Apprentice Jess nails the prize

The young tradie can also put out fires should the need arise!
Photos: Fiona Tomlinson, Registered Master builders.

As Apprentice of the Year finalist Jess Nielsen answers the phone for her interview with the Weekly, the background is filled with construction noises.

“Hold on, I’ll just get off the roof,” says Jess, 22, who recently won third place at the annual competition, making her the first woman to ever place.

Back on the ground, the builder based in Wānaka shares her excited surprise at her result and its implications for other women in the industry.

“I had no idea I would do so well,” tells Jess. “I enter everything with the best intentions, otherwise there’s no point. But, I was just giving it a go, wanting to see how I compared.

“At the Waikato regional competition finals, after they’d called out third and second place, my dad turned to me and said, ‘At least you tried.’ Then they announced me as first!”

Jess gets to work at the Apprentice of the Year competition.

The nationwide event sees apprentices’ theory and practical skills tested as they’re challenged to build a project with just enough materials and limited plans. Competitors also have to submit a portfolio and undergo a robust interview.  

Jess is hopeful her impressive results will show other women just how much potential they have. 

“I want them to see it’s achievable and know if I can do it, they can too. It’s not loaded towards guys. Chicks are just as good.”

While she’s now amongst the top young tradies in New Zealand, Jess shares just four years ago this was never part of the plan.

With top marks at high school and a scholarship to study medicine, her future seemed clearly mapped out. Until she decided to take a gap year before starting university.

The idea was to work with her builder dad for a few months to make some extra money. Then, she would head down south to try her hand at competitive ski racing, then off to become a doctor.

“My holidays always involved helping Dad out on site,” she recalls. “I enjoyed it, but as a teenager, everyone else was watching movies and I was working. I wasn’t overly interested in it, I didn’t think it was something I was able to do as a job.”

On the slopes or on site, Jess gives it her best.

However, when Covid restrictions thwarted her skiing dream, Jess realised how satisfying she found seeing her progress on the building site and decided she’d pursue a trade career.

“It was scary making the decision, but I’m still happy with it,” says Jess. She initially moved from Auckland to Taumarunui, where Sloan Annand Builders took her on as an apprentice.

“It feels right for me. I like being around people. I love it when the music’s playing and I’m outside working with others who want to be there.

“There’s a lot of chat about how being a woman on site is such a big deal. But, I don’t feel like I have to prove myself. In my opinion, I just need to show up and work hard.”

In saying that, team player Jess is quick to praise all of the people she’s worked with for being so welcoming and supportive.

“With Sloan, I was still pretty fresh learning how to fit in with all the jokes and tradie chat. They would always check if I was comfortable with what they were saying or when they were working in my space,” she explains. “I never felt uncomfortable and in that small-town environment, everyone looks after each other.”

These days, she has three years of experience under her belt. After moving to Wānaka in November, Jess is working for McKay Brothers Building. Her foreman is fellow female tradie Amy Dunnage.

“Working under her has been an awesome opportunity. To see how capable us chicks are and how far we’ve come so fast,” enthuses Jess. She is on track to finish her apprenticeship this year. 

When she’s not on the tools, Jess keeps busy. Whether it’s as a volunteer firefighter, skiing in winter, attending martial art jujitsu classes or studying via distance learning for a Bachelor of Construction with Massey University.

Jess fits fire-fighting into her busy schedule.

“It’s nice to have down-time, but everyone says, ‘When you have kids, you won’t have time’ and that’s exactly why I’m doing it now. With the volunteer fire brigade, I feel like I’m helping people. It’s a good way to be part of the community.”

Asked what she’d say to other females considering following in her footsteps, Jess is quick to answer.

“It’s a really healthy industry to be in with heaps of opportunities for chicks, so I’d just encourage people to get into it. There’s never been a better time.”

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