Women electricians are a rarity, sure, but in an industry as dynamic as solar we should hope to see more of them, says Melbourne-based installer and trainer Billie Smith.
Thirty years is a long time in any career, especially if you have to keep up as technology evolves beyond all predictions. Electricians have seen more changes than most. It’s a fast-changing field, but it’s pretty much always just blokes who turn up in the white vans to rig up your house or office. Women would be just as capable, so what’s keeping them away? We asked Melbourne-based installer and trainer Billie Smith, an electrician since 1990 and solar specialist since 2011.
Women sparkies are a rarity. Why so?
It’s been my only career, other than being a mum. I did my apprenticeship at Australian Paper Manufacturers at the Maryvale mill in Gippsland. I was the first female apprentice there, but the SEC – being Loy Yang, Hazelwood and Yallourn power stations – had women doing electrical work and fitter machinists and all that sort of work. At the time it was a little bit different [to be a woman in the trades], but not really.
Are women a good fit for solar?
I work under the concept that jobs don’t have a gender; anyone, male or female, can become an electrician. The thing that I like best about electrical is there are so many different facets to it. I find if you do put the female perspective on it, girls tend to think outside the box and have a little more attention to detail in the way that they work. That’s a characteristic of women working in any career type; it’s not specific to electrical.
What advice do you have for women thinking of getting a start in solar?
Just the standard: do your best, ask questions, learn as much as you can. As well, remember you are just another worker. You are not special just because you are female. If someone’s critiquing your work, it could be constructive criticism, not bullying. I wouldn’t be here as a female electrician if there weren’t a group of blokes who were prepared to teach me what I know. I think we’re really lucky in society in general has allowed women to enter the workforce and taken the benefits, good and bad, of what women to can bring to the job. I do believe that women can bring a fairly good positive skillset to the work.
How did you shift into teaching and does it impinge on install work?
I started teaching at Box Hill TAFE for a while and Chisholm and then fell into starting my own business. My partner Michael and I pretty much went into doing solar work and now we are part of Laser Electrical. We do solar and storage that we sell ourselves. We are also teaching with SkillBuild Training, doing a grid-connect battery storage course and design-install course. When we’re not training we’re doing installs ourselves, and a bit of maintenance and repairs work because a lot of the older solar systems are breaking down.
Do the students have a good grasp of storage?
I would say [most] of them were there because they are getting questions and requests about storage, so the public is asking for batteries. The students are savvy enough. The solar inverters and hybrid systems they’re installing are increasingly complex, so they’ve had to upskill their general knowledge in the area anyway.
Are the storage brands good at tech support?
They can be. Nobody wants to be on site at 4 o’clock on a Friday with a technical problem and with a customer looking over your shoulder and not be able to get onto someone. I think the majority of products have started to see the importance of that. I’m sure there are areas for improvement in tech support but there are companies out there doing it well.