BCITO Te Pukenga graduate first female to win coveted Silver Trowel Award

BCITO graduate Kiri Cooper with her New Zealand Certificate in Trowel Trades Brick and Block Laying Level 4.
BCITO graduate Kiri Cooper with her New Zealand Certificate in Trowel Trades Brick and Block Laying Level 4.

For the past 35 years, the brick and block laying Apprentice of the Year award has gone to a male apprentice — but late last year BCITO graduate Kiri Cooper made history by becoming the first female to take home the Silver Trowel.

Cooper’s plan had always been to study medicine. But, as we all know, life can take you in a different direction.

After a few personal hurdles, Kiri started working for her uncle’s business, Woods Waetford Bricklayers in 2020. She spent a year working as a labourer, and when it came time to decide on her next career move, she realised she was already doing something she really enjoyed.

“I love seeing the final product,” she says. “There’s something very rewarding about building things that are going to last long after I’ve gone.”

Starting an apprenticeship

Cooper started her brick and block laying apprenticeship through BCITO Te Pukenga in 2021.

She continued working for Woods Waetford Bricklayers, where her on-the-job learning included trowel trade fundamentals (tools and equipment, legislation, planning, and building science and mathematics) and brick and block laying (consents and licensing, materials and mixing), among other things.

Her apprenticeship also included a block course at MIT Te Pukenga.

“We were tasked with building a curved wall. We could do whatever we wanted — we could let our imaginations run wild. It was a cool way to put our new skills to the test,” Cooper says.

Historic award win at annual conference

Every year, Master Brick & Block Layers host an industry conference. On the last day, they hold a Conference Excellence Awards Dinner, when the coveted Firth Industries Silver Trowel – Apprentice of the Year is announced.

For the past 35 years, this award has gone to a male apprentice. That’s until Kiri became the first female to receive the Silver Trowel in 2023.

“Like I said in my speech, I’m speechless,” Cooper says. “But it’s about time a woman won the award.”

Apprentice of the Year is open to all New Zealand brick and block laying apprentices. The application process involves submitting a portfolio of work and coursework (including the MIT “curved wall” project).

“I hope other women can see that even though the trades can be hard work, we can still smash the boys,” Cooper laughs.

“Often, people aren’t used to seeing a female brick or block layer, but I just use that as motivation.”

Laying the foundation for a great career

Brick and block laying is a practical and artistic trade where skilled workers provide the building blocks for a wide range of construction projects. Cooper admits it’s a niche trade, but it’s an industry with lots going for it.

“First off, there’s a shortage of workers. So, once you’re qualified, you’re immediately in demand,” she explains.

“Secondly, no day or project is the same — you get to work with lots of different materials and you’re meeting new people all the time.”

Cooper graduated with a New Zealand Certificate in Trowel Trades Brick and Block Laying Level 4.

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