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Heidi Wilson has always loved developing new skills and taking on new challenges. In short, that’s why her career has already taken her from working in retail and hospitality, to supporting remote Indigenous communities throughout the pandemic, to embarking on a plumbing apprenticeship earlier this year. Kathryn Kernohan reports.
“It’s been a pretty hectic journey but I’ve had some amazing experiences and I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had along the way,” Heidi Wilson says as she reflects on her working life.
Heidi spent close to a decade working in retail before her and her partner Paul, who works as both a commercial pool plumber and a chef, decided to embark on a new adventure of fly in, fly out work in remote Indigenous communities across Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
“For the last three or so years, we’ve been in places like Warmun, which is about halfway between Kununurra and Halls Creek in WA. We were there for a while running a roadhouse, which had takeaway stores, fuel and a mini supermarket.”
“We started just before COVID and we were lucky that as our work was essential we were still able to travel and move around. It was complicated with lots of permits and forms that we needed, but we were really fortunate.”
While their day-to-day work was undoubtedly rewarding, Heidi says it was embedding herself in the community that provided long-lasting memories.
“I got really involved with the school, talking to kids about healthy eating and helping them make their lunches. We donated a lot of food from the roadhouse to the school so they could have fruit and vegetables and learn there are better things than just sugar and Coke.
“Most days I did a lot of office work, a lot of paperwork. Nine times out of 10, I’d have four kids in the back room with me just sitting there drawing and learning and chatting away. It was really special.”
With Paul helping to maintain swimming pools in the communities the pair visited, Heidi found herself becoming interested in learning more about the plumbing industry.
“Giving him a bit of a chop out and an extra pair of hands, I got really interested in plumbing. We saw that some of these Indigenous communities that are really hard to get to are not looked after as well as they could be. Plumbing is not only really interesting but it’s really important to help people.
“We thought that long-term we’d actually love to run a business together. So, I said, if this is something we really want to do in the future, I need to get qualified.”
Back in Victoria, Heidi found out about Women in Plumbing, a Master Plumbers and Plumbing Apprenticeships Victoria (PAV) initiative that aims to increase the number of women in the industry by providing paid pre-apprenticeships, direct entry into Plumbing Apprenticeships Victoria and networking, mentoring, training and social opportunities.
“Everybody I spoke to was really supportive, including my grandpa who had been a cabinet maker. He told me he had a few female apprentices in his time when he was running his business.
“I actually made a toolbox at TAFE in my pre-apprenticeship - the first thing I’ve made. I gave it to him for his birthday. I turned it into a flower box because I thought, it’s not perfect. He actually took the plants out of it and is now using it as a toolbox, which is fantastic,” she laughs.
Heidi is currently learning about mechanical plumbing while she is hosted by Ellis Air through Plumbing Apprenticeships Victoria, Master Plumbers’ Group Training Organisation.
“I’ve been learning so much about the use of different tools, power tools, hand tools, things like that. Every day I’m working with steel, folding, cutting, shaping and making different frames and bits and pieces to go together.
“I feel really lucky to get my hands into what goes on in the factory, and I feel like when I do go out on site, I will have a bit more knowledge about what’s going on and how it all works.”
The welcoming and supportive work environment has also helped Heidi to settle in to her new career.
“It was a little bit daunting at the start, because you don’t know what you’re going into and who you’re going to be with. But I’ve been very lucky to have not had any negative experiences at all. The guys are so supportive and wonderful every day.”
The training and networking events run by Women in Plumbing have allowed Heidi to meet other women embarking on the same journey as her.
“It’s great to get to know the other women, to get to know where we’ve come from and where we’re going. We recently had an event focused on women’s health and wellbeing about mental health in terms of being in a male-dominated workplace, which was really informative.”
As for the future, Heidi says the lure of getting back on the road again will be hard to resist for her and Paul.
“We’ve had some incredible experiences, everything about the Northern Territory and Western Australia is really picturesque and beautiful. The people are much more laid back, lots of open spaces and the weather’s much warmer too!
“At the moment I’m giving it a crack and getting my hands dirty. At the end of the day, we’ll see whether we start a business and if it works, but at least I know I have given it a great shot.”