JO Farrell, 42, always wanted to be a builder.
At school when most girls were scribbling boys’ names on their books, Jo was drawing buildings and bridges, dreaming up designs to make in the back shed of her parents’ Wollongong home.
More than two decades later, Jo’s a titan of the Canberra building industry, spending most of her time managing building sites and encouraging girls to take on a trade. What’s more, she’s worked her way up from unpaid lackey, to general manager of a multi-million-dollar construction company.
Jo is part of a new generation of lady tradies hard at work across Australia, who have got the tools to reshape traditionally male-dominated trades.
But her journey hasn’t been easy.
“I started my carpentry/building apprenticeship in 1996, but found it very hard to break into the industry and get an apprenticeship,” she recalls.
“When I left school all the boys would go and work for BHP in Wollongong and all the girls would get jobs as hairdressers, I knew I always wanted to be a builder but found it really difficult to get in.
“Eventually I wore down a builder who offered me a three-month trial, if I was willing to work for free; free doesn’t pay the bills, but finally I had been given an opportunity and so I ran with it.”
Female construction workers are often seen as an anomaly – on her journey to secure an apprenticeship, Jo says she lost count of the times people said: “We don’t employ girls”, “You’re not strong enough”, “Girls are a distraction”, “It’s a man’s job, not a woman’s job”, “If you want an apprenticeship, go and be a hairdresser”.
In response, she’s set up Build Like A Girl, a program for women who want to become tradies, and to champion other women who want to work in trades. The not-for-profit organisation, to be launched soon, matches 22 females with pre-apprenticeship and entry level training, with the aim of securing them an actual job in the construction industry and mentoring them along the way.
Put simply, Jo’s newly founded organisation is designed to “give girls a go”.
“There’s been many times I’ve walked in a room full of men and they think I’m the coffee girl,” she says.
“Sadly, young women are still faced with the same challenges I was faced with 24 years ago, which is just horrendous.
“There are so many industry bodies out there trying to create initiatives for women and they are all doing well, but it’s just not collaborative enough to capture everything we need to do, and there’s not the support network there that young women need in the industry.
“The difference with Build Like A Girl is we stick with our candidates right through their training and apprenticeship; what I have found is the first six months is the hardest and there’s a big drop-out rate during that time, so supporting the candidate right through their apprenticeship is really important.”
Despite changing social attitudes, women still account for fewer than two per cent of tradespeople in Australia. But, there are signs of positive growth; nearly a quarter of the 266,565 apprentices and trainees in training across the country are female, according to data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research.
And if COVID-19 has been good for one thing, it’s been boosting the number of women taking up trades.
“There’s been a lot of women who have come from other sectors that have been affected by covid financially who always wanted to try a trade and this was a catalyst for them to step outside their comfort zone,” says Jo.
“We are seeing more female painters on building sites, we have six female apprentices on one of our sites varying from electricians to carpenters and we have women returning to the workforce once their kids are at school.”
Jo is currently the general manager of Kane Constructions ACT. Along with operations manager Philippa Seldon, the pair are the only female duo at the helm of a Canberra construction company.
Jo says social attitudes towards females in trades are changing, albeit slowly.
“We are moving, but at a glacial pace, the changes are only very minute and very incremental,” says Jo.
“Sometimes, some employers have never had a female apprentice before and so they don’t understand how to cater for a female, there might be something specific that that young lady might need and that’s where we can support and give guidance around what employers might need to cater for women on their site.
“A lot of building sites around Canberra don’t have female amenities so a lot of young girls have to trek around the corner to the local shops to go to the toilet or they have to run the risk of sharing a bathroom with men, and that’s not okay in 2021.”
Despite a challenging start, Jo has enjoyed a rewarding career, filling her resume with roles as a qualified carpenter, licenced builder and certified building designer. She’s worked on iconic landmarks, such as Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall, Sydney Airport, the cross-city tunnel and, more recently, the ACT’s light rail project.
In 2009, Jo was the only female employee in a construction-based role to work on a European nuclear decommissioning facility in Lithuania.
“Here I was, a girl from Wollongong who had not really travelled much, ending up over there in the middle of winter, I had to learn to speak Russian to communicate with the guys on site and to learn what they were saying about me… that was a big learning curve for them and me,” she says.
In 2013, Jo moved back to Australia with a mission to see more women flourish in trades. In her role as general manager of Kane Constructions ACT she’s increased the female workforce by 48 per cent, a number she hopes will climb even further.
“By June 30, 2021, we want 50/50 male and female representation within the company,” she says.
A tall order, maybe, but this lady certainly knows how to stand up to the big boys.
“We cop plenty of flack from people saying we are just employing women for the sake of it; I say, no we are not, we are employing talented females and giving them the opportunities they are overlooked for in other companies,” says Jo.
And this building industry leader has some last-minute advice for budding female builders.
“Never take no for an answer, keep striving for what you want, love what you do and never give up.”
To participate in the program visit buildlikeagirl.org