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

Maria Contreras Huerta, 22, has always been fascinated by plumbing, and learning about how water gets from one place to another and the systems needed to do it sparked her desire to get into the trade as an adult.

Maria is currently completing her apprenticeship with Morrinsville Plumbing and Gas Services (MPG). She will complete this in August and will then graduate with Wintec next year. Over time she has received several awards and has become a spokesperson for women in the trades.

Maria Contreras Huerta (photo provided)

Maria came to New Zealand from Chile 16 years ago. Her biggest influence growing up was her “Papa” (father). Maria always helped him with the work around the house, which is how she learned how to use tools.

“He made me realize that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. And using hand tools and power tools isn't just for boys; I can do that too. I love making things with my hands and I love learning how things work.”

For a while, Maria couldn't decide between construction and plumbing. It wasn't until she completed a gateway program at her high school, Morrinsville College, that she realised plumbing was for her.

“I went to work every Wednesday for ten weeks. From the very first day I knew immediately what I wanted to do professionally. The aspect of getting water from one area to another was just so fascinating and seeing how it all worked together was just 'wow' for me.”

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Recently, Maria won the Plumbing Awards 2024: Overall Apprentice, which earned her a national Plumbing World scholarship, and she was 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 I didn't know I was going to win it. I was shocked, but super grateful that just being a finalist was reward enough. It makes me so happy that there are awards for plumbers. It makes me very proud to be recognized for all your hard work and it makes it really worthwhile.”

Maria also sat on the panel at Wintec’s 2023 Wāhine in Trades event, helping Wāhine discover career opportunities in the fast-paced and fulfilling trade industry.

“Last year in August I had the special honour of attending the Wāhine in Trades event at Wintec, representing the plumbing industry. I met some amazing tradeswomen and heard about their experiences in the trades. Their speeches really showed the dedication and passion they have for what they do. I was one of the first speakers. I don't like public speaking, but being around these other ladies and supporting each other really gave me confidence and I was eager to talk about my experiences and my passions.”

When Amy Opperman, Wintec's Plumbing Engineering Team Leader, asked her teaching team who should represent Plumbing Engineering at 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 the industry, but as she is also from Chile, Maria represents a wider demographic than Wintec sees.

“Maria is articulate, enjoys the variety of her work and does an excellent job in her practical and theoretical assessments of 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 keep an eye on!” said Opperman.

Maria is keen to attend our Wāhine in Trades and Engineering 2024 event on 28 August to hear Theresa Longuet-Higgins, second year Plumbing Apprentice at JT Carters, lift the flag for Wāhine in Plumbing.

Maria said that as a woman, she has had overall good experiences in the plumbing industry.

She said that as a woman, she has had some challenging experiences here and there, but she never let them stop her.

“Honestly, in this industry you have to have a thick skin. And you have to have confidence in yourself and what you do. If people want to watch me work, then let them, I'll do it.”

When she started her training at MPG, she was afraid of not belonging, of not being strong enough, of not even being accepted or not being seen as a “guy”.

“But on my first day, all my worries disappeared because everyone was super nice and welcoming to me.

“MPG has supported me and my career. They have encouraged me to do new things like attending different events across the industry and have nominated me for various awards.

“My experiences with clients have mostly been great. They are always impressed when a girl comes to their home because they are not used to it. However, when I call, they think I am the office lady.”

Maria said she also found support by attending events organized by the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC).

“I get to talk to some strong and passionate women about their work, their problems and what they enjoy. Sometimes you can even talk about the problems you face yourself.

“I love seeing so many girls in these professions. Every time I see one in person, online or at NAWIC events, it makes me so happy and proud. It's like, yes girl, you can do it! If there's a girl out there reading this article and she's not sure if she should be a plumber, I would tell her, do whatever you enjoy. You never know until you try, and what do you have to lose?”

In five years, Maria hopes to own her own plumbing company.

“With this business, I would give a job opportunity to anyone who wants to work and learn. It wouldn't matter who they are, if they are struggling, less fortunate, and don't have the right support system in their lives. In doing so, I would help them thrive as individuals and encourage them to learn practical skills for the future. With the profits from my business, I would donate to a charity that is close to my heart and has had a huge impact on my life: the Mental Health Foundation.

“My ultimate goal would be to build a house for my parents to thank them for everything they have done for me and my brother over the years. It is because of their hard work, sacrifices and dedication to giving us a better life that I am where I am today. I am so grateful.

“I would definitely encourage other women to pursue a career in the trades, not just plumbing. There are so many opportunities that will suit every girl. If you really want to pursue a career, just do it, girl! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You never know until you try. You learn so much about practical skills and really grow a lot as a person.”

Maria said that overall her time at Wintec was great: “The tutors have always been great and very helpful. They encourage you to do your work as well as you can.”

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