The idea of working in tight spaces, with grime and sewer pipes gives most people the heebee jeebies. But Nikita Ward gives a different perspective. She’s a young woman in the third year of a plumbing apprenticeship and loving it. Last year, she achieved ‘Highly Commended Student or Apprentice’ in the National Association for Women in Construction Awards.
“Everyone thinks ‘plumber’ means sh*t,” says Nikita. “I’ve been doing this for three years and only had to deal with it maybe ten times. The grubby stuff is crawling under houses. You get used to it. I quite enjoy it now. I like the challenge of squeezing into small spaces.”
Nikita has some hilarious stories. “I was under a house once capping off an old heater and there was a funny noise. There were blue penguins living under the house. The guy I was working with kept shining his torch on them and they started making a racket. I shouted, stop shining the torch, you’re pissing them off! I’m still under here and I don't want them running towards me!”
Nikita was planning on an Arts degree, but decided she didn’t like studying and doing essays, so ended up working at an After School and Holiday Programme – after three years she decided that dealing with kids all day was not for her! Her partner, who’s a builder, suggested a trade. “Electricity scares the crap out of me, so being a sparky was out the window, and I couldn’t be a builder because if I was better than him he’d get upset! So I thought sh*t doesn’t really bother me, how about plumbing?”
Nikita did a 17-week Pre-trade course at WelTech and topped her class. Trying to get an apprenticeship proved more difficult – but she was determined. “I rang and emailed heaps of people.”
Finally, she got a call from Colleen Upton at Hutt Gas & Plumbing. They weren’t looking for an apprentice but, after meeting her, Colleen immediately offered Nikita an apprenticeship, asking if she could start the next Monday. “I went what the…? Sweet!”
It’s a four-year apprenticeship involving study (the kind Nikita likes because she’s doing something she loves) and exams for a tradesman’s licence, followed by certification two years after that. “I’m in my third year and I’ve already sat my tradesman’s licence for gasfitting,” says Nikita. “Next, I want to get my licence for plumbing. It’s not easy but well worth it.”
Out of around 30 workers in the company there’s one other girl. “We work together a lot. It’s fun. We bounce ideas off each other. You can talk differently to girls than to boys. There’s things you wouldn’t say to a boy in case they get weirded-out!”
She says the attitude of the guys has been really good. “They take what I have to say on board, and they teach me their way of doing things.” Nikita’s boss, Colleen, says the boys didn’t blink an eyelid when Nikita joined, as Hutt Gas and Plumbing had already had a female plumber/gasfitter working for them.
One of the biggest challenges for Nikita is sitting down and studying. “School wasn’t the best thing for me because I’m dyslexic. I can read something and go… what the hell! But then one of the boys explains it to me and I get it.”
Colleen says, “I wish we could get more girls like Nikita into the trades. She’s brilliant. Girls are more consistent and mature than young boys. And customers love them.” But she says girls need a bit of fortitude. “The ones who make it are made of stern stuff.”
How does Nikita find the physical side of plumbing?
“You don’t have to be a massive body-builder. I’ve just had to work out how to tighten and loosen in my own way. Girls give it a bit more thought.” For example, to get more leverage she’ll use a longer tool than a guy might. “You do build up a bit of muscle though.”
One of the big things she likes about the job is variety. “You’re doing multiple things, dealing with different people and different situations.”
Nikita has been specialising in gas-fitting. At the end of a job she can stand back and say: I did that, I can do this. “It’s not just about pipes. There’s evidence of your work in front of you. You take pride in that. And when it works, that’s always a bonus!”
She gives a big laugh and comes out with the best line. “Plumbing’s not all about poo. It’s really rewarding.”