Forestry apprentice graduate says it's never too late to learn

July 9, 2020

“It’s never too late to start. With an education, you can do anything.” That’s the message forestry apprenticeship graduate Natasha Mankelow wants to share with anyone considering learning a new skill or entering a new industry.

Natasha recently completed her Competenz forestry apprenticeship (mechanised processing); a learning journey she began when she was 37, and with three children in tow. She says what she’s achieved over the past four years is “amazing”.

“I left school at 15 without any credits or NZQA units. So getting those during my apprenticeship was a major achievement. I have learned and accomplished more doing an apprenticeship than throughout my entire school education!”

Natasha’s decision to embark on an apprenticeship was driven by the need to provide a more secure financial future for her children.

“At the time, I had two children at intermediate and one at primary school and they were heavily involved in sport. Two incomes meant we could support them so that they may pursue their education and sporting endeavours. So I needed to re-train in a new industry.

“I was fortunate enough to be offered a trial for a position by Stephen Dewes at Dewes Contractors. Following the trial, I successfully attained a position within the crew and company, which ultimately led to an apprenticeship with industry training organisation Competenz. There are no words to describe how grateful I am to Stephen for giving me the opportunity that kick started my career in the logging industry.”

Dewes Contractors operates a cable yarder mechanised operation harvesting forests inland from Tolaga Bay, for PF Olsen. Natasha’s partner Aaron also works for the contractor, but she says she knew little about the forestry industry when she signed up.

“Forestry is not traditionally a female occupation and I admit I had no idea what I was in for. But with the support of Competenz and crew, I progressed through the years on the skid and groundwork to now operating the Waratah – a 40 tonne mechanised log processor. I think about the first time I got in the machine - I just about died! I thought it was unachievable to be operating such a huge machine, but now it’s what I do daily.”

Natasha says combining study and work was manageable, especially with Competenz Account Manager Cliff Stoddart checking in regularly and an in-house assessor to track her progress.

“The advantage of an apprenticeship is that you’re learning while you get real life experience. There were others in my crew who were also studying so that was good support. Cliff would always come up to see me wherever I was based and work around my hours – he was very flexible and made sure I was achieving.”

One thing Natasha stipulated when she signed up to study was that Aaron, who is a course assessor, would never assess her work. “I made sure I did everything for myself and having an independent assessor was important to me.”

Natasha’s son Reon, 18, has followed in his parents’ footsteps and is now enrolled in a forestry apprenticeship. She says he is progressing well and is already accomplishing tasks usually done by older, “seasoned” men.

Cliff says Natasha has succeeded with the support of her family, crew, employer and through her own commitment.

“She’s shown that apprenticeships are not just for new entrants to the industry: you can achieve at any stage of life,” says Cliff. “She’s a proud mum and a very humble woman who turns up to work every day and does her job to the best of her ability. A true professional woman of forestry – a wāhine toa.”

“It’s never too late to start learning,” says Natasha. “Through my experiences in a the forestry industry which is male-dominant, women are proving they can be equally as qualified. I hope and encourage more females will seek out opportunities to work in forestry, which will help eliminate the stereotype that forestry is only for men.

“Yes it’s hard at the start, but if you constantly strive and challenge yourself to be the best you can, and you’re always open to learning, then I believe any woman can do it.”