Toi Ohomai Civil Engineering graduate, Chelsea Oliver Toi Ohomai Civil Engineering graduate, Chelsea Oliver CREDIT: Graeme Murray

Women graduates thrive in perceived 'male' careers

Tuesday 4 July 2017, 3:08PM
By Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology


Two top Toi Ohomai graduates are proving women can stand out and succeed in what are seen as traditional male careers.

Chelsea Oliver, a civil engineering technician, and Holly Morrison, a builder, recently completed courses at Toi Ohomai’s Windermere Campus in Tauranga. Both women were given top student awards in their respective courses and are now working full-time in careers they love and in industries desperate for skilled workers. 

Engineering the region’s roads
As a child, Chelsea Oliver was always fascinated by roads – how roads were designed, built and realigned. Now 26, she’s relishing her new graduate position with Westlink, which is responsible for maintaining all local roads and state highways in the Western Bay of Plenty. She’s getting a taste of all aspects of the business, from helping improve the safety of our roads to working through the design calculations for up-coming road resurfacing projects. 

“It’s really satisfying to be able to apply the work we learnt during our studies. It’s challenging; there’s a lot of planning involved, and thinking outside the square. And there’s a lot of responsibility on you to make sure everything is as safe as possible – I have to be able to say why I would recommend one type of surfacing over another. I’m learning something new every day.”

She says people who love maths will love this job. She has to make calculations about traffic loading and calculate the amount of materials required for each project as well as making recommendations on design. She tells other women not to doubt themselves, like she did when she left school.

“I did calculus, physics and chemistry at school and applied to do engineering at Canterbury but then worried that I wasn’t smart enough. I studied for a Bachelor of Dental Technology instead, but after working for two years realised I didn’t like it, and then started my Diploma in Civil Engineering.

“People think engineering is for males but in my workplace it’s more like a 50/50 mix. It’s never too late to start again and as a mature student you approach it differently. I worked a lot harder this time and took my studies more seriously.” Chelsea completed the course top of her class of 25 civil engineering graduates.

At the end of her first year at Toi Ohomai, she applied for work experience roles and was lucky to land a summer position with Westlink, which later morphed into her current graduate role. Her aim is to become a fully qualified civil engineer and continue to work in roading, in either a design or asset management role.

“The Diploma course is a really good mix of practical, hands-on work and theory and it’s great to be able to now apply all that learning in my work.”

Transforming empty paddocks into quality homes
Holly Morrison had set her sights on a joinery career but changed her mind during her one-year carpentry course at Toi Ohomai. 

She graduated top of her class and is now an apprentice carpenter working for Allan Shaw of Atrium Homes on new home construction. Over the next four years she will complete the National Certificate in Carpentry (Level 4) through Toi Ohomai, studying theory papers, attending block courses, and accruing 8000 hours on the job to become a fully qualified carpenter. 

“With building, every day is different; it keeps me on my toes. I could be putting up rafters or wall framing or concreting or doing the finishing jobs like architraves and scotia. It’s good to do a bit of everything. 

“Everyone on site has their strengths and weaknesses and I really like the finishing work because you have to be so precise with measuring – right down to the millimetre. It’s a passion for me to make good quality work. Once it’s put up, it has to be perfect.”

Holly reckons women should definitely consider carpentry as a career and says any bias of women being on a building site is really about individual people and their attitudes. 

“I’ve never come across any discrimination. Sometimes people give me a second take and then it’s like, ‘ok, cool’. I tell women to go for it because it’s a great job. Every day is different, the money is good and people you work with are really cool.”

In the beginning Holly did notice she tired easily with all the heavy lifting and working long hours, but says, just like working out at the gym, it’s about building up your strength. Women don’t need to be tough and muscular to do this job, she says.

“For a chick you’ve got to have a passion because you have to be able to push through those first few tough months. Now I’m carrying heavy stuff around site that I couldn’t do before.”

Holly found the hands-on Toi Ohomai course – which involved students building a three-bedroom house on campus – gave her a really good taste of what to expect on a real building site, and set her up with the skills to be job-ready on day one.

“They’re really great skills to have because I know I can also use them to fix up my own house one day. It’s cool that you can start out with just an empty paddock and end up with a building you have helped make, using your own skills and knowledge.”

According to MBIE’s Occupation Outlook 2017, engineering professionals are in short supply in New Zealand, with new graduates in high demand. Many engineering jobs are on Immigration New Zealand’s skill shortage lists. Strong demand for carpenters, joiners, construction workers, electricians and plumbers is also expected to continue, particularly in Auckland and Canterbury.

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