Hunter female bricklayer recognised on national stage

DETERMINED: Zandalea Foster was recently named Apprentice of the Year at Masonry Contractors Australia's Excellence in Brick and Blocklaying Awards. Picture: Marina Neil
DETERMINED: Zandalea Foster was recently named Apprentice of the Year at Masonry Contractors Australia's Excellence in Brick and Blocklaying Awards. Picture: Marina Neil

ZANDALEA Foster was "born to be a bricklayer".

"I've never done something that I love as much as I love bricklaying," Ms Foster, 24, said.

"Nothing is more rewarding to me than being able to produce quality brickwork that you know is possibly going to be there for the rest of your life.

"You can go back in ten years and say 'I built that and it's still standing'."

She said she loved "every aspect" of the trade.

"There's always something new and technical that is different, that keeps me on my toes, makes my brain tick over and makes me think," she said.

"Sometimes I go home of an afternoon and I lay bricks just for fun."

Ms Foster was recently named Apprentice of the Year at Masonry Contractors Australia's Excellence in Brick and Blocklaying Awards.

"It was overwhelming, if I'm honest," she said.

"It was the proudest I have been of myself in my life.

"I'd been working towards this for a long time and everything I had to overcome, everything I worked towards, it's paid off.

"I'm finally getting recognition for my hard work."

Ms Foster is no stranger to traditionally male-dominated fields.

She studied automotive services and worked in hardware and as a labourer before she became a mature-age apprentice at the Cessnock-based Hunter Valley Brick and Block Laying.

"From a little kid I've never wanted to do typical female roles," she said.

"I've always been a bit different and a tomboy.

"You do go on to a site and everyone stares at you and people say 'Is that really a girl on site?'

"To everyone else it's a novelty but to me it's normal.

"I don't see why a female can't come out and be on site, just like I don't see why a male can't cut hair and paint nails.

"We're all humans and we can all do it.

"It doesn't make a difference to me at all."

Ms Foster studied at Hunter Trade College in year 11 and 12 and completed a Certificate III in Automotive, as well as her HSC in 2012.

She had work experience in the automotive industry, but said opportunities "fizzled out" after she left school and TAFE NSW.

"I applied to every single automotive place in the Hunter Valley and was not getting any calls back," she said.

"If I did, they said 'No, because you're a female'.

"A small family owned business said they'd hired a female and there was a sexual harassment claim so he did not feel comfortable with a female in the workforce.

"It was discouraging - I loved automotive and it was a passion of mine, when I was younger I loved cars. It made me feel rejected."

Ms Foster had been working as a casual at hardware store Masters and stepped up to full time.

She tried to start a lawn mowing business, before asking her bricklayer's labourer dad Anthony if he could arrange for her to try her hand at the trade.

Hunter Valley Brick and Block Laying director Mark Cunningham invited her to come in on a Saturday and employed her as a casual for as long as he could.

She worked as a bricklayer's labourer for another company and then as a store person at Saddingtons Building Supplies.

But she couldn't stay away from bricklaying.

She laboured for Portside Bricklaying and decided to put herself through TAFE NSW to get her trade.

Just before she enrolled, she posted on a Facebook group asking if anyone wanted to take on a female mature-age apprentice.

"Mark Cunningham replied in under two minutes and said 'You start tomorrow'. He has given me the opportunity to find out I was passionate about it."

Ms Foster attends TAFE NSW at Tighes Hill for three days every three weeks and will complete her classes at the end of 2021.

Mr Cunningham said hiring Ms Foster was a no-brainer.

"She was just so keen," he said.

"I thought 'This girl will not give up - somebody has got to give her an apprenticeship."

He said his decision had paid off and described Ms Foster as "talented", "unreal" and "reliable".

He said he was "thankful" for her teachers at TAFE NSW, where he said she had won 'job of the week' more than anyone else in her class.

"We're really happy with her," he said. "She really wants it.

"She holds her own against the boys.

"A lot of apprentices won't go and buy their own tools but she's got her own. She works her guts out."

He said what Ms Foster sometimes lacks in physical strength she more than makes up with brain power.

"She really thinks things through and all the small details - she doesn't miss a thing."

He said sometimes men asked if he really had a woman working on site. "I just tell them 'Yeah mate - she's our apprentice'."

Ms Foster said her dream was to study building and become a site supervisor or project manager, "but I'd still want to do the bricklaying work".

- This story originally appeared on the Newcastle Herald