After studying marketing and working her way into hotel management in Samoa, a lucky encounter saw Flora Rivers take a leap across the Pacific and into the trades. The construction apprentice and MPTT scholar was recently the keynote speaker at the Women in Trades Mini Conference, where she shared her inspiring story with other women looking to join the industry.

Flora’s trades career began unexpectedly, thanks to a broken chair.

She was managing a hotel in Samoa when a guest accidentally damaged the chair, and Flora decided to attempt fixing it.

“And I did. I fixed it,” says Flora. “I was so proud of myself. It looked sturdy and nearly perfect. Except the same guest came around and sat on the chair again, this time completely ruining it. So I had no choice but to throw it away.”

But a couple named Janice and Craig, who were staying at the hotel, saw Flora’s efforts and asked to speak with her urgently.

Flora visited their hotel unit, unsure of what to expect. When she walked in, she was stunned to see a neat spread of tools laid out on the bed, the floor and the kitchen counter.

“They told me they’d seen my attempts to fix the chair, then asked what I thought of the tools in front of me. They hoped I liked them because they were all for me.”

Craig, who was a tradie, then picked up each tool and told her its name and how to use it.

For the rest of Craig’s stay at the hotel, Flora spent her spare time learning from him. They crawled under local houses to inspect pipes and search for defects. They fixed small issues, and created a plan for the bigger jobs to be done in the future.

“Some of those big jobs I hope to one day be able to fly back home and fix myself,” she says.

Family matters

Flora soon began looking into formal construction training. She eventually moved to New Zealand to study at Unitec with help from an MPTT scholarship.

Coming from a life in Samoa where she was surrounded by loved ones, a big challenge for Flora is being apart from her family.

“The most difficult thing for me is having to be away from my family every single day. Not a single day can pass without me wishing I could open the door when I get home from work and see them all there.”

With Flora being “the third stubborn daughter out of five”, her parents soon came around to supporting her unexpected career choice.

“This is not what my parents had envisioned for me. But they supported me when I took the leap alone to New Zealand to pursue a trades career, and continue to support me in my apprenticeship with encouragement and always believing in me.”

Flora discovered her future employer Johnstone Construction at the Women In Trades 2018 conference, where they were hosting a ‘Have A Go’ excavator activity. Impressed by their support of gender diversity in the trades, she eventually joined the team and now holds the title of their first female site crew member.
Women’s work

With the trades still being a male-dominated industry, the MPTT scholarship and Unitec course helped Flora meet other women tradies.

“It was great meeting other girls who were doing the same thing. Knowing I wasn’t alone and seeing other women who were interested in the trades was a huge boost.”

Flora, 25, is now an apprentice at Johnstone Construction, the company’s first female site crew member.

She says women joining the trades should be prepared for some challenges, but shouldn’t try to become someone they’re not.

“You will be forcibly pushed out of your comfort zone, mainly because the industry is still very heavily dominated by men. But don’t worry, you will get used to being surrounded by them and their banter,” she says.

“If I have one recommendation, it’s that you don’t have to pretend to be a male; you can still be a woman and use the tools. You don’t have to try and act or speak the way men do. You can be true to you and be just as good as anyone else – if not better.”

Flora, right, at last year’s Women in Trades Conference
Go figure

As a woman, Flora quickly spotted room for improvement in the gear she had to wear on site.

“The workwear is all geared towards men and their figures, not ours. That, of course, is understandable, but the times are starting to slowly change,” she says.

“Because of my background, I have started to design, and my mother is helping me sew, proper workwear attire for women: work shirts and trousers that suit female figures, and have the required fluro and safety elements. So maybe one day, there will be more options on the market for women in trades to dress comfortably, safely and practically.”

Flora is currently testing her designs on the job, and she hopes to make them available to other women tradies next year.

“It’s quite technical. I want to make sure the pieces last, as well as fit women’s bodies. First I wear it on site to see if it tears. If it does, I go back to mum and talk about it over video so she can make improvements using the right materials.”

Constructing a career

Flora is loving life as a tradie, and enjoys getting outdoors to do hands-on work.

“My office space is forever changing, and is 10 times larger than any fancy enclosed box in a high-rise building. And one day, I’ll probably be able to say I helped build one of those buildings.

“I enjoy being able to get dirty in the best way at work. This is one career where the phrase ‘my blood, sweat and tears’ are all true, and I’ve learned to love it.”

The variety in her job means there’s always something new to capture her interest.

“I love being able to do yesterday’s hard job a lot easier today, and being able to continuously grow and progress in a field without getting bored, because every day will be a challenge.”