Tradespeople do a lot of great work, but it’s not every day they get national recognition for their skills. After delaying his building career for years to be a stay-at-home dad, former MPTT trainee Robert Piutau was stoked – and a little surprised – to win second place in the New Zealand Certified Builders Apprenticeship Challenge this month.
Find out more about Robert’s journey into the trades and how he earned his impressive placing at the awards.

When Robert Piutau found out he’d won second place in a national building competition, it took a few moments for the good news to sink in. “I was at the awards dinner and I heard my name and saw it on the screen – but it didn’t hit me straight away. Then someone behind me said ‘Hey, that’s you’. I think I was in shock that I got a placing.”

Robert competed against 18 other finalists in the New Zealand Certified Builders (NZCB) Apprentice Challenge, held over three days in Rotorua in May. Judges scored the finalists in various areas, including a presentation, an interview, and written material such as their portfolio, cover letter and CV. They also built a catapult as part of a separate promotion with Mitre 10.

“I didn’t think I’d place in the top three,” says Robert, 33. “Especially with the calibre of guys there.” For claiming a podium finish, Robert won $2500 worth of tools, plus took home the Mitre 10 bench tools he used to make the catapult.

“We kind of felt like superstars down there for the way we were treated. It was such an awesome opportunity and I’ve never had that kind of experience before.

“I came away really motivated to persevere and continue my studies and apprenticeship, and then just go on to get qualified.”

Robert and the other apprentices showcased their skill and creativity by constructing a working catapult during the NZCB Apprentice Challenge. Photos courtesy of ITAB Auckland.
Hammer time

To secure his spot in the national competition, Robert first competed – and came out on top – in a search for North Auckland’s best building apprentice.

Nineteen of the area’s most skilled apprentices went head-to-head for eight hours at the regional challenge in April, turning construction plans into a detailed children’s play castle. Each playhouse included a turret and working drawbridge, and was judged by a panel of experts on workmanship, measuring, cutting and assembly.

Robert came away with the highest overall score – but he says it wasn’t an easy challenge.

“At first I was surprised that I won. I had a few challenges on the day and made a couple of major mistakes, but I knew I had to keep going.

“I started differently to the other guys and built it the other way around – starting with the cladding and then doing the frames last. My family came and I pretty much had nothing to show for the whole day. Then in the last half hour I put everything up, and it was all go from there.”

The Mangere resident, who is in the second year of his apprenticeship at ABS Builders, had the added challenge of leading a father-son building event the night before at Kelston Girls College – an initiative of his church, Breakthrough Church.

“I was focused on that and it didn’t finish until around midnight. So it was all go for me on the Saturday of the competition – I only had a couple of hours to go through the construction plans.

“What helped was knowing how well the event had gone the night before. Seeing those kids and their fathers come together and do a project, and just seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces – that was priceless.”

Robert Piutau at the Nationals
“I didn’t think I’d place in the top three, especially with the calibre of guys there.”
Robert Piutau at the Nationals
Robert was stoked to be able to keep the tools provided by Mitre 10 Trade for the catapult challenge.
Family man

Although he was introduced to building by his grandfather at a young age, it took a while for Robert to realise he wanted a career in the trades.

The father of four – daughters Edenn (12) and Ayvah (9), and sons Abraham (6) and Joel (7 months) – had been a self-employed courier driver before staying at home to care for his eldest son for more than four years.

“It was a great experience being home with my son. I can honestly say it was the hardest job I’ve done.”

It was during this time that Robert realised he wanted to be a builder, thanks to a visit from his uncle.

“While I was a stay-at-home dad, I gave my uncle a hand renovating my parents’ house. That was when I realised, ‘Man, I’m actually pretty good at this’ – and I liked it too.

“I started helping family out, changing door locks and doing all the odd jobs they couldn’t do. If I didn’t know how to do something, I’d just pick it up and try to figure it out. That’s how it all started for me.”

During the years that Robert took on the bulk of the parenting, his wife Meli was studying to be a nurse. She qualified last year as a registered nurse, allowing Robert to spend more time focusing on his own career.

“We both left our studies late because we weren’t sure what we wanted to do,” says Robert. “But now we’re on the right track. My wife’s found work with Plunket, and I’m finishing my apprenticeship.”

In training

With Robert’s parents being from Tonga – his mum Melenaite from Folaha and his dad Manako from Kolofo’ou – he qualified for an MPTT scholarship. This covered his fees as well as ongoing coaching and support.

“It was a huge help because at the time my wife was still studying. We were getting by week to week without much money, so the scholarship really helped me.

“If I hadn’t got the scholarship, I don’t know if I’d have been able to study. It was a huge opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it.”

Robert completed his pre-trades course at Unitec while working as a builder on Thursdays and Fridays – experience that eventually helped him land an apprenticeship.

“The first year I decided to become a chippy, I had no idea about the terminology. I didn’t know what was what. That one-year course really prepared me for life on the job. It was pretty full-on for me to work as well as study, but we needed the money for our family.”

Seeing the growing need for skilled tradespeople, Robert knew he wanted to get qualified as soon as possible.

“I saw the benefits to doing an apprenticeship and being to learn from someone who’s experienced. I was motivated and pretty much had an apprenticeship lined up by the time I finished the year of study.”

Now that he’s well on his way to being qualified, Robert also likes to let others know about the benefits of joining MPTT.

“I introduced the scholarship to my little brother-in-law. I’d like to inspire other Māori and Pasifika to get into the trades.”

What you can learn from Robert
  • Give things a go – even if you don’t think you’ll succeed. Robert was surprised to win both his regional and national awards – but even though he hadn’t expected to win, that didn’t stop him from getting involved. While you’re gaining experience, it’s normal to worry you’re not skilled enough or not as good as other people. So instead of waiting until you feel ready, aim high and give it your best shot. No matter what, it’ll be great experience – and like Robert, you might be surprised how well you do.

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