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Passionate Waikato Apprentice Maria Wins Overall Plumbing World Scholarship

Waikato apprentice Maria Contreras Huerta was the Overall Plumbing World Scholarship Winner at the national 2024 New Zealand Plumbing Awards, held at Takina Wellington Convention Centre on Friday 12 April.

Maria Contreras Huerta has always set goals and pursued opportunities. As a 14-year-old student at Morrinsville College, she approached a plumbing business owner called Dave on careers day and asked how she could get a job in the industry. He told her to knock on doors and ask.

Three years later, Maria knocked on the door of his company Morrinsville Plumbing & Gas Services and Managing Director Dave Strong didn’t hesitate to take her on as an apprentice.

"I employ apprentices that I think will make good plumbers. And when Maria showed up asking for an apprenticeship, I knew she was going to be a good plumber."

Maria says her father was a big influence on her decision to choose a trade. "I would always help him do jobs around the house and that’s how I learnt to use tools. He made me realise that I could do anything if I set my mind to it and that using tools wasn’t just for the boys," says Maria, who emigrated to New Zealand from Chile when she was six years old.

Currently in the final year of her Plumbing, Gasfitting & Drainlaying apprenticeship through Masterlink, 22-year-old Maria admits there are challenging days when lots of patience and problem-solving skills are called for, but she loves what she does. "I love that I’m able to do different things every day. One day I could be replacing a hot water cylinder at someone’s house and the next I could be doing a new renovation at a kohanga/kura (school). Every day I’m learning something new and expanding my knowledge.

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"The other thing I enjoy is seeing the end results and knowing that I did that with my hard work and dedication."

Maria attributes her focus and strong work ethic to her upbringing, "My Latin heritage is to be strong and independent. I always put my hand up for opportunities."

In 2021, Maria entered the World Skills competition and reached the National Final in Christchurch. She won the 2021 Waikato Master Plumbers Award for Best Second Year Apprentice and was a Finalist in the Personal Growth category.

In 2022, Maria applied for and received a Masterlink Outward Bound Scholarship, completing the 16-day Building Leaders course at Anakiwa in the Marlborough Sounds that winter. "I saw how strong I am as an individual, mentally and physically," she says, reflecting on her experience. "It pushed me right out of my comfort zone. In the span of two weeks, I did so many new things that I probably would never have done in my lifetime."

"I was proud to complete this course. As the only female plumber, I represented myself, the industry, Morrinsville Plumbing & Gas, Masterlink and all the hard-working female plumbing apprentices coming after me."

When she was invited to speak as a plumbing industry representative at a Wintec Wāhine in Trades and Engineering event in 2023, Maria found herself inspired by the stories and experiences of her fellow attendees. The pride she felt standing alongside other women in the trades encouraged her to attend several NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) events and become more invested in female representation in the industry.

Maria’s Instagram page - @shes_the_plumber - shines a light on her experiences as a female apprentice and connects her to the growing community of female tradies.

"I think it’s great to see so many girls in the trades. Each time I see one on site or online it makes me so happy and proud."

Maria is considered a bit of a superstar in the industry, but she admits being apprehensive when she first started work.

"I was worried that I wasn’t going to fit in and be accepted - that I wasn’t going to be strong enough or looked at the same as a bloke would be. But on my first day all my worries went away because everyone was super nice and inviting."

While some clients question her abilities, Maria says it doesn’t bother her. "You go in there, see what’s wrong, and get the job done.

"My experience with customers has been mostly great actually; they are always impressed to see a girl arrive because they aren’t used to it."

"If some girl out there is reading this article and isn’t sure if she should do plumbing as a trade - you will grow so much as a person mentally and physically," says Maria. "You will grow confidence in who are and what you do. Cheesy as it sounds, just do it girl! You got this!"

Maria has taken her passion for plumbing out into the wider industry too. Earlier this year, she was one of six apprentices selected for the new Apprentice Representative Group (ARG) formed by Master Plumbers to give apprentices a stronger voice about industry training challenges and provide feedback on potential solutions.

After she completes the last of her apprenticeship exams in May, Maria hopes to get her limited electrical licence and do a backflow IQP course.

Long-term, she would like to start her own plumbing business, donating profits to the Mental Health Foundation.

"I would give job opportunities to anyone who is willing to work and learn. It wouldn’t matter who they are - whether they are struggling, are less fortunate and don’t have the proper support system in their lives. I would help them thrive and encourage them to learn practical skills for the future."

Maria wins a certificate and $1000 to spend at her local Plumbing World branch. As the Overall Scholarship Winner, Maria was awarded a trophy and full registration for the 2024 NZ Plumbing Conference, including travel and accommodation, plus a complimentary ticket to the awards.

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