21 May 2023

Only female electrician in Leeton TAFE course on breaking down barriers

| Oliver Jacques
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Katelyn Mills as SunRice Ambassador

Katelyn Mills has long been a trailblazer. Photo: Talia Pattison.

At the age of just 20, Leeton’s Katelyn Mills is already used to being a trailblazer. Last year, she was named the 2022 SunRice Festival Ambassador, when she raised $15,000 for a children’s charity. This year, she started work as an apprentice sparky – and she’s the only girl in a class of 45 first-year students doing a Certificate III in Electrotechnology as an electrician at TAFE in Leeton.

Given the chronic shortage of tradies across the Riverina, why are there still so few girls doing apprenticeships in such a key field? What can be done to boost female representation? Region caught up with Ms Mills to get her views on redressing the imbalance.

Why do you think you’re the only girl out of 45 students doing your electrician course at TAFE?

A lot of girls think they’re not good enough to do it and second guess themselves.

I think, unintentionally, teachers still discourage girls from doing trades. It’s not at all deliberate, but comes out in the things they say all through schooling. I still remember in kindergarten, the teacher would come in and say, “OK, I need three strong boys to carry some boxes for me”. Why not ask the girls too?

Men are naturally stronger than women but I’ve been going to the gym for years, so I can hold my own. I find it frustrating that people underestimate my skills but I do blow them away when I get the chance.

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Do you think schools still have a bias towards preparing students for university rather than trades?

Most definitely. We are constantly told we have to do this to get into uni, or that for uni, but there’s not nearly as much encouragement for doing apprenticeships. We need more female carpenters, electricians and tradies, so girls should be encouraged more.

How were you able to buck the trend and become an apprentice electrician yourself?

I was inspired to join a trade because I was highly exposed to both family and family friends also working in the industry while I was growing up.

My father and aunt are both industrial electricians by trade, and my older brother works in automation as an IT technician. One of my mentors – a female electrician who is also the Leeton Fire and Rescue captain, Emma Tyrell – also encouraged me to go for the job when I mentioned it was something I was interested in.

Katelyn Mills at the snow

Katelyn Mills is no stranger to physical work. Photo: Supplied.

What’s it like being the only girl in male-dominated environments both at TAFE and work?

I would have to say there is both advantages and disadvantages to being the only female in a male-dominated role. It does get a little lonely occasionally but the boys that I work with are all very funny and great to have a chat to.

Could another barrier for girls be the lack of understanding about what an electrician does and how diverse the role can be?

Yes, for sure. Before I started, I thought an electrician was someone who crawled in a roof and did wiring. But I’m also doing a lot of coding and faultfinding, with the automation team. That’s where I am half the week at my workplace. That’s really interesting work, it’s very technical, you are programming machines.

What’s your TAFE course like?

Rod Chant has been an excellent and highly knowledgeable teacher – who has taught pretty much every electrician I know, including my father. I was also lucky enough to have Rod’s son Jesse as my physics teacher for the HSC and he did very well to further my interest in the science behind electricity and magnetism. Both men are a credit to society and highly encouraging of women in male-dominated industries.

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What are your career and life ambitions?

I’m really ambitious – I would love to do supervisor roles, lead teams, I have a long way to go but I do gravitate towards empowering people.

I’m also very big on travel, I want to see the world.

I have plans to go to Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and then to Europe.

Now that I am working, my parents always want me to do the electrical work at home.

What would you say to girls in high school who are thinking of doing an apprenticeship?

I just think they should go for it. I wish I did it earlier. I have classmates who are just 16 and I’m envious that they’ll be done by the time they’re my age. I would recommend that anyone who is considering a trade should consider work experience in the industry to gain a better understanding of what role they may be suited to.

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