Award-winning adult apprentice Emma de Salis is enjoying every minute of being in the plumbing industry. NZ Plumber talks to Emma about her achievements and the added challenge of working and learning with ADHD.

For third-year Masterlink apprentice Emma de Salis, plumbing isn’t her first career. The 34-year-old started out in property maintenance and management and worked with different trades. She found plumbing interested her and decided on a new direction. But it wasn’t easy for Emma to get an apprenticeship. She called local plumbers and there was nothing going. She also faced resistance being female. Comments like, “Are you looking for a job for your boyfriend?” didn’t put her off though, and a chat with Taupō-based McBeth Plumbing & Gas ended with them keeping in touch. “I called them every six months and, when they needed an apprentice, they gave Masterlink a call.” Emma appreciates the supportive team at McBeth. It’s a learning curve as an apprentice but the guys are approachable and have her back.

Masterlink support

As a Masterlink apprentice Emma has a dedicated mentor in Russell Walsh. He provides support and keeps her accountable with study. Emma attended the New Zealand Plumbing Awards in May as one of three Masterlink apprentices to receive a 2023 Plumbing World Scholarship; secured one of 10 Masterlink scholarships for a 16-day Outward Bound Leadership course in June; and headed to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) Awards in Christchurch as a finalist for the Apprentice Excellence Award in July. She also won Best Second-Year Apprentice at the Master Plumbers Volcanic Plateau Awards last year.

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On-job and block course

The on-job, off-job learning combo has been good for Emma. She has the added challenge of ADHD so how well she learns can depend on her tutor. She’s just finished her first gas course and says, “The tutor was really engaging… we learned so much.”

Emma’s experience means she mostly works unsupervised so her on-job learning is often self-directed. She says she feels proud of that and glad the bosses have faith in her. Masterlink mentor Russell adds, “The hard thing for Emma has been the pace of the training holding her back. She’s champing at the bit to get ahead but has needed to go at the pace dictated by the apprenticeship.”

Projects, challenges, awards

Recently Emma and the McBeth team helped rebuild Taupō’s storm-damaged Tauhara College. “It was really cool dropping pre-made classrooms in place and having to sort those out.” She enjoys reno work, too—learning plastering and tiling along the way. The team also donated time to constructing off-grid shower units for Hawke’s Bay residents after Cyclone Gabrielle.

On the tools Emma likes a challenge. “If there’s a job where there’s a strange leak… and you’ve got to spend time investigating—it’s cool to put all your knowledge together and solve it.” Being a woman tradie hasn’t given Emma any problems. If anything, she’s found more upsides with support and events for women in trades. She thinks flexibility for parents could improve, though. Acknowledging it’s tough for small businesses, she says, “There’s women out there saying, ‘I’d love to be in the trades, but I’ve got to drop my kid off at 8.30 and everyone starts at 7.30.’”

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Diversity in the workplace

A highlight for Emma was the 2023 New Zealand Plumbing Conference. During the event, Emma participated in the Women and Diversity Panel, where she discussed being a woman in the trades and her ADHD challenges. “It was inspiring being part of those discussion panels... to see what the future of the industry holds,” she says. A common view held by panellists was that you don’t have to cater for diversity in the workplace if you have a good workplace culture—because if you’re caring for your people you’re caring for diversity. Outside work Emma is a volunteer firefighter and enjoys mountain biking with her Ironman wife Tabitha.

You don’t have to cater for diversity in the workplace if you have a good workplace culture— because if you’re caring for your people you’re caring for diversity.

- Emma de Salis

Work, Study and ADHD

Emma was diagnosed with ADHD two and a half years ago. She says it makes her thinking “scattered” and she has to try hard to stay focused. Recognising how it presents and finding strategies that work helps. She makes lists and tries to keep a clear workspace to support a clear mindset. For Emma, direct communication is best—interruptions are difficult. Instead of calls when she’s on site, McBeth bosses leave notes back at base. With study she says, “Russell told me to study for my exams early.” That’s helped too—and taking her laptop outside keeps study novel. When sorting jobs for the day she sits with her boss and draws a plan. “Then I’ve got something to take away.” Another simple strategy Emma uses is taking five minutes to read her paperwork and think through a job before she starts. For anyone with ADHD considering a trade she says, “It’s rewarding work.” Each task she ticks off gives Emma a dopamine hit which keeps her motivated throughout the day.

This article was written by Dawn Adams and first appeared in NZ Plumber magazine August-September 2023

Photography by Amy Fowler