National | Construction

When wāhine tackle the construction sector it's a win for everyone

Twin sisters Shonte and Trenneyce have established themselves on a solid career path in the construction sector, thanks to the Ara Education Charitable Trust.  Photo / Supplied

By Sarah Heeringa, Stuff

When twin sisters Shonte and Trenneyce want to make improvements to their family home, chances are they can do the work themselves.

Even better, they’ve established themselves on a solid career path in the construction sector – thanks to a supportive cadetship with the South Auckland non-profit, Ara Education Charitable Trust (AECT).

“At first I was like, I wonder what this is all about?” says Shonte Tou Mackay. “Being a student still in school I was very confused on what I wanted to do”.

The twins were inspired as to what they might do as a job by the Māori and Pasifika Women in Construction programme (MPWIC).

“Luseane and Mapa came along to our construction site at Ara, and they told us they wanted to get women in construction. These two beautiful ladies took us to different sites including Akarana Timbers and Auckland Cranes.”

The twins decided to start work at Akarana Timbers, based in East Tāmaki.

“While being there we ended up being on an apprenticeship for frame and truss. We started 28 June 2021 and finished on 8 May 2023, as qualified frame and truss builders,” says Shonte.

“It has really been a challenge working against a lot of men”, says Shonte. “We have had ups and downs but have managed to pull through!”

It’s a huge achievement by the twins, considering the obstacles that prevent many women – Polynesian and Māori women particularly – from joining the construction sector.

For starters there are basic issues of sexism and safety. Cultural barriers can also mean families are reluctant to see daughters working in manual roles in construction.

The industry “still has a way to go to make construction a safe, inclusive, and inviting sector to work in across the board for anyone, regardless of gender, or background,” says the National Association of Women in Construction.

Acknowledging the hard work being done and progress made the Association says there’s “a very real, yet very ugly side to the construction industry”.

The twins and a student at an Ara Education Charitable Trust showcase. Photo / Supplied

Tackling systemic issues requires taking on a lot of elements, says Sarah Redmond, director of the AECT. This includes the family being on board and being confident that their young person is going to be safe in that environment. Also, the young woman herself feeling safe.

Relationship building and buddying up women on construction sites are key to the success of the cadetships.

Shonte says it’s been “such a pleasure working” alongside her twin sister Trenneyce. “We definitely pull each other's weight when it comes to our apprenticeship.”

The twins were part of a cohort of six young women cadets that Akarana Timbers took on at the same time. Redmond says the company’s management were awesome and some of the factory floor staff took a real leadership role in tackling various niggles that came up.

Where there was some harassment the Trust provided facilitators to work with the company.

Wāhine students working on a house restoration with Ara Education Charitable Trust (AECT). Photo / Supplied

“There was a really tight relationship between us, the company, the girls and their families”, says Redmond. “All of us have to be on board to move the ship.”

Support behind the scenes

The Maori and Pasifika Women in Construction programme was started by the Trust two years ago to support and empower wāhine into construction. Participants come through the Trust’s house rebuilding projects, such as the Forever House, low-decile South Auckland schools and the Manurewa High School Trades Academy.

“We see there is a range of good paying roles our wāhine need to be exposed to,” says Luseane Akau, who is a facilitator with the Trust and leads the MPWIC programme.

Relationship building is a key element of the Maori and Pasifika Women in Construction programme, started by the Education Charitable Trust to support and empower wāhine into construction. Photo / Supplied

Young women attend site visits and supported industry events. Workshops foster skill-based learning. Regular meet-ups where guest speakers share their journeys also helps inspire the young women and create a support network.

Sometimes the group does practical building-related activity, other times it might be learning about mental wellbeing, or doing something fun together, like a gym session, says Redmond.

The “oldies” (aged around 20 or 21) come along and show off their new cars. “They've been through it successfully and are coming out the other side.”

As for working on their family home, the twins recently made some improvements, including replacing an old retaining wall and building a new deck on the side of the house, using quality treated timber of the correct specifications.

Nice work if you can get it.