I am so lucky in this industry to hear amazing stories from other ladies, and today’s share from Marcelle Bagu on My Trade Story is no different. Marcelle was a political advisor for most of her working life, until at the age of 32 she decided on a career change and became a carpenter. Marcelle now owns her own Melbourne based business Marcelle’s Carpentry and Building. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her story.
My Trade Story with Marcelle Bagu
I actually never wanted to be a carpenter! When I was young I dreamed of being a tennis champion, an artist, Prime Minister, a journalist and an architect. So the fact I find myself with my own carpentry business and thoroughly enjoying it is sometimes odd as I never saw myself here, yet it feels like this was always where I was supposed to find my home. Maybe all that Lego I played with as a kid was my road to inspiration!
At 33, I started my career in the building industry quite late compared to your traditional carpenter. But I guess by being a female and being a non-traditional tradie, it would only seem appropriate!
For the majority of my working life post school and university, I was an adviser to various Federal and State Labor politicians, finishing as a Policy Adviser to the Victorian Minister for Employment, Racing, Major Event and Tourism, John Pandazopoulos MP. I was always greatly interested in politics and current affairs growing up. We were never a family that had long-lasting debates around the dinner table, but I was a regular viewer of “4 Corners” and “This Day Tonight” with my dad and liked reading The Bulleting and Time Magazine. I studied politics in VCE and also at Melbourne University, I’d done Diplomas in Industrial Relations and Journalism, yet working in the field of politics was completely opposite to the issues and ideas involved on the academic side. The chicanery of politics didn’t suit my personality as I got older, and I found myself at a perplexing crossroad. I was 32 – what was I going to do for the next 30 years?
Work is such a major part of our lives – it’s so important to find something you enjoy doing, that challenges you and that motivates you to climb higher and higher.
It was a long and confusing path to get there – what do you do when what you first thought was your dream career no longer fulfils you? Once I made the difficult decision that an office environment wasn’t for me anymore, there was only one clear choice. I didn’t feel I was making a difference in my current occupation and wanted a job where I could have a more direct and long-lasting impact. I had often marvelled at the apartments and office towers developing in front of my office in the ANZ Tower in Collins Place – how a new floor was finished each week, everyone seemed in good spirits and they could see the results of their work each day. That’s what I wanted and even though I never had any previous building or woodworking experience (I couldn’t even hang a picture!), my instincts told me a career in carpentry would work out.
Before I got my apprenticeship with Multiple Constructions, I completed a pre-apprenticeship course (CERT 3 in Construction) at Box Hill TAFE which felt like the longest 16 weeks of my life. I was a class nerd with my neat overalls and pencils in the top pocket, and mixing full-time with boisterous boys from 15-25 took a bit of adjusting to. Maybe they were like the younger brothers I never had! I spent most of my lunchtimes reading the paper or making calls to prospective employers. Luckily Multiplex was persuaded by my mature age, enthusiasm and work ethic to give me a start. They also liked the fact I was their first female apprentice.
Working on high-rise construction sites was even more of a change. I had no idea what to do or how I should be doing it. It was like starting at a new school and wanting to be part of the popular group and hoping to fit in. My co-workers were always welcoming and jovial and the supervisors were helpful but the size of the sites and losing the comfort-zone of trade school took a bit of time to adjust to. Plus being the only female worker on a site of more than 500 men made me feel a bit odd. I remember one older contractor I was working with asking me “So did you become a carpenter to meet a husband?”. It was the most ridiculous question but actually really funny because of its absurdity and the context.
I’ll never forget the feeling though of fitting my first door handle and then watching afterwards from across the atrium as a plumber went to enter that room. It was like it happened in slow-motion as he reached for the handle…and the door opened! I had made a door open! No-one seemed to get why I was so excited but for me, it was like magic and I wanted to learn all of it!
I ended up switching into housing construction at the start of my third year to broaden my skill base. I enjoyed the commercial environment and conditions but felt I needed to develop more carpentry knowledge and capabilities. Residential carpentry was a whole other world and I realised that my apprenticeship was a time to learn and experience as much as I can. I didn’t want to finish my time only having done commercial work as my future career prospects would be so limited. In housing you do everything and in all sorts of weather and circumstances. It readied me for one day owning my own business. I recall one subcontractor who told me there was a growing market of women buying their own houses and wanted them renovated and I’d be perfect for that. I had no confidence at the time and thought “who’d hire me?”. But I held onto his words through times when I hated being an apprentice and even once I’d qualified, when I was wondering what career options were open to me. Frankly, the thought of working for myself was too daunting to consider as I’d only ever been an employee my whole life.
In the end, I had little choice but to start my own business when I was made redundant because of the GFC. I called many residential builders looking for a placement but my introduction was often met with: “Are you ringing on behalf of your husband or son?”; “I’d never hire a woman carpenter, they’re not strong enough” or sometimes just laugher. Now I know how Charlie Brown felt. So with a mortgage to pay and an elderly cat to feed, I put an ad in the Maribyrnong Weekly and waited to see what response I would get. When I got my first call from Jane of West Footscray I tried to sound confident but I must have been babbling. I drove around in my Mazda Bravo and took accurate measurements of all the weatherboards she wanted replaced and gave her a quote on an A4 sheet of paper. She understood I was just starting out and didn’t have proper stationary at that stage, but she liked that I was the only carpenter that took real measurements – that proved I took her project seriously. And I got the job! I was partially hoping I wouldn’t as I was so nervous but it was like being pushed off the diving board and having to make a good landing. When I arrived on the day, a painter was there, and I expected him to snigger or ignore me because I was a female, but he simply said “Hi, how’s things?” and it felt odd because this was the first time I’d ever felt 100% accepted.
Seven years later I have a good base of clients from a broad cross-section of society and age groups, plus a great support network through the Master Builders Association of Victoria. If ever I come across a building issue I’m not sure about, I know several builders I can call to talk through my ideas and get advice from. They are always willing to impart their knowledge and secret skills onto such a willing listener. I’ve also developed a great team of other male and female subcontractors who are an endless source of business ideas and encouragement.
My work is consistent and clients welcome the point of difference of having a female tradesperson available. The majority of the work I do is timber rot repair, restoration of balustrades and verandahs, timber flooring, decking, weatherboards, structural alterations, sash window repair and picket fences. Many home owners are choosing to stay and upgrade their homes rather than sell and have to move elsewhere. Lucky for me that I enjoy working on older houses!
Carpentry suits my personality because it is so creative. I marvel at the remarkable Victorian and Edwardian period homes and their superb design and beauty and ultra modern homes which seem to defy gravity. You can essentially build to your imagination. I also love the engineering aspect and the historical nature of houses being built by hand with saw logs cut on site – no power tools or nail guns. That was incredibly hard work and those older houses are a privilege to work on.
There will always be a section of the community that sees female tradies as incapable or a novelty. Fortunately that group is becoming smaller every year and regardless, we’re having the last laugh. That subcontractor was right – clients are impressed to see women running their own business and seek out female tradies as their first choice. Working for myself has been difficult, many times, and you have to be determined and tenacious. What has kept me buoyant is the lovely people I meet as my clients and the referrals they give me. It’s a real vote of confidence and inspires me to learn more every day. I know I improve in skill level and confidence each year. I also am determined to see how far I can take my business from being a sole trader to getting my residential builders licence this year. There are no limits to what I can achieve.
For me, my greatest hurdle in the building industry has been my own self-doubt of my capabilities as I was learning and my sense of place in this huge world. In the early years, being one of the very few female carpenters around made me feel quite special and valued at times, but other times, like I was an uninvited guest. Would I ever make a success of it? Why won’t employers return my calls? Does anyone take me seriously? Do I?
It’s taken me many years, but by taking the risk and starting my own business, persevering and believing in myself, I have now become much more resilient and assured of my technical expertise and knowledge. I still learn something new every day and love how creative carpentry is. No two jobs are ever the same. Some of the projects I get are real mind-benders, but solving the architectural puzzle is so rewarding and satisfying. Give me a client who wants a revolving bookcase built and all of my dreams will have come true!
What a fantastic story thanks Marcelle! I’m sure you’ll agree that Marcelle’s courage to pursue a complete career change in her 30’s was a brave decision and an inspiration to others to listen to their instincts. Marcelle’s tenacity and her ‘never give up’ attitude has certainly benefited her in becoming the business owner that she is today.
Are you considering a career change? What is holding you back from pursuing your dreams and making the change?
Is there a trade story you are interested in hearing? Do you have a story to share? I’d love to hear from you. firstname.lastname@example.org