Tradie Profile: Marion Thomas

Growing up on a lake near Pretoria, South Africa, with a passion for water skiing and boats eventually led Marion Thomas to a life in the marine trades in New Zealand – but getting there wasn’t all plain sailing, writes Helen Horrocks…

Marion was 28 when she arrived in New Zealand on a yacht. She had sailed from San Diego with friends of her family on their second attempt to reach NZ by boat; the first was a few years prior. Marion had been invited on that trip too but turned down the offer because she was working in Austria at the time. “Luckily I didn’t go on that trip,” Marion tells me, “because they got stuck in a hurricane, and eventually the boat sank in Bali. Andre (one of the owners) made it out with his passport and the sat phone, and he was only wearing shorts and jandals.”

A few years later, Marion was back in South Africa, working for a high-end boat club. There, she ran a team of boat concierges, taught water skiing, drove a parasail boat and got involved in boat maintenance. This led to a job offer at a marine servicing agent. It was a decent job, but one she says “wasn’t really going anywhere” So when the offer came up again to sail to New Zealand, she wasn’t put off by the bad fortune of the previous trip.

Encouraged by her parents, Marion set sail on what was supposed to be a return voyage. But when she arrived in New Zealand, she found she “didn’t really want to leave”. So she stayed on with sailors Andre and Lin at their Auckland home and started thinking about what she could do for work in NZ. Lin worked at Birkenhead College and suggested Marion come along to their careers day for the students. It was there she met Mike Birdsall from the training arm of NZ Marine.

“He was offering boatbuilding apprenticeships,” says Marion, “but the thing that really interested me was the engineering side of things.”
With a list of approachable Auckland companies from Mike Birdsall, Marion set about trying to find herself a marine engineering apprenticeship. But after a raft of refusals, she was just about ready to give up. “I spent two months driving around from place to place,” Marion says, “because, being a woman, I was not very well received.”

She was considering going back to South Africa when Lin suggested she contact Friendship Yachts in Whangarei. Marion emailed them but didn’t get her hopes up.
To her surprise, Dennis Maconaghie at Friendship invited her for an interview. Before she left, she sought advice from Mike Birdsall.
“I said to him, ‘Look, every time I go and see these people I’m really struggling because they don’t seem to take me seriously, that I actually want to be an engineer’.”
His advice was simple and proved invaluable. “He said, ‘make sure you dress down, don’t wear makeup, so you’re tidy but not over the top. And the other thing you should do is go into the engine room and just scratch around and get your nails dirty. Clean hands, but make sure your nails are dirty.’ And I’m like, ‘really…?’” “So, I go up there and, true as Bob, during my interview with Dennis, he says ‘let me see your hands’! I’d been helping Andre on the boat, and I had a few scratches on my arms from getting into some tight cabinetry. So Dennis is like, ‘OK, they don’t look so soft’.” Dennis offered her the apprenticeship, against the wishes of Marion’s future foreman and several of the leading hands.

“He asked them whether he should employ me, and all of them said ‘no’,” says Marion. “They said I would be a distraction. But I think a lot of the guys that said ‘no’, actually turned around a few months or a year later, and said, ‘Oh, you know what, she is worth it’. One of them, Scott Thomas, was in some ways right about the distraction part. He recently became Marion’s husband. But he’s in no doubt now that Dennis did the right thing when he gave her the job.

She advanced quickly at Friendship, which she puts down to her maturity (the other apprentices were all school leavers) and before long she was taking on the responsibilities of a leading hand. When Friendship closed down, she and Scott moved further north to the Bay of Islands, where Marion secured a job in the engineering workshop at Fullers, and later became a contractor working alongside another engineer.

But sadly, the initial scepticism she encountered being female in a male-dominated industry never really went away. When her (male) co-worker wasn’t available, Marion found boat owners wouldn’t trust her to do the work herself, despite having worked extensively on their boats before. She says while it’s getting easier for women to get into the trades these days, there remains a stigma that women can’t do well at ‘men’s’ jobs. “It’s definitely getting easier for girls now to get apprenticeships and get recognised. You’re seeing a lot more girls get their hands dirty, especially in the automotive industry. Who knows, in another 20 years maybe people won’t have that stigma any more. It would be nice to see.”

Still, her advice to girls thinking about getting into the trades is: “go for it”.
“You really, really just have to believe in yourself, that you can do it,” says Marion. “Because what you project to other people definitely rubs off.”
She says the “sneers” and “remarks” are just part and parcel of being a woman in the trades, but rather than getting hung up on them, Marion relishes the opportunity to prove people wrong.
“That’s one thing I absolutely loved,” she says. “I enjoyed people’s reactions when I got on a boat with another guy, and people go, ‘Is she just here to hold your pen?’ And I would be the one who would climb into the hole and he’d sit there with a pen!”

She encourages women in the trades to “enjoy those moments when people are dumbfounded.”
When her contract work as an engineer dried up one winter, Marion channelled her positive attitude into a completely new trade – boatbuilding. Working at OC Tenders, she’s had to learn from the ground up again, which she says has been “a wild ride”, but one she’s thoroughly enjoying.

The company, run by sailors Russell and Karin Carlyon, uses techniques from Russell’s background as a competitive windsurfer and board builder to create lightweight tenders for cruising yachts.
Marion says it’s good fun, but hard work, and totally different to engineering. “It’s way more intense than engineering was. It’s a lot more focused and a lot more physical. Engineering is physical enough because you have to climb into small spaces, but this laminating, you have to be focused a hundred percent the whole time, so it’s mind taxing as well as body taxing.”

It’s just as well she knows how to relax. She regularly takes time on weekends to head out on the boat fishing with Scott and their old friend Tony Nelson. They have free use of Tony’s Bertram 28, Yagethat, which Marion says has been quite an opportunity. In return, they help out with boat maintenance, Marion doing the engine servicing, and both she and Scott helping with painting and haul-outs.

Marion only really took up fishing when she moved to the Bay of Islands, but she’s already knocked off the 20lb snapper and a marlin. She says her fishing wishlist still includes a swordfish, and more surprisingly, a john dory, which she confesses she’s never caught before. “I’ve always loved the water,” she says. “I’ve been water skiing since I was a baby, so I’ve been on the water my whole life.”

I asked Marion what she would say to those in the industry who are still reluctant to hire women in trades roles. She says: “If there’s one thing New Zealand has taught me, it’s to never ever judge a person by what they look like. Women are just as capable as men, and even more so sometimes.”
She says when the next female apprentice comes knocking: “Take them on.”

Article by: Helen Horrocks