Occasionally you are blessed with the opportunity to meet someone who inspires you in ways you never thought possible. This was true for me when I had the privileged of meeting Fi Shewring last year when we both spoke at the HIA Women in Industry Lunch. I had no idea how profound an influence Fi would have over me in such a short meeting, and rather than gush over Fi on here, I a very honored to share her story today. If you are thinking of being involved with the trades in any way shape or form, I recommend you take the time to read through Fi’s story, but a word of warning, be prepared to be very inspired! Fi is a champion of women in trades.
I never intended to become a tradeswoman, teacher or an advocate for women in trades, but as a single mother of five small children I met my second husband-to-be and started working with him in his painting business 25 years ago. He had been a single man just supporting himself and it was a huge leap to generating enough money to support seven of us. I had been struggling to make ends meet as a single mum and the obvious answer was to work together in his business.
I did not realize I was going into a non-traditional trade and wondered why there were no other women working on site. I enjoyed working with my hands and the fact that we were constantly meeting new challenges. I learnt my trade on site and then later went to TAFE and gap skilled to become a qualified tradeswoman.
A number of years later I then became a TAFE teacher and loved teaching my trade to apprentices which was extraordinary because I had struggled at school with dyslexia and thought teachers were authoritarian bastards! I started to teach short classes for women in painting and decorating as well as apprentices and opened up a whole new world. The women loved the hands on work and I realized that the reasons why women weren’t in trade had nothing to do with our cabilities.
The more I looked into it, the more astounded I was at the fact there was no real reason, just made up reasons. I was horrified that women’s options in this day and age were actually incredibly restricted if they tried to venture beyond the ‘traditional’ women’s employment areas of child care, retail, nursing, office work etc I became determined to encourage other women to re-assess their career options, broaden their scope and consider everything as possible including a trade.
I started researching and initially gathered tradeswomen and apprentices stories. I wrote a booklet with the stories and used award money I had received from Institute of Trade Skills Excellence National Trade Teacher of the Year Award in 2007 for Building and Construction to pay for the publication of the booklet, which then went out all across Australia. I continued to research into tradeswomen and their pathways and wrote a number of papers including one for NCVER but I became frustrated at the fact that little was changing.
In 2009 I won National Association of Women in Construction International Women’s Day Scholarship which I used to design a month long study program in the United States of America looking at how women entered the trade workforce and what were underlying conditions which helped them succeed. At the time I knew no one in the USA in the tradeswomen’s world and I had never traveled by myself either. It was very daunting trying to set up the itinerary and then traveling across America by myself. I started at my brother’s in Atlanta where he taught me how to drive in America and I had organized a number of meetings with the IBEW of Georgia, the National Asssociation of Women of Color in Construction and the local carpenters union. The American system is quite different to the Australian system and it took me a bit to get my head around it so I arranged a meeting with the local Painting and Decorating Union Atlanta to help me understand how things worked there.
From Atlanta I travelled back across to Los Angeles and on north to Portland and Seattle. I missed my children and husband but was so busy that the month went by reasonably quickly. Mothers Day was the worst; I was in a tacky motel in Portland and did not have enough money to call home so felt very sorry for myself!
The trip is outlined in the paper I wrote on my return http://avetra.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/57.00-Fiona-Shewring.pdf The most important thing I gained was huge insights into what was working and what wasn’t as there had been a sustained effort in the United States to get women into the trades since the 1970’s,which had not happened in Australia.
I knew when I came back that I needed to start a support group for tradeswomen which was specifically designed for them, so in 2009 to support existing tradeswomen and advocate for change I started Supporting And Linking Tradeswomen (SALT) which later became a non-profit organisation working to change the status quo for working tradeswomen and encourage girls and women to consider a career in trade.
The Business: Supporting And Linking Tradeswomen
SALT began in Wollongong with seven tradeswomen and now has over 1730 members in its Facebook group. The group is an open group so that the general public can see what is going on but people have to ask to join to participate. We use social media extensively as the tradeswomen are scattered across Australia and for many, the situation of being isolated and not near any other tradeswomen still exists. When we began there were no other support organisations for tradeswomen across all trades and it has been wonderful to watch the growth of a number of other groups who we have also supported. Most leaders of other groups are also members of SALT and we have also shown people what we do and given advise and support. Our premise has always been to be inclusive.
In Australia the figures for tradeswomen are still very small with only about 5500 tradeswomen across the whole of Australia. Since SALT began, it has become slightly easier for women to gain apprenticeships but we still have a long way to go until there are equal opportunities for women in the trades. The aims of SALT are:
- Providing support to tradeswomen in Australia including apprentices and women seeking to work in the trades.
- Providing avenues for women to meet other tradeswomen, apprentices etc and share experiences.
- Promoting women in the trades to the general public and industry.
- Advocating for change to attitudes to women working in the trades.
- Campaigning for changes which enable women to train and work in the trades.
- Promoting diversity and acceptance for all people in the trades.
SALT has always encouraged men to join, as we believe the way forward is men and women working together where gender is not the issue.
We have always been very action based which has risen out of the fact that I felt not much change was occurring when I was just writing papers and we have developed a number of initiatives which are designed to be very practical and engender social change in the way women view themselves and the way society views women. Generating social change is no mean feat so we have always designed our initiatives to be sustainable even if we have no funding. We have never had ongoing funding and have managed to continue our initiatives through thick and thin. Our website is saltaustralia.org.au and contains further information most of which I have written.
Two of SALT’s Initiatives
SALT SkillWomen Workshops
In 2012 the SALT committee created a unique vision of teaching as many women and girls as possible how to use tools. This was based on my research; which had identified that a majority of women who were succeeding in apprenticeships had been taught to use tools at an early age. Many employers where also saying that women did not apply for the jobs that they offered so that was a factor in deciding to take on generating social change. We felt that women did not generally have the basic knowledge of generic tool use, which are used in almost all trades, but they also didn’t know that they could easily do this type of work either. It was a classic case of not knowing what you don’t know.
All programs I had researched in the USA had been static. They serviced women in their local vicinity and did a very good job but this requires a lot of organisations, running a lot of programs, over a large area to change things. When SALT started it was the only support organization for women in the trades in Australia and we wanted to reach as many women as possible. The idea for a mobile workshop was born. Funding was sort and gained, sponsorship was sort and gained and the total cost of the workshop including a custom built trailer was $25,000.
We have never received any on going funding from organizations or government bodies and we have stretched all funding we have received to achieve as much as possible but the basis of our organization is run by volunteer tradeswomen who are very passionate about generating change and we have retained an incredible ethic of generosity and support which now includes men as well as women who donate a great deal of time and effort to SALT. Whist we have a group of regular tradeswomen who run the workshops we have established a large pool of volunteers. So far 33 tradespeople, 26 women and 7 men from 20 different trades have worked on these workshops. This is no mean feat when you realize that all the tradespeople take time off from their families and working lives to do this. We believe that the way forward is women and men working together and we hope to remove gender from the equation but we need to level the playing field first.
We run two types of workshop:
Workshop One is a four and a half hour workshop with up to 25 participants. We use five tradespeople and each tradesperson is responsible for their group. We commence with a safety induction and all participants wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and must follow all instruction from their tradie. They create a timber project from measuring up and cutting through to assembly. The tools and skills involved include, measuring with tapes and set squares; cutting with a variety of saws such as hand saw, drop saw and jigsaw to assembling with drills, impact drivers, nails, screws, hammers, nail punches and different drill bits. Each tool is explained and correct use shown and overseen. This workshop achieves the most in terms of gaining tool skills and engaging people.
Workshop Two is designed to run large quantities of people through a quick tool exposure. Again people are inducted and put on PPE but the project is much simpler. Tradespeople are stationed on each tool or table and participants rotate through measuring up, cutting and assembling in 20 minutes. A tradesperson oversees that each participant uses the tool correctly but this workshop is much less hands on.
To date we have run 89 Workshops across NSW, ACT and Victoria, most of these workshops have been Workshop One. We have covered more than 25,000 kilometers with our mobile workshop. These three states in Australia are the most heavily populated states of Australia with close to 13,000,000 of Australia’s estimated 24,000,000 population. We are currently seeking funding to run a Workshop Tour in Queensland in October 2016.
The only things we ask for to run a workshop is an undercover area (internal or external) of roughly 6m x 12m, access to one power point and a toilet. We have used awnings, sheds, classrooms, community halls and town halls to run workshops plus every variance in between.
We have given talks and workshops in over 60 schools regarding making positive career choices which will enable women to earn reasonable wages to support themselves and their families. We don’t expect all the women who do our workshops to enter the trades but we really encourage young women to be very active in their career choices and think beyond the six employment fields women usually choose. At the very least women take home the knowledge and self esteem to use a range of basic tools which enables them to be more independent and gives them confidence to help themselves at home.
We know that the program is working because we are now hearing about young women who are changing their pathways and/or gaining confidence to pursue a career in the trades. It is not common for us to return to a community to run a workshop but recently we returned to the mining community of Cobar in North Western NSW. Our first workshop had involved 15 young women and two years later we had to turn young women away as 27 were working in the workshop and we could not take on more safely.
This letter from one young woman in Junee, NSW called Hayley:
To The Amazing Women who run The Women in Trade Day
First off, I would like to thank you for taking the time to visit my school. Today was the second time I have participated in the Women in Trade Day and you have definitely set a standard.
The first time I participated in the day you were in Cootamundra and I was the only student from my school to attend. Although I remember that I arrived late and had to leave early, you still helped me and gave me a fantastic introduction into trade. At the end of the day I left Cootamundra with my beautifully crafted carry tray and I was so proud! I absolutely love my tray and use it to store my painting equipment (one day I actually plan to paint it).
I loved the day so much that I took it into consideration when planning my year 11 subjects and decided to do Design and Technology.
Today I attended that Women in Trade Day again, where you had my school craft the same tray I made two years ago! Thankfully you allowed me to start my DNT (Design and Technology) project and even assisted me with it. Today you made me feel welcome and as if I truly could make it in a non-traditional female trade”. This has enlightened me to properly consider it as a career path that I will enjoy.
For all of your assistance, I would like to thank you and I hope you continue visiting female students like myself so that they too can be part of this experience.
We collect feedback from all of our workshops and analysis of feedback from just one of our workshop tours is as follows:
The results we got were staggering with 139 women out of 161 changing their minds about what women can do because of the workshop – that is 86.35%. Other results are equally fantastic:
- 1% gave a score of 10 or 9 out of ten
- no one gave a mark lower than 7/10
- 83% where inspired by the workshop to train as tradespeople
You can see a wonderful mini documentary about the workshops and their impact which was made for us by Bruce Cumming who makes extraordinary documentaries about people, communities and society – follow this link.
SALT of the Earth Volunteer Initiative
In November 2014 we saw a call for “Tradesmen” to help farmers dealing with a terrible drought in Queensland and NSW. We phoned and offered the services of SALT. Due to the time of year it was hard to secure volunteer tradies as the lead up to Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year, particularly in the construction trades. Three of us were able to go; Sonia and myself (both painters and decorators) and Fred who is a fitter and machinist.
We got to Lightning Ridge in a crazy week of 47 degree Celsius and above temperatures, which unbeknownst to us was extreme even to the Ridge. The task handed to us was to paint the outside of a homestead, the paperwork said “ badly peeling but easy job” and gave us two days to complete the task plus fix the tractor and replace sun blinds. One look told us this was not going to happen but we started, intent on doing the very best we could in five days.
The farmer, Don, who at 83 years old is used to women carrying out more traditional roles and not one to mince his words, did query what he was going to do with “three old boilers” when he heard he had three volunteer tradeswomen.
He didn’t need to worry because we showed him what three old boilers could do, even when his temperature gauge hit the 50 degree Celsius mark. In five days we managed to prepare and top coat two sides of his house, although we had to follow the shade and this meant completing the west and south sides. The east and north sides were still to be done and as we left we promised to return to help with the worst sides in cooler weather.
We also gained a huge respect and wonderful relationship with Don and farmers like him, who were dealing with the drought. We saw what it was costing them in terms of their mental health, their animals and livelihoods. We had been to Lightning Ridge to run a workshop at the school a few months before but life out on the stations is a very different kettle of fish to life in the eccentric town of the Ridge. We knew we needed to return to complete what we had started.
RETURNING TO THE RIDGE
The first trip to help the farmers dealing with drought had been a real eye opener regarding how different life is in town and on the land. We committed to return in the Easter holidays and a chance conversation created a whole new project. SALT partnered with Outback Links, part of Frontier Services, which was set up by Dr Flynn of Flying Doctors fame, to support those living and working in rural Australia. The new project would engage SALT tradies and apprentices in a major youth initiative to engage young people into volunteering. NECA electricians and NRMA motor mechanics also volunteered.
The SALT Team was very diverse with tradeswomen and men, plus male and female apprentices and it was a dream. There was a huge wish list of work from five very deserving stations (including a return to work on Don’s place), all of whom where dealing with one of the worst droughts in living history which was taking its toll on livestock and the wellbeing of the station families.
In the five months that SALT had been away we could see how very much worse things had become for everyone. It is one thing to hear about a drought from the comfort of your armchair and quite another as you watch a farmer struggling with the loss of the livestock they love and care for in front of you. It is not melodramatic to say it was a gut wrenching experience for all of us but we felt that at least we were doing something very tangible to improve things for them by restoring parts of their properties, replacing boards, building benches and mending toilets that hadn’t worked for 20 years. Tradies, apprentices and support volunteers worked like a well-oiled machine, achieving a formidable list of jobs done.
Since this time SALT trade teams have been to the Lightning Ridge area eight times. We are now working with Rotary who supply the fuel for us to take our utes to the Ridge and who provide the farmers with support to feed us. Rotary are also helping with materials for the work to be done. The SALT tradies work extremely hard and complete a phenomenal amount of work during the week they volunteer.
SALT has a great many number of different trades represented and we have always encouraged women and men to be involved. We believe this is the way forward to reach our goals of men and women working together, more acceptance of diversity in the trades and gender parity.
The teams are normally mixed teams and the gender parity has been a definite bonus and shows SALTs commitment to removing gender from the equation once we have leveled the playing field. We have refined the way we organize the volunteer teams and safety is our prime objective at all times. 100% of our tradespeople on these trips complete Police Checks and Working With Children Checks, 80% of all our tradies have First Aid certificates and all the teams carry first aid kits with them at all times. In September 2016 SALT returns to the Ridge for the nineth time in twenty monhs to repair homesteads and shearing sheds and continue the amazing relationship developed with the farming community.
Monthly Meetings and other ways of connecting tradeswomen.
Currently we provide our membership with monthly meetings in Wollongong and Sydney (two meeting groups in Sydney), Canberra, Albury, and Queensland. Newsletters are sent out twice a year. We use social media extensively with Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter posts almost every day. We also provide support and contacts plus information to women seeking work in the trades, such as resume reviews and advise on applying for jobs and apprenticeships.
I have used all my long service to achieve these objectives and I am also still a full time trade teacher teaching apprentices. Operations and leadership is run purely on a volunteer basis and we are passionate about our trades and bridging the gap to a gender accepting, skilled workforce in Australia.
From the point when I attended the Women Build The Nation Conference in Los Angelos during my study tour in 2009, I wanted to provide a Tradeswomen’s Conference for Australian tradeswomen. It had been an amazing experience to sit with 600 other tradeswomen at that conference. One of the things I loved was I was surrounded by ordinary women, women you would meet in a supermarket, but they were all ironworkers and carpenters and teamsters, strong independent women. This year on 11th and 12th August SALT will hold its inaugural Tradeswomen Australia Conference and is attracting national interest and tradeswomen and apprentices from across Australia. Because of our connections to the American Tradeswomen a couple of them are planning to make the trip in August. We have gained major sponsorship from Clipsal Schneider Electric, Department of Industry, South Australia Power Network, (SAPN) Total Tools, MSA and She Wear for the conference.
SAPN contacted SALT about three years ago because they were trying to change the diversity amongst their line workers. They had successfully started to introduce female apprentices into their electrical tradespeople cohort but were meeting stiff competition from the line workers who presented them with a ream of reasons why women could not participate in line work. I set about finding female line works and managed to find ten, mostly in the USA but one in Australia. I asked all the women to look at the reasons being given and six responded with articulate and in depth responses. I collated these into a document, which I sent back to SAPN but I also suggested that they fly the Australian tradeswoman to Adelaide to talk to managers and linesmen. We organized for Camille to present an information session regarding the points raised by the linesmen and to talk about her experience. We advised SAPN to make changes, which were beneficial for their entire workforce irrespective of gender. In August SAPN will be presenting to the SALT Tradeswomen Australia Conference regarding the successful in roads made into gender diversity in their workforce.
Another part of my study tour which was inspirational, was my visit to The Rosie the Riverter Memorial at the Kaiser Ship Yards in Richmond, California. I knew about the work done by women during the war and from this point I became determined to honour Australian women for their part in the war effort, which has been largely ignored. I started to research into the part women had played and was staggered to discover that in 1942 almost 40,000 women were working in munitions, aircraft and ship building alone, never mind all the other areas they worked in. I have been searching for women and their families to record their stories. All the women who have been contacted to date are in their 90’s and represent a living history which is being lost. Initially we will honor the women I have contacted at the launch of the exhibition showcasing 100 Years of women in trades with emphasis on what was done during the Second World War.
After research for this project commenced, in a chance conversation I discovered that my mother-in-law, June Cole, had worked for 18 months in munitions at Bathurst. She made bridges for 303 rifles and then joined the WAAF. Almost all her family had no idea about this aspect of her history. She has recently been diagnosed with stomach cancer, which has emphasized the urgency to capture the remnants of living history. I am continuing to find women in Wollongong and other areas to interview and record their stories.
Regional Category winner 100 Women of Influence National award 2012
Runner-up Zonta Business Women’s Awards, Illawarra Region 2012
Inclusion in Worlds Who’s Who of Women 2009 to present
Inclusion in Who’s Who of Australian Women 2009
National Association of Women in Construction International Women’s Day Scholarship 2009
National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award, NSW 2009
National Centre for Vocational Education Research New Researchers Award 2008
Institute of Trade Skills Excellence National Trade Teacher of the Year 2007 for Building and Construction
National Association of Women in Construction Award for Contribution by a Tradesperson, NSW,2006
llawarra Healthy Cities Community Award, Wollongong, NSW 2006
Designed and painted Faux effects for Gold Medal Award garden at the Garden Show, Darling Harbor, 2003
Lister Wool and The Wool Secretariat Design Award 1981, Great Britain
“The Female Tradie: challenging employment perspectives in non-traditional trades for women” , National Centre for Vocational Education Research Occasional Paper NCVER, Australia 2009
“Supporting women in a non-traditional trade”, Illawarra Institute, NSW, Australia 2008
As an involved mother of five children and grandmother of seven, life has had its challenges. I became a single mother with all five children when I chose to leave my husband after he had a number of affairs. It was not an easy decision to make and everyone said I was foolish and that no one else would want me. I felt that was not the point, I could not live with him any more and if that meant that I had to be by myself so be it. I had no family close by, my parents were living in England so I had no hands on family help but I did have some wonderful female friends who were very supportive.
The decision to leave my husband was crystalized by a watershed time when one of my twin daughters was suddenly very ill and came very close to dying. Whilst she was being resuscitated I realized how nothing could be taken for granted and everything could be taken away from you in an instant. The only thing you were assured of was that you were alive at that moment. I still can’t talk about this time without crying but it changed my life. I realized that I had to make my life count. I had to do the things that mattered to me and I had to believe in what I did. I have chosen to do things that are important to me since this point and I believe that one person can make a difference.
I have always been a very hands on mother and in the early years as a painter and decorator managing five children and work was tricky. My second husband Pete has always been very supportive of me and encouraged me to be who I am and we have always shared the roles of earning money and providing for our family. I still have a close relationship with all my children and their partners. I have adored becoming a grandma and look after and see my grandchildren as often as I can always managing to make time to see a couple of them each week.
I have been very involved in my local community as well, helping to run art shows and painted a number of community murals. One of these murals was designed to overcome severe intimidation of a local family. I rendered the local bus shelter, which had been graffitied with abusive words towards the family. I then painted a stylized map of the area and invited the whole community to come up and paint their houses on their plots, which I had marked out. I had no idea that when I started that mural it would take 18 months. I sat for one day every weekend until almost every family had painted their house. The project brought the community together and has remained as a focal point in the community for 13 years now.
For the last eight years with a group of five other women I have helped to raise money for the homeless. We do this by making beautiful handcrafted objects, which we sell in our local village hall. From small beginnings we now generate between $4000 and $5000 on the day at Our Winter Warmers festival. All the money made is donated to a different homeless charity each year.
- Founding member and President of Supporting and Linking Tradeswomen Inc (SALT) 2009 to present
- Committee member of NSW Council for Women’s Economic Opportunity 2013 to present
- Founding committee member of Winter Warmers, raising money for the homeless 2009 to present
- Judge for Master Electricians NSW Awards 2015
- Judge for Master Painters NSW in 2012 and 2014
- Committee member on the Education Committee for NAWIC 2009
- Judge for NAWIC tradesperson award, 2008 to 2013
- Guest tradesperson presenter with Clive Robertson on the ‘Getting it Done’ Radio segment, 2UE radio, 2009
- Committee member for designing Female Apprenticeship Scholarships for National Association for Women in Construction 2006
- Chairperson, Maianbar Art, Craft and Event Committee 2002-2004
- Organizer, facilitator and artist of Maianbar Community Bus Shelter Mural 2002 to 2004
- Committee member of Bundeena School Art Exhibition 1992 to 2001