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Refreshing new career

Refrigeration technician Jennah Halley is making her mark in a male-dominated industry. Jennah wants her kids and women to feel empowered to stand out from the crowd and pursue their goals.

Jennah, an Australian Apprentice of the Year recipient, admits she accidentally fell in love with her trade. What began as helping out her refrigeration technician brother soon turned into an apprenticeship and a fulfilling career.

"I love fixing things and making things work, whether it be a brand new install or a breakdown. There is always problem solving and fault finding involved in my job, which means that I never stop learning. I started five years ago now and it's just been awesome, it's a great career," Jennah said.

"My typical day can be anything. It can start with routine maintenance and end up on the roof of a shopping centre on an emergency breakdown. I've literally worked on everything from domestic boats to commercial rooftops."

"My job is incredibly rewarding because I get to help people, whether it's my workmates, my customers or my family. Living in Far North Queensland we all need air-conditioning and refrigeration, so it's nice to be able to help people."

The mother-of-four and proud Aboriginal woman said beginning an apprenticeship in her 30s was a learning curve.

"Coming back to school was harder for me. I hadn't been at school for about 20 years, so it was a little bit different. But the TAFE Queensland teachers just walked me through and I never ever found that I couldn't ask for something to be explained differently. Then it was just about tailoring my study to the way I needed to learn."

According to the 2022 Skills Priority List there is a nation-wide shortage of qualified air-conditioning and refrigeration technicians. Despite the strong demand for workers, women are underrepresented in the sector, making up just one per cent of the industry’s national workforce.

"My TAFE Queensland training has helped me in the workplace. When I first started, I worked on very basic domestic jobs, but coming to TAFE Queensland for training improved my knowledge and skills. At TAFE Queensland I got a taste of the range that my industry covers, it opened my eyes to the whole scope of works. So when I arrive at jobs, I now know how to approach basic domestic work all the way up to top-end commercial work," Jennah explained.

"I am lucky to work in one of the well-paid trades. As an apprentice, you're getting paid to learn. Learning a trade takes hard work and dedication, but you’re gaining a lifelong career. I am lucky that I found something I love and I get paid to do it."

Jennah said forging a career in a male-dominated industry allowed her to provide for her family in more ways than one.

"My children are my biggest cheerleaders. I have three daughters and one son. Every year for mother's day, I get a card and it says 'My mum knows how to use tools', 'My mum fixes everything', 'My mum fixes people's air-cons'. It's about teaching my kids they can do anything and they know that mum's doing what dads do, so that's a big thing to my kids."

Recently married, Jennah said her partner was a daily source of inspiration and support.

"My husband is also a refrigeration technician and he's been in the industry for 18 years. He literally held me accountable the last year of my apprenticeship by talking shop. He made wiring boards so I could fit in extra training and he helped me learn more about fault finding. He even borrowed a coolroom on wheels so I could practise at home ahead of my final assessment. Anytime I doubt my ability he's the one who corrects me and boosts me up."

Jennah is a passionate advocate for women in trades and she wants to break down stereotypes.

"I believe that being a female in a trade is a great thing and I get great feedback from clients."

"There is this thought, particularly among young women and some men, that if you work in a trade you must not be feminine and that's just not true. When I'm not at work in my uniform I love wearing dresses, heels and makeup."

Jennah, who works at Messina Air-conditioning and Refrigeration, hopes more women feel empowered to become apprentices and pursue their training and career goals.

"I want to say to all the young girls or women, I'm 37 so I'm not a young girl anymore, go and do it. There's a lot of my job that I have to improvise to do, the strength side or the height side of things. There's nothing that I can't do that the guys can do at work, and probably my biggest supporters are my workmates. So if you can find that crew and that support, go and do it because it's rewarding and it's empowering as a female and as a woman and a mum."

Jennah's dedication to her Certificate III in Air-conditioning and Refrigeration (UEE32220) training earned her a Cairns Trade Excellence Award for Female Trade Student of the Year. It was the first in a slew of trophies that would come Jennah's way. She was also named the 2022 Tropical North Queensland Harry Hauenschild Apprentice of the Year at the regional Queensland Training Awards and she won the same title at the state finals. From there, Jennah went on to be crowned the Apprentice of the Year at the 2022 Australian Training Awards.