range of jobs under the construction umbrella, but the industry needs to make studying construction more appealing to women, and we can do that by addressing these stereotypes with strong role models, awareness campaigns and education.

Awareness is critical

Despite these barriers, the presence of women in male-dominated trades is slowly increasing. I might be the only female chippy in the western NSW town of Nyngan, but you don’t have to look far over the Queensland border to see a record-breaking boost in females in the construction industry.

It’s time to make the most of this momentum.

We need more awareness and visibility of women in trades. We need to challenge feminine stereotypes and address myths about the capability of women in trade-based work.

The career guidance programs in our schools need to rethink the way trades are discussed, particularly with female students. There is a definite gender bias when it comes to talking about career options, with NSW Government reports showing that many female students aren’t told about apprenticeship pathways and often have limited access to trade-based subjects. This was certainly my experience at school.

This is also reflected in the discussions taking place at home, with many families not viewing trade careers as a viable option for their daughters.

There are many programs out there that expose women to trade careers, such as the Try-A-Trade program, which provides the opportunity to try their hand at a variety of trades, and schools should be actively encouraging female students to participate in these initiatives.

We need to start seeing non-traditional trades as viable career options for women, because they are.

There’s a world of opportunity for female tradies

Women like me who are practically minded have so much to offer the construction industry; fresh ideas, lower turnover and extra hands on deck to boost productivity. Everyone in the industry benefits when qualified women join construction teams, feel good about their jobs and enjoy rewarding careers.

I get so much job satisfaction when I see my ideas come to life. I work on structures and buildings that will last the test of time – it truly is a rewarding occupation for both men and women.

Women are the answer to the construction industry’s skills shortage. With the government looking to invest in infrastructure all over Australia, tradies are looking at years and years of job security. Road projects, building projects and other construction jobs are in high demand. It’s time for more women to tap into these opportunities.

Talk to the experts and seek advice before you get started

Once I’d finally decided to do a trade, I wasn’t sure how to find an apprenticeship. That’s when I turned to VERTO, a not-for-profit organisation assisting people like me to complete the paperwork, link me up with a TAFE course and find an employer who would enable me to learn on the job.

There are lots of organisations like VERTO that can point you in the right direction, answer your questions and give you the support you need to get started. CareerGate is a really good place to start.

Find a support network

There’s no way I could’ve finished my apprenticeship without the support of my busy partner, who helped look after our little kids and manage a farm while I was busy studying and working long hours to finish my trade.

There were some days when I wanted to throw my study in the too-hard basket. The nearest TAFE for me was a four-hour round trip, which I did 3-4 times a month to complete the course, plus the eight hours of face-to-face study. At one stage, I was doing this with a newborn in tow! It was gruelling, but I’m so glad I stuck at it because the career I have now made it all worthwhile.

Find an employer who will support you regardless of your gender. I’ve been lucky to find local builders who allowed me to get my trade, study and work at the same time. There are so many businesses out there who want to see you succeed – find them and work hard.

Share your story!

My last piece of advice is less about helping yourself and more about supporting women getting into trades. If you ever have the opportunity, please share your story, with other women, at schools, in the media or on socials.

Be open and honest. Help to break down the barriers and stigma that may be preventing other women from considering a trade.

If you’re thinking about an apprenticeship, approach a person in the industry or at TAFE that you look up to and ask them for some of their time and advice. 

You might be surprised by just how enthusiastic they will be to share their experience with you.