It all started as a joke for Penny.
“Why don’t you just become a sparkie?” one of her good friends quipped at her one day, when Penny at a loose end and out of work. He wasn’t serious, but Penny Thackwray doesn’t shy away from a challenge. “That was that,” she says referring to that fateful conversation, “Challenge accepted.”
“I hadn’t thought of a career as a sparkie being something that not a lot of girls do,” she explained to me over the phone recently. “I just thought, I can’t cope with sitting in an office all day and I don’t want to leave my home town, so my best option is actually be a tradie. I started looking into it, and also started hanging out with other tradies a lot, and then I just decided: this is what I want to do.”
Flash forward 18 months and Penny is now roughly half-way through her apprenticeship and absolutely loving it. In fact, she loves the work more than any tradie I’ve ever spoken to.
“It’s not easy work, and we do often work on weekends, but it’s what I want to do. I don’t like free time if it’s bad weather. I just get bored and go crazy.”
Evidence for this can be found in how hard it was to arrange this interview. We eventually caught up at 5:30pm on a Monday, and it seemed to be one of the very few times Penny wasn’t on the worksite – organising an interview with a tradie who loves work is no easy feat.
While she was adamant about her love for work (despite my incredulity), she did admit that it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Robert Gibson Electrical have been amazing, she explained, but not every company is as open minded.
“I couldn’t get a job for a while because as soon as I said my name and put my CV in, people just said no. It took nearly a year to find a company that would take me on as an apprentice.”
Robert Gibson Electrical gave her the chance she needed.
“My boss was a lot more accepting. I showed up in my truck, which I think made a difference. It helped that I didn’t drive a Suzuki Swift,” she joked.
“The boss said that I could start the next day and agreed to a week’s trial – but the first day sucked. I knew it was what I wanted to do, but in a year’s time when I actually knew what I was doing. I’m extremely shy and looking like an idiot is my worst fear. It didn’t help that I was just the stupidest looking person you’ve ever seen,” she laughed. “Tradie boots just don’t fit my feet. They don’t sell hi-vis that fits me at all, so I had to cut them all in half. I just looked so stupid. No one said anything, but you could tell what they were thinking. You get some funny looks when you show up at people’s houses and your shirt is ripped in half and you trip over your boots because they’re too big.”
“My boss is awesome though. He never treated me any different. He told me to carry things as heavy as everyone else…it was just made completely normal.”
Being the only woman on site also didn’t excuse Penny from the usual apprentice treatment.
“My first few weeks were spent looking for left-handed screwdrivers, enjoying long waits at the electrical suppliers store, losing tools, learning to be a good roof crawler, and getting the ‘wee’ taken out of my hammer.”
“So, when did you start enjoying it?” I asked – a question I often ask tradies who share their hazing stories.
“After two or three months. I started to go the gym, which helped a lot,” she said, laughing again.
While the vast majority of her experiences have been positive on site, there are still those around who make Penny’s life challenging.
“There’s a few people that my boss doesn’t let me go on site with because they’re really weird. We’ve got it down pat now, where I do and don’t go…It doesn’t bother me at all now, but it used to – I used to find it awkward. Guys used to see it like I could never make anything of this job because I’m too weak. But it’s all about confidence.”
“As time has gone on I’ve gotten more comfortable with being different and being a female in a trade, which was one of the more difficult things I’ve done. When I started, there were plenty of comments I had to ignore from clients and friends, but now I feel like I’m being treated the same as anyone else in a trade – I even have a backup pink tool kit and hi-vis which I like to lend to the new apprentice for the good banter. Couldn’t be happier with my trade, and I even like roof crawling!”
Another massive positive of working for Robert Gibson Electrical is that Penny has had plenty of opportunities to pursue her other passion: spearfishing.
“I started diving maybe three or four years ago during my last year of school. My family lives in Mahinepua Bay [Northland] and we had some friends stay with us for eight months. We were all diving for eight hours a day and not getting a lot else done.”
“I hated school so much. It was the worst time of my life. I just kept to myself and spent all my spare time spearfishing. I used to stay home from school and go diving all day, every day. I didn’t go to school in year 13 more than once a week, but I got all my NCEAs and didn’t drop out!”
As can be expected, she’s now ticked off a fair few solid fish, including a 19.2lb snapper and an estimated 30kg kingie. And it was the latter that provided a bit of drama.
“This one was funny. I took my sister for a dive and it was her first time ever, so I took her back to the beach before I made a berley. Then, I went out to my usual rock, made my berley, and a kingfish came in quickly. I shot it and pulled it up onto the rocks so my sister could see it.”
“I used my knife to kill it, and my sister was a bit scared and ran away and went back to the house. I then swam back out into the water where all the blood was and a big shark was there. It was my first time seeing a shark by myself as I usually use shell berleys, so I went back to the rock and waited for hours until I could wave a boat down to pick me up! I like sharks now, but I was so scared at the time!”
On top of spearfishing, she’s also been a keen hunter in the past, and more recently has been getting into gamefishing with her boss.
“I don’t have time for hunting anymore because I want to keep working. But I do more spearfishing because my boss and his family like to take time out when its good weather, so if it’s zero knots and 20m viz then we shoot out, even on a weekday.”
Looking forward, Penny has a few things on her life “to do” list. On top of finishing her apprenticeship, she’s also keen to keep planting and selling nikau palms on her property – which I only learned about at the very end of our conversation. She has 800 at the moment, and that’s what fills up her time in the holidays.
“So, you just don’t stop?” I asked.
“Yeah, I drive everyone nuts,” she laughed.
I almost started this article by writing “Penny isn’t your normal 19-year-old woman”, before I realised how silly that is. Penny is the third female tradie I’ve interviewed for this magazine, and it’s clear that “normal” has been redefined. Old stigmas are dying, and it’s tradies like Penny who are leading the way.