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Women In Renewables: Gabrielle Witenden

Gabrielle is a solar installer and technician based in Goulburn, NSW. She is a recipient of Brighte’s Women in Solar scholarship and is currently undertaking her studies in battery installation at The Canberra Institute of Technology. Gabrielle shares with us her journey so far and her experiences working on-site in a male-dominated industry.

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Tell us a bit about yourself personally and professionally?

My name is Gabrielle, I currently work as a solar installer and service technician in Goulburn. I entered the renewable industry a little later in life after having had a wide array of experiences. After high school I went straight to university to study Occupational Therapy. I decided that wasn’t for me so I moved to British Columbia, Canada for six years, running my own business in hospitality. I eventually moved back to Australia and went into a role with The Department of Human Services. I thought about going back to university to study something different, but the opportunity for an apprenticeship in solar came up and I jumped at the chance to do something more practical.

Where do you work and what do you do?

I currently work at Goulburn Solar as a solar installer and service technician. I’ve just finished all my training and I’m just waiting for my Clean Energy Council license to go through. Half of my week is spent servicing, so I attend different sites around our area - we go anywhere within an hour and a half radius of Goulburn. We service lots of different systems. It can be our own systems, or other companies, which has been awesome to learn what else is out there. When you’ve only worked for one company you’re used to dealing with a certain range of brands and models so there has been a lot of on-site training and liaising with different support networks to learn about all the different models. I’m always amazed about how much there is to learn about the industry.

I also do site electrical inspections or site visits for new jobs. I go to the site and make sure that their house is suitable and that all their electrics are up to date and ready for solar. I make sure to go over all of this with the customers too so there’s a lot of customer interaction, which is nice.

And then the rest of the week is spent doing solar. We do residential, solar, commercial and off-grid. So we get a really good variety.

How did you get into the renewable energy industry/what attracted you to the industry?

I got into solar and electrical by chance. I started in the office helping out while the owners Phil and Stuart were away at the Clean Energy Conference in Europe. When they came back they asked me to stay on - at this point they were growing really quickly and it was busy. I said yes, but I didn’t want to stay in the office. They offered me an apprenticeship and I said yes. I never saw myself being an electrician but I love how hands on it is. At the start of my apprenticeship I was unsure of whether I would enjoy it but I wanted to give it a go. Fast forward to today and I really love it. It has been challenging, but in a good way. I love that it is both practical but there’s an academic side to it too.

What do you like most about your job/the renewable energy industry?

What I like most about my job is that it’s a job I can take anywhere. The industry is growing at an international scale and there’s such an opportunity for growth and for travel. I also really like that the job is hands on. After spending some time in the office I realised that sitting behind a computer screen for most of my day was not how I wanted to spend my career. I love that I get to interact with different people, and do practical work. It means no two days are the same.

When it comes to the renewables industry, I get a real sense of fulfilment from what I’m doing. I always say to people it’s an industry where everyone wins - the customer, the installer and the environment. It’s so rare these days to work in an industry where you can say that. To be able to provide that service, and that product to someone you really feel like you’re doing right by everyone and to me that has been really important.

What have been the biggest challenges for you as a women working in a male dominated industry?

So far I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been at Goulburn Solar since it was small and still hiring a lot of people. I didn’t need to join an already well-established team as a female tradie. When I go to big commercial or industrial sites it can be different. The biggest challenge I’ve faced at these sites though is that people can sometimes perceive you as doing a different role to everybody else on site. I was running a commercial job and all of the other trades and the foreman wanted to stop and have a chat. I think because I was female they assumed I had the time to chat and they didn’t realise I still had a job to do. Once they learn and watch for a couple of days and see what you do, it kind of sinks in. But at first when you're there, they just don't expect that you're going to be doing the same kind of work. I’ve been really lucky I haven't had to deal with anything really unpleasant. But I know there is definitely that out there. The older generation can definitely be a little surprised to see a woman on site. But I’ve predominantly had really positive experiences, it's like people encourage it. Customers are excited to see it when you go to their house, it's kind of like a novelty for them.

What do you think would encourage more women to enter the clean energy sector?

Because it’s a male-dominated industry it is very tailored to men. There’s limited options for smaller sizes in clothing and that has surprisingly been a big thing. When workwear brands do come out with a women’s line it can often just be men’s clothing but resized. The same can be said for tools. The tools we use are often made for men, which can be difficult for people like me with smaller hands. It’s these smaller things that make work comfortable that people don’t often think about when encouraging women to pick up a trade. Trades have been so male-dominated for so long everything that exists is practically tailored to them. It’s definitely getting better and there are some cool women’s workwear companies out there now, but I think making the industry more accessible to women and less daunting and tailored to men will help encourage women to enter.

Additionally, I think what Brighte is doing is actively encouraging women to enter the industry and to up skill in the trades is important.

What advice do you have for women looking to enter the clean energy sector?

Definitely go for it. Solar can be fairly taxing on your body so make sure you prepare yourself for that. But to just give it a try, I think is the biggest thing. If you don't enjoy it, then you don't have to keep going. But just to put yourself out there and just try something different. There are so many services now in place and support networks that you can contact if you need to. Such as the Canberra Institute of Technology Student Association support service, which is an awesome team dedicated to the students at Canberra Institute of Technology, as well as your Trade Support contact.

What do you wish you were told when you first started out in our career?

This is a tricky one, part of me thinks about the things I would have liked to be ‘warned’ about before starting, where the other part thinks of the amazing things that have come from doing the apprenticeship that I never would have imagined. We all expect a trade to be fairly physically demanding, however one surprising element that has come from the position that I would not have expected, is the problem solving aspect. Our days are full of problem solving, and to have the ability to adapt and respond to situations and changes is something to be aware of.

On the other hand, I never could have imagined the opportunities and variety of openings the apprenticeship has created. Especially in renewables, there are so many avenues available for us to be a part of.

So to sum it up, I wish I was told that my ability to problem solve and use my analytical brain would be just as important as the physical aspects, and that completing this apprenticeship would open so many more doors in my future. Amazing doors!

Looking to start your clean energy career journey? Find your role in Australia's clean energy transition with the Clean Energy Careers Guide.

Clean Energy Careers Hub