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Woman of Influence supports drought stricken farmers

10 July 2015

Fi Shewring began her trade in painting and decorating as a young mum when she decided to join her partner in the family business. She says it was an easy decision as her background was in art, with a degree in three-dimensional design. Joining the family business also increased her family’s financial security.

“Five kids meant I had to work too. In the beginning I’d go to work with my partner two days a week on site and the rest of the time I’d be with the kids and looking after the business from home. When my youngest went to primary school my hours on the tools increased until I was working full-time,” says Fi, adding that there are many women like her who’ve taken this route into their trades.

Fi is an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence winner. She teaches at Wollongong TAFE and founded Supporting And Linking Tradeswomen (SALT), a non-profit incorporated organisation providing a support network for tradeswomen, apprentices and women who wish to enter the trades.

According to SALT, the figures for tradeswomen in Australia are very small with only about 5000 tradeswomen nationally. Currently it is very difficult for a woman to get an apprenticeship in the trades and SALT aims to

  • Provide support to tradeswomen in Australia including apprentices and women seeking to work in the trades
  • Provide avenues for women to meet other tradeswomen, apprentices etc and share experiences
  • Promote women in the trades to the general public and industry 
  • Advocate for change to attitudes to women working in the trades
  • Campaign for changes which enable women to train and work in trades
  • Promote diversity and acceptance for all people in the trades

In November 2014 SALT saw a call for ‘Tradesmen’ to help the farmers of north west NSW and south east Queensland who were dealing with a terrible drought. Fi phoned up and offered the services of SALT, politely advising the organisers that Australia also had tradeswomen.

Ruby ran into Fi recently at the 2015 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence launch. Here is what we learned about the SALT volunteers’ experiences in Lightning Ridge.

It was hard to secure volunteer tradies for the first call-up because it was the lead up to Christmas. One of the busiest times of the year, particularly in the construction trades, three SALT tradeswomen were able to go. Fi was one of them and there was a second painter and decorator, Sonia, as well as a fitter and machinist, Fred.

The women arrived in Lightning Ridge to a crazy week of 47 degree and above temperatures.  Apparently even for the Ridge that was extreme.

The task was to paint the outside of the homestead of Oakey Point Station. The paperwork said: “badly peeling but easy job” and it gave them two days to complete the task plus fix the tractor and replace sun blinds.

One look told Fi this was not going to happen in two days but they set to it, intent on doing the very best they could in five days.

Don, the station owner, who at 83 years old is used to women carrying out more traditional roles, did query what he was going to do with “three old boilers” when he heard he had three volunteer tradeswomen coming out to help on the homestead.

According to Fi: “Even when the temperature gauge hit the 50 degree mark, we worked, and in five days we managed to scrape back, angle grind, sand, prep coat and top coat two sides of his house. We had to follow the shade and this meant only completing the west and south sides. The east and north sides, which were the sides affected the worst, would have to be done in cooler weather.”

Life out on the stations, notes Fi, is a very different kettle of fish to life in the eccentric town of the Ridge. A few months before Fi answered the call for tradies to help farmers, SALT had been out to Lightning Ridge to run a workshop at the school.

Following the summer work, a chance conversation created a whole new project in Easter of this year and the opportunity for SALT to partner with Outback Links, part of Frontier Services, which was set up by Rev John Flynn of Flying Doctors fame. Frontier Services supports those living and working in rural Australia. The new project took Sonia and Fi back to the Ridge as well as other tradies and apprentices in a major youth initiative to engage young people in volunteering.

SALT provided volunteers for the Builders Team with five painters and decorators, two carpenters and one plumber. SALT also provided contacts and connections to Master Builders, NECA and TAFE NSW. Frontier Services was able to secure a volunteer electrician, electrical apprentices and carpentry apprentices.

The team included tradeswomen and men, male and female apprentices, and the list of work to be done from five very deserving stations (including a return to work on Don’s place) was huge.

Before And After Lightning Ridge Drought 2015

“In the five months since we’d last been in the area we could see how very much worse things had become for everyone. It is one thing to hear about a drought from the comfort of your armchair and quite another to watch a farmer struggling with the loss of the livestock they love and care for in front of you. We felt that at least we were doing something tangible to improve things for the families by restoring parts of their properties, replacing boards, building benches and mending toilets that hadn’t worked for 20 years,” Fi told us.

To contact SALT: email at saltaustralia@gmail.com or ring and leave a message on
+61 419160934

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