By Jo Bailey
Ten years ago Carmen Sutton had barely swung a hammer and had learning difficulties that prevented her from reading.
Now she has been named the National Association of Women in Construction’s Tradeswoman of the Year at the Hays NAWIC Excellence Awards.
“It was great to win. I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” says Carmen, who attended the awards with her partner Frith, boss Alastair McIntosh of Ashburton firm McIntosh Builders, and his wife Dianne.
Carmen started with the firm four years ago as a labourer, then became an apprentice and is now a fully qualified builder, running her own jobs.
“I love the hard work and am a practical person. I’ve always taken on jobs that are physical. After leaving school I got into horticulture, then started driving truck and trailers.”
One of the reasons Carmen took on physical jobs was to hide her reading difficulties, which were the result of (then undiagnosed) dyslexia and Irlin syndrome, which means she struggles to read black print on white backgrounds.
It wasn’t until she and Frith bought a house in Ashburton in 2006 and she started doing some DIY projects, that Carmen discovered she had an aptitude for building.
Around the same time Frith encouraged Carmen to attend an Outward Bound course, which she credits for changing her life.
“It opened my eyes and showed me if you work hard you can achieve anything. It’s up to you and your own mindset.”
This experience gave her the push towards entering a pre-trade course. But first she had to face her learning difficulties head on. For 18 months, at the age of almost 40, she did intensive study with an Ashburton tutor, which allowed her to develop the reading skills required to enter a pre-trade course.
On the advice of some staff from a local hardware store, Carmen approached Alastair McIntosh to see if she could do some work experience for him.
It worked out so well that she was offered an apprenticeship when she finished her training, although Alastair McIntosh admits to having some initial reservations about employing a woman in a male dominated industry.
“It was a big step and I forewarned Carmen there would be no favours and that she would be expected to undertake all aspects of construction as per her co-workers. I make no excuses that I demand a high level of both skill and work ethics and on both fronts Carmen has performed beyond my expectations.”
He says she has never shied away from the hard yards, and has also set a benchmark for all apprentices to follow, regardless of gender.
Just before her apprenticeship finished early this year, Alastair gave Carmen the opportunity to build a new house as a foreman.
“She surprised not only me but her work mates with how well the job went, particularly when it came to the important aspects of client relationship, quality of work, and time management of herself and the apprentices under her.”
Carmen relished the experience and says managing that first project is “what it is all about”.
She says there has rarely been an issue with regards her gender on the work site as she works with a “great group of guys”.
“I think attitudes across the industry are starting to change. Women are never going to be as strong as men but if we keep an open, positive mind, keep fit and put our heads down and work, we can do anything if we put our minds to it.”
Alastair says clients sometimes still look twice when they see Carmen is the foreman on their job, but are soon won over when they experience her excellent communication and construction skills.
“Carmen is a pleasure to have in the McIntosh Group and is a fantastic ambassador for the trade industry. I have the upmost respect for her both as a carpenter and as a person.”
Carmen was one of many “inspirational female leaders” hailed at the Hays NAWIC Excellence Awards, which celebrated the outstanding achievements women are making in New Zealand’s construction industry.
With predicted 10 percent yearly growth of women entering the construction sector until 2019, the awards are one way the Association is supporting women and highlighting some of the career paths available in this exciting sector.