By Megan Berger
How one female engineering technician-turned recruiter helps to pave a path for the next generation.
To understand Judith Billington’s career path, it might help to think of her as a chameleon of sorts.
Judith began her career as a draftsperson and soon found herself working at Holmes in Wellington. Her work involved Westpac Stadium, the Old Bank Arcade, Te Papa and many other icons. “I can name easily a half-dozen buildings around the city and say I’ve had something to do with it,” says Judith. It’s perhaps that sense of pride that has seen Judith’s engineering career continue to flourish and inspire her over the past few decades.
Her career hasn’t been without its own setbacks, though. Corporate downsizing and working roles on a contract basis meant Judith was no stranger to starting over and finding her groove once again. At age 30, she had her son and began a new role in the fuel industry as a draftsperson designing the layout of service stations. As she was building her career and progressing in her roles, tragedy struck when Judith’s husband passed away. “I all of the sudden became a single mother learning how to balance work and this new situation I was in,” says Judith. “I had a great manager during that time who allowed me to design a system that not only worked for me and my son, but for them as well.”
Thanks to the flexibility of her workplaces and understanding management, Judith was able to continue to thrive in her career while raising her son. Her latest move has seen her career shift to something fairly unexpected for a trained engineer: recruitment.
Judith is now settling in as a recruiter specialising in placing candidates in construction, engineering and property roles. “The decision to switch to recruiting was really based on the fact that I’ve got a broad range of experience, and I bring that into play in terms of filling roles for different businesses and clients,” says Judith.
Despite her flexibility, the change to recruitment initially threw her for a loop. “It was the toughest transition that I’ve done in all honesty,” says Judith. “I had always been a back-room producer of all the work, and now I suddenly had to be up front selling and presenting. I had to find candidates as well as employers. Even though I had networks and knew things, I basically had to have a major refresh in terms of my contacts and who I know.”
Her new role has given her a new perspective on the industry and those who work within it, and has especially highlighted some of the differences she’s noticed between male and female applicants. “I’m seeing more men than women overall in applications for jobs, and generally some of the women can be less assured compared to men,” says Judith. “Women tend to be more humble in their accomplishments, so I try to bolster their confidence by asking them to really have a look at their experiences and highlight their strengths that will help them perform the job at hand.”
When it comes to requesting flexible work for a new role, it’s no surprise that many people feel they should downplay the flexibility they need for fear of being seen as less valuable than another applicant. But in Judith’s view, you could actually be doing yourself a great disservice. “It varies for each employer, but try and get a read on them when you meet,” says Judith. “It’s best to get all your cards out on the table, because even if you’re nervous about your request for flexibility, an employer might say ‘oh that situation would actually suit us.’”
In addition to being part of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), Judith dedicates her spare time to helping to shape the next generation of females in male-dominated fields by giving local college girls a better understanding of the different roles they could be choosing. “Women in construction is becoming a bit of a crusade for me now,” admits Judith. “A lot of them think they need to be going to uni and studying childcare or something like that, but uni isn’t necessarily for everybody, and you might not realise how valuable a trade degree can be.”
Judith’s own experiences as a woman in construction and a single parent give her a unique ability to relate to these young girls. “Having been that single parent and having to sort it all out, it seems logical to tap into that young mother network and say look, you’re not limited and forced into making choices. With a bit of courage, you can actually choose what you want to do,” says Judith.
“I’ve learned a great deal from them. As 15, 16, 17-year-old girls they’ve grown up so fast. They’re responsible for themselves, and their babies, and I think that they value their education a lot more than what a normal girl at college might because to them it means a whole lot more. It’s a little thing but it’s a start!”
It’s clear that Judith is passionate about women in the construction and engineering fields, and she feels that being a woman isn’t something that’s held her back. “Now that I’ve come back into construction, I probably wish I had pursued it earlier because it’s just a cool thing to do,” says Judith. “The career opportunities and projects that you work on are so varied and rewarding. I never really noticed I was in the minority when I was working, and I never saw being a woman or mother as hurdle. In a lot of ways, I’ve been a role model for my son by showing him that it’s not necessarily just men who can do things like make reinforcing cages and run sites.”