Women in building on the rise

Wanaka builders (from left) Jess Nielsen, Amy Swann, and Amy Dunnage all work for McKay Brothers...
Wanaka builders (from left) Jess Nielsen, Amy Swann, and Amy Dunnage all work for McKay Brothers Building in Wanaka. PHOTO: SANELE CHADWICK
Jess Nielsen is nailing her career.

Ms Nielsen is one of the stars of a campaign launched by building and construction training organisation BCITO to encourage more employers to consider hiring women in the construction industry.

Women in BCITO apprenticeships have grown from under 1% in 2015 to just over 6% and the organisation’s goal was to lift that to 10% by December next year through focusing on addressing ongoing misperceptions about women’s ability to take on physical jobs.

Ms Nielsen was third in the Masters Builders Apprentice of the Year competition last year; the first woman to place and the second to reach the national competition.

She now works for McKay Brothers Building in Wanaka, a business where owners Joe and Lucinda McKay say they set the culture from the start to welcome diversity, be it age, ethnicity or gender. The firm has a team of 10 builders, plus Mr and Mrs McKay, and included three women.

For Ms Nielsen, originally from Auckland, becoming a builder was not a pre-determined career path. After taking a gap year after secondary school, she had been doing some labouring jobs, working with her handyman father. She did not realise the opportunities in the industry until she was in it, she said.

Keen to get more apprentices into the business, Mr McKay said hiring her was not a big decision.

"She was confident, easy to talk to, easygoing. Obviously her resume spoke for itself.

"With her background and what she had done with the apprenticeship competition, I’d have been silly not to hire her. Jess is a rock star", he said.

A vacancy then arose for another builder and Amy Dunnage is now foreman in the crew that Ms Nielsen works in. She lost her previous job in auto-glazing due to the Covid-19 pandemic and decided to choose another career.

"I chose building because I’d like to build my own home one day. You can’t really do that without being a builder", she said.

She enjoyed "watching something turn from nothing to a house and being able to stand back at the end of the day and go, ‘wow, we did that"’.

Most recently, Amy Swann joined the team as an entry level apprentice.

Before hiring Ms Nielsen, Mr McKay said he had very little exposure to women in the building industry.

From what he could see, it was tricky to get a woman to join the business "because we were a bit of an unknown".

But once they employed her, he believed it became easier to attract other women because they felt more comfortable.

He believed that was a hurdle to overcome.

When the couple hired staff, it was all about hiring the person that was best for the job. All three women in the firm were the best candidates and the decision was not gender-based, he said.

Much had changed in the building industry in recent years. When he first started just over 20 years ago, having a female in the building crew was "unheard of". But changes, including the shift away from having to lift frames by hand, meant it was much better suited to "everybody".

If people had to change the way they were doing things on-site because they employed women, then they were doing something wrong. He encouraged other building firm owners to "just give it a crack".

"It’s worked out so good for us", he said.

Mrs McKay encouraged young women to take advantage of the likes of Gateway programmes in secondary schools to try the trades and get a sense of the job before committing. It was also a transferable skill for anyone wanting to travel overseas.

Mr and Mrs McKay have a 6-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. She hoped that when her daughter was approaching the end of her school years that, if she wanted to be a builder, "it was outwardly obvious that it was just a natural choice rather than it being the exception".