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Building the workforce

Features, Management | June 1, 2011 | By:

Equipping apprentices to enter the specialty fabrics industry.

Without tradespeople onsite we wouldn’t have the knowledge to make our products,” says Wendy Tankard, administration director of Baytex Manufacturing Co., Mount Maunganui, New Zealand. “And if we don’t keep training apprentices, we won’t have tradespeople onsite. Apprentices are the future of our businesses.”

Wendy’s company, which she owns with husband Spencer Wendy, manufactures tents, tent liners, architectural canopies and structures, and performance tents. When Wendy joined the second-generation, family-owned business in 1985, there was an effective apprenticeship program in place—for men. It didn’t take long for Wendy to identify the potential benefits of bringing women into the apprenticeship program—benefits for the women themselves but also for the company and industry.

Women welcome

“It took me about 15 years to persuade the men that a woman could do a trade as well as a man,” Wendy says. “But they have—and it changes the way the men work out on the floor.” Besides the fact that the language toned down, productivity increased.

“At the beginning the women were working much harder and faster than the men [in an effort to prove themselves],” she says. “Then the men did better [than before] in response.”

While it may be obvious that gender is irrelevant to whether a person is competent to enter a trade, the reality is that this continues to be a male-dominated industry. Wendy’s efforts to give opportunity to women gives legs to the practical side of what most people have already accepted, but have yet to see realized.

“I’ve promoted women in the business and have also joined business women’s support groups to get advice from other women in industry,” she says. “It’s given me valuable advice regarding being in business as a woman, especially in the trade show arena.”

On the job

To facilitate her dual goal of enhancing her business through apprenticeships and giving women opportunities in the industry, Wendy tries to have two apprentices in process at all times, optimally one man and one woman. The deciding factor, however, always rests on the applicant’s qualifications and work ethic. Wendy’s staff helps her identify good candidates, and they provide much of the training.

“Usually we like them to work in the business for a year or two before we offer them an apprenticeship so we can see if they’d be a good fit,” she says. “Once they’re in the program it usually takes about three years to complete.”

In New Zealand, apprenticeship programs have prepared men for various trades for decades, and the programs continue to fuel trade-based businesses with tradespeople-in-training, infusing industries with necessary successors.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, the government ran the apprenticeship program,” Wendy says. “Now trade associations help run the programs, and there has been a shift to include bookwork requirements, which includes reading and writing, for the apprentice.”

Because of the bookwork requirements, three years ago Wendy instituted a literacy program for the company’s apprentices. “We help them with reading, writing, spelling, time management and leadership skills,” she says. “Since the requirements have shifted away from the practical side and more toward the bookwork, we make sure to continue to teach them the practical side even after they’ve finished the program.

Ready, set, go

The success of the program is evidenced by the successes of the apprentices: within the past eight years, three of the company’s women—including the company’s current apprentice—have won OFPANZ (Outdoor Fabric Products Association of New Zealand) apprenticeship awards. Further evidence is that apprentices generally stay with or return to the company after their training is complete.

“We train them for the work that they will do and we continue to offer ongoing training opportunities,” Wendy says. “We also pay them well and they see that they will get promoted, so they stay.” However, Wendy encourages them to work elsewhere initially after they’ve completed their apprenticeships so they can broaden their industry knowledge base. “We want them to get a different slant on our trade,” she says. “And if they return to work for us they’ve got more perspective.”

Success of the program begins long before Wendy is evaluating her employees to see who might be a good candidate—it begins with recruitment. Word-of-mouth, online and drop-in applicants make up a good share of the company’s new employees. The rest are sourced from the local high school.

“I’ll go to the school’s career officer and say that I want someone who is technically minded and is good with their hands,” Wendy says. “We look at those students who don’t want to go to university and are interested in entering the workforce instead. Students will come into the business and we’ll help them with some project they’re working on.” Wendy gives preference to students who have some work experience already and have demonstrated work ethic and aptitude.

Wendy has trained her staff to provide the technical training and mentoring for the apprentices, and she oversees by virtue of ongoing communication with both. She also provides in-house and outside training opportunities for apprentices, staff and herself. The company belongs to several associations that provide training, including The Export Institute, the Chamber of Commerce and manufacturers’ associations. “Courses have a cost, of course, but it’s worth it,” Wendy says. She and her staff have taken part in a variety of courses, including those that provide leadership tools for women in trades, and tools for both men and women to use to cope with a changing work environment.

“I love working with staff, mentoring them and helping them to achieve their goals,” Wendy says. “And I love working alongside my husband to help our business grow.” For Wendy and Baytex, company growth and employee growth are inseparable.

Sigrid Tornquist is associate editor of InTents.

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