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Award-winning Wintec Wāhine Plumbing Student Riding A Pipeline Of Success

Maria Contreras Huerta, 22, has always been intrigued by plumbing. Figuring out how water gets from one place to another and what systems are needed to make that happen fueled her desire to get into the trade as an adult.

Maria is currently completing her apprenticeship at Morrinsville Plumbing and Gas Services (MPG). She wraps that up in August and from there will be set to graduate from Wintec next year. Along the way she has picked up several accolades and become a speaker for women in trades.

Maria Contreras Huerta (Photo supplied)

Maria arrived in New Zealand from Chile 16 years ago. Her biggest influence growing up was her “papa” (dad). Maria would always help him do jobs around the house, that’s how she learnt to use tools.

“He made me realise that I could do anything if I set my mind to it and using hand tools and power tools wasn’t just for the boys, I could do it too. I love doing things with my hands and I like learning how things work.”

For a while Maria was trying to decide between building and plumbing, it wasn’t until she did a Gateway programme through her high school, Morrinsville College, that she knew plumbing was right for her.

“Every Wednesday for 10 weeks I would go and work for a day. The first day I instantly knew this what I wanted to do as a career path. The aspect of getting water from one area to another was just so fascinating and seeing how everything functioned together was just like ‘wow’ to me.”

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More recently, Maria won the 2024 Plumbing Awards: Overall Apprentice, awarding her a Plumbing World national scholarship, and she has been nominated for a National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) excellence award.

“I didn’t see it coming when I won the Plumbing World scholarship, I knew I was a finalist but didn’t know I would win it. I was shocked, but super grateful even being placed as a finalist was rewarding enough. It makes me so happy that there are awards out there for plumbing. It makes me feel very proud that you can get recognised for all your hard work and it really makes it worth it.”

Maria was also on the panel for Wintec’s Wāhine in Trades event for 2023, helping wāhine discover career options in the fast paced and fulfilling industries of trades.

“Last year in August I had the special honour to be part of the Wāhine in Trades event at Wintec and represent the plumbing industry. I met some amazing tradie ladies and heard about their experiences in the trades. Their speeches really showed the dedication and passion they have towards what they do. I was one of the first speakers. I’m not fond of public speaking but having those other ladies there and all of us supporting each other really made me confident and eager to talk about my experience and what I’m passionate about.”

When Amy Opperman, Wintec’s Team Manager for Plumbing, asked her teaching team who should represent Plumbing for the Wāhine in Trades and Engineering event in 2023, the answer was unanimous: Maria. According to the tutors, she is a delightful student who serves as an excellent role model for other female students in this industry, but as she is also from Chile, Maria represents a larger demographic body that Wintec sees.

“Maria is well-spoken, enjoys the variety of her work, and does an excellent job with her practical and theoretical assessments on our block courses. What we admire about Maria is her willingness to try new things, and it is because of these qualities that we support her. She is one to watch!” Opperman said.

Maria is keen to get along to our 2024 Wāhine in Trades and Engineering event on 28 August, to hear second year plumbing apprentice with J T Carters, Theresa Longuet-Higgins wave the flag for wāhine in plumbing.

Maria said her experience in the plumbing industry being a woman had, so far, been good overall.

She said with being female, she’d had some challenging experiences here and there, but that had never stopped her.

“Honestly, in this industry you must have thick skin. And you must be confident in yourself and what you do. If people want to watch me do my job, let them, I’ll get it done.”

When she first got her apprenticeship at MPG she was worried that she wasn’t going to fit in, be strong enough, or even be accepted, or looked at the same as a “bloke would”.

“But, on my first day, all my worries went away because everyone was super nice and inviting of me.

“MPG have been supportive towards me and my career. They’ve encouraged me to do new things like participating in different events throughout the industry and nominating me in different awards.

“My experience with customers has been mostly great, they are always impressed to see a girl arrive at their house because they aren’t used to it. When I call, they do think I’m the office lady though.”

Maria said she has been finding support in attending the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) events too.

“I get to speak with some powerful and passionate woman about their jobs, their struggles and what they enjoy. Sometimes you even get to relate about the struggles you face.

“I think it’s great to see so many girls in the trades. Each time I see one on site, online or at the NAWIC events it makes me so happy and proud. Like, yes girl, you are doing it! If some girl out there is reading this article and isn’t sure if she should do plumbing as a trade, I would say to them do whatever makes you happy. You never know until you try and what have you got to lose?”

In five year’s time Maria hopes to own her own plumbing company.

“With this company I would give job opportunities to anyone that 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. With this I would help them thrive as individuals and encourage them to learn practical skills for the future. With the profits of my company, I would donate to a charity that is close to my heart and has been a big impact in my life: Mental Health Foundation.

“My ultimate goal would be building a house for my parents to thank them for all they have done for me and my brother throughout the years. It’s thanks to their hard work, sacrifice, and dedication to give us a better life, that I am where I am today. I’m so grateful.

“I would definitely encourage other women to pursue a career in the trades, not just plumbing. There are so many options out there to suit any girly out there. If you really want to do a trade, I reckon just go for it, girl! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You never know until you try. You learn so much about practical skills and you honestly grow so much as a person.”

Maria said her time at Wintec has been great overall, “the tutors have always been great and very helpful, they encourage you to do the best work you can”.

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