Coming to New Zealand for rugby, George Patterson found his passion in something he never expected. Since receiving his MPTT scholarship, he’s become a qualified mechanical engineer and has spent the last 10 months working on Watercare’s $1.2 billion Central Interceptor project, New Zealand’s longest wastewater overflow tunnel. But the journey hasn’t always been easy. Find out how George overcame a fear of asking questions and became an invaluable part of his team.
A career in the trades wasn’t George’s first plan. But after seeing a demand for mechanical engineers, he decided to give it a try.
At the time, rugby was still his priority. But as he learned more about the trade, he began to develop a real passion for it.
With support from his family and an MPTT scholarship, George completed his National Certificate in Welding (Level 3 and Level 4) at Manukau Institute of Technology.
“My mum and dad always encouraged me towards something like this,” says George, who grew up in Suva but is from Levuka, Ovalau Island in Fiji. “They said sport would only take me so far.”
In 2016, George landed an apprenticeship at Abergeldie Complex Infrastructure in Papakura, with help from his MPTT navigator. But life on the work site was more challenging than he’d expected.
Learning to speak up
George’s apprenticeship journey was a bumpy road. Not everything made sense at first, and just learning the basics – like the different types of pumps and motors and their purposes – seemed difficult.
“To be honest, it was nothing like what I expected. I knew nothing! I was so fresh in the industry.”
“A lot of kids grow up working on cars and helping their parents out with stuff around home, but I was never a hands-on person when I was growing up.”
At times, George doubted his career choices and his future as a tradie.
“The first two years, I was like, ‘What am I even doing here?’ and ‘Is this the right thing for me?’ I was fighting with myself to stay there.”
But George pushed himself and grew a thicker skin, challenging himself to ask more questions on the job.
“It was hard to put my hand up and say, ‘Can you please explain that and slow it down for me?’ That’s what you have to learn to do though.
“I carried a little notebook in my overalls and wrote things down during the day. Then I’d find my boss Nod at smoko, and ask him to explain things I didn’t understand. He helped me a lot – he was really patient and fair with me.”
‘I never gave up’
As he started gaining knowledge and experience, so too came the respect of his workmates and boss.
“It started to click for me. My boss was putting me on bigger jobs and I’d do them, so he’d give me more jobs. I started to actually do the job because I understood it.”
George’s boss, Ian ‘Nod’ Norton, says George has become an invaluable part of the team since he started working for him in 2016.
“He found it challenging at first, but the great thing with George is that if he doesn’t know something, he asks,” says Nod.
“Then, especially last year, he started picking it up and getting into the nitty gritty. And now he’s the most trustworthy one I’ve got underneath me. We’re like a family here — he’s like a son to me.
“I can leave him with any job now and go away, and I know he’ll do it, or he’ll ask me if he’s confused.”
He spends most of his time constructing the tunnel boring machine, and says the experience has solidified a love for his trade.
“There were so many times I could have given up and gone back to Fiji. That would have been the easy option. But I didn’t want to give up.
“I always stayed and pushed on. I knew in my head there was a light at the end of the tunnel – literally, because I was working in a tunnel.
“I always knew it would get better. And it did — I’m happy now. I come home from work smiling.”
Perseverance pays off
Last year, the 28-year-old finally completed his apprenticeship and is now a fully qualified mechanical engineer.
“My dad is a man of few words. We had a video call and I brought up my certificate for him to see, and he gave me this big smile. I could see it in his eyes that he was proud.
“And my mum was really proud too. When I told her, she was so happy and said, ‘All your hard work has paid off’.”
Becoming qualified brought a big pay rise — and George knew exactly how he wanted to celebrate.
“As soon as I got qualified and signed the contract, I bought a Ford Ranger ute. I’m six-foot-six, so I’ve always wanted a big ute that I can fit into. I love it and I’m so grateful.”
He says the pay rise has given him heaps more financial security, and he has a few specific money goals.
“I’m young so I’m not really thinking about buying a house yet, but I’m thinking of investing it and making my money grow, and maybe getting a house later.”
George loves his work and has big plans for his future in the trades.
“Every day I go to work, I’m getting new knowledge. I go home thinking, ‘I built that – I did all of that’. So I feel like I own it. I didn’t really have that before. It makes me feel peace inside that I did this job and helped this company.
“In 10 years, I’d love to be one of the leading mechanical engineers on a tunnel boring machine build. And later on, I’d like to be a mechanical superintendent, which means I’d be running a team of engineers. That’s what my boss Nod does now.”
George encourages future tradies to ask lots of questions and have the courage to ask for help.
“When things get hard, just ask. I feel like that’s a big thing for Pacific Islanders – we’re shy about asking questions, asking for help, speaking up. But there’s never a dumb question. And if people do laugh at you, just remind yourself you’re learning something. Always remember you’re an apprentice and you’re still learning.”
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