The people at Wyma make up a very diverse bunch, and few people embody that better then Jennifer Fretwell, one of our fabricators and resident health and safety guru. We spoke with Jen about how she found herself as a welder in our workshop and her experience working at Wyma.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I was studying political science at university, but I started getting really interested in Russia after reading a book on the Cold War. I thought that a really good way to learn more would be to study the language, so my degree is in Russian language. I’ve never been to Russia, but it’s on the list of things to do!
After that I did various jobs – I sea kayak guided for a while, ran vocational facilities for people with intellectual disabilities – but eventually, I decided I was going to study to be a teacher. I started that but after a few weeks, I realized that I didn’t want to do it. I panicked a little about what I was going to do, but I’m an arty person and I like making stuff so I’ve always had this feeling that I’d love to weld.
How did you get into welding?
Sometimes I would pass big steel-working places with the doors open and I’d always look inside and think it was pretty cool. The Christchurch Polytechnic (now Ara Institute of Canterbury) offered a welding and fabrication course so I thought I’d learn to weld.
At the end of that course, I was kind of afraid of going and looking for work experience, being a woman in such a male-dominated trade. My tutor put me in touch with someone at Wyma and they asked me to come in. I started work experience the next day, and when my course finished the month after that I was offered an apprenticeship and I’ve been here ever since.
What does a normal workday look like for you (if such a thing exists)?
On a normal welding workday, I would work on whatever jobs are ongoing. I talk with some of the more senior fabricators about what’s going to happen if I do this or that – I’m always trying to do a better weld than the one before. People at Wyma are always trying to do a better job, and it’s always interesting when I’m constantly trying to improve. I’m also the Health and Safety Advisor so I’m often working on that.
How did you find yourself in health and safety role?
When I was in line assembly they asked for nominations for the new health and safety reps, and I thought that could be interesting so I put myself forward and got chosen. I just started working on a lot of little things I saw that needed improving, and the management team later decided they needed someone more permanent in a health and safety role and asked me if I wanted to do it.
It was a tough decision because I love fabricating and I knew it was going to be a difficult split at times, but I’ve got so much out of health and safety. A lot of it is around critical workshop risks, so it’s about really collaborating with the people I work with. I see what people do and don’t do, and have been able to put things into place that make a real impact.
What do you find the most rewarding about working at Wyma?
Wyma is so diverse, people come from all sorts of different backgrounds so for me as a woman in the factory I felt very much on the same level as everybody else – if everyone’s different then everyone’s the same. It’s called upon a lot of skills I’ve gained in other areas like sea kayak guiding, which was a lot of risk management, looking after and talking in front of groups and those kinds of things.
When I was younger my dream would have been to stay at university forever but to be paid to study and just learn. When I look at my job here at Wyma it feels like I’ve pretty much hit that. It’s not only about welding and related things I’ve learned, it’s completely different all the time and you can never be so good that you can stop learning how to be better.
What would you be doing if you won the lotto and never had to work again?
I’d still be doing this because I love it, I’d probably take a few more holidays though! I’d have a really big, aircraft hangar-sized workshop at home with sculptural metalwork and woodwork areas. I also love painting and printmaking so I’d buy a really good printing press. The best thing is I’d never have to pack any of it away, because I hate when you start something but want to change jobs and have to pack everything away.