With more than five decades’ experience in construction, industry stalwart Ben Mckay still loves using his skills to help others. Find out how Ben’s trade has allowed him to be his own boss and taken him around the world, from Mangere to Myanmar.

Learning a trade has been life-changing for Ben Mckay. Since training as a builder back in the late 1960s through the Māori Trade Training Scheme, the 70-year-old’s practical skills have continued to open doors for him.

After getting his carpentry and joinery apprenticeship, Ben was able to take his trade overseas, including to the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma). 

This experience meant he could see the world while earning money and continuing to grow his skills – an option he says is still a great choice for young tradies.

“Look at the journey,” says Ben. “I didn’t know I was going to go overseas. Someone just approached me. They saw I’d been through the trades, and they asked if I’d like to go and work overseas. 

“I’ve never, ever paid for a passport in my life – and I’ve had four of them! Those opportunities still exist for the young ones today.” 

Ben, who was born in Wairoa, knew it was important to get qualified thanks to advice from his dad.

“I always remembered in the back of my mind that my dad said: ‘Get a real job — not a labouring job or making tea or something like that’.”

So, at 17 years old, Ben (Ngāti Kahungunu Ki Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Porou, Waikato) caught a train from Hastings to Wellington, to do his carpentry and joinery apprenticeship. 

He did his training through the Māori Trade Training Scheme, in which MPTT Auckland has its roots. The scheme saw thousands of Māori gain trade qualifications between 1959 and the mid-1980s, creating a generation of Māori leaders in the trades — a legacy MPTT is working to continue.

“Doing that training was a turning point for me,” says Ben. “There were 23 of us and we lived in the hostel together, learning plumb, square and level from our tutors.

“We lived, cried and did everything there together.”

After eight years in Wellington, Ben got married and eventually moved to Auckland for work.

“I was managing the trades training for Owens from their office in Ponsonby. They had two hostels here and I used to check what supplies and equipment they needed to be building houses.”

Later he worked for Fletcher Construction, where he managed the steel works in Mangere, and spent four years working for himself as a contractor. He also worked for Australian company Civil & Civic on multi-story buildings on Queen St, and even spent some time building sets for TV shows. 

Then in 1987, Fletcher invited Ben to go to the Solomon Islands to help build a secondary school. He stayed there until 1993, along with his wife and four children. 

“Every weekend I went fishing — I didn’t go to the pub. We caught everything up there, even snakes and crocodiles!

“We collected mushrooms, grew our own food, went crab hunting and did crab races — it was a good life.”

After working in several places in Asia and the Pacific, Ben returned to New Zealand and used his skills to work for himself. He started two businesses, one of which he still runs. 

A big benefit of being a qualified carpenter is you can build your own home, says Ben.

“Building your own home is a great way to get ahead. I’ve built homes for my brother, my brother-in-law, my cousins, and all over the world.” 

Having built everything from mega structures to humble abodes, Ben has always enjoyed using his skills to solve problems and help others. These days, he continues to give back to those in his community.

“Me and my son just went around to help this old lady — she’s 76. We spent three hours fixing up her stairs, using whatever timber we had. She asked us, ‘How much?’ I just said, ‘What do you mean?’

“I just like to help people who need help. It’s good to give back.”

Ben’s career has taken him far and wide. Here, he’s seen working on a project in Niue, for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

Māori and Pasifika Trades students are always part of the whānau, even after graduation. As one of our alumni, we’ll let you know about industry news and job offers and give you ongoing access to a supportive network in the trades. Make sure you follow us on Facebook and Instagram to stay connected.