Engineering apprentice loves learning while he earns at Levin sheetmetal business

10 November 2021

When 19-year-old engineering apprentice, Peter Lawrie-Coombes drives past the 7-metre-high Placemakers sign towering over Levin, he smiles quietly.

Employed by Apprentice Training New Zealand (ATNZ), the country’s largest employer of mechanical engineering apprentices, Peter was placed at host company Winiata and Anderson Sheetmetal, where he made the enormous steel sign from start to finish. He cut the beams, did all the welding, and drilled all the holes.   

“When I see it up in the middle of town, I get to be quite proud of it, because I can look up and say, ‘I made that’,” says Peter.

He is pleased to be learning a trade on-the-job while earning a wage, unlike some of his friends who are facing huge student loans for university study.  

“When you are in school, all they tell you is that university is the only way to go, whereas it’s not. I had the opportunity to sit down and figure out if I liked learning a trade or not, without any of that financial pressure. I just enjoy doing what I do,” explains Peter.

“I have a friend who is at university training to be a midwife. She is doing a placement at a hospital, she works 12-hour days and doesn’t get paid. Nothing! I wouldn’t want to work a 12-hour day without getting paid just because I’m being told I’m learning from it.”

After the sky-high signage project, Peter came back to earth to work on 21-metre-long, steel hockey dugouts at the local Levin hockey turf. 

The broad range of jobs in the versatile workshop is valuable experience for the first-year ATNZ apprentice.

“We do lots of small jobs as well, like repairing gym equipment. That is one of the things I like about this place, its variety. I am not stuck on one thing for the rest of my apprenticeship,” says the former Horowhenua College student.

“I know how to weld and how to operate a brake press [a machine that bends sheet metal] and fold things up. It’s not just one specific field I am working in, I am trying to better myself in all areas of the trade.”

Another smaller job he recently completed was making a metal wood box lid to replace a rusty old one that a customer brought into the workshop.

“I had to cut out the steel sheet, fold the lips on it, put safe edges on it, then drill holes in it and bolt on the handle. It’s all about making something from scratch.”

In 2019, Peter was in his final year at Horowhenua College when his Gateway teacher invited ATNZ Account Manager Dave Bennett to talk to students about job options while studying for NCEA.

“Peter had the twinkle in his eye, he was the one who was really keen,” explains Dave.

Dave arranged one-day-a-week work experience at Winiata and Anderson’s for the budding apprentice. After finishing school, work experience turned into a full-time job, and in August 2020, Peter signed up with ATNZ to do a light fabrication apprenticeship.

As well as the variety of work, Peter also enjoys learning from several experienced people in the workshop, and Dave from ATNZ who visits ten times a year to keep him on track with his bookwork and address any issues he might have.

“I get to learn more than one point of view. If I’m doing a job with someone, they will talk me through it. And they tell me what we are doing, the pros and cons, why we are doing this, why we are doing that, what it stops from happening if we were to do it another way. It’s a good system I have in place, I reckon,” says Peter.

“Dave sets expectations for my bookwork, and I have to try and meet them every month. And he is reasonable, some months he knows that I’ve had a lot of work, and I’ve been very busy so he can be a bit more lenient. We talk about the standards and what he expects me to do.”

The young apprentice plans to stay where he is until well after he receives his nationally recognised qualification in three years. Then, if the world has opened up, he might visit his cousin in Alaska who works on the oil pipelines and investigate working there, or elsewhere in the world.

“That is the beauty of being in the place I’m at, I’m not limited to one thing and specifically with engineering, it’s a broad range I can go into after this.”

The future might include his own business one day, which would see him following in the footsteps of Winiata and Anderson’s current owners, Phill Winiata and Callum Henden. They both completed their apprenticeships at the company – also with Dave as one of their account managers.

Then they both worked overseas and returned to take over the business from its founders Wayne Winiata and Stuart Anderson in 2017. Coincidentally, Wayne and Stuart also trained Dave during his own engineering apprenticeship in the late 70s.

“If the opportunity arose one day where I potentially could start a company or take over a company, and I felt I was ready and capable enough, then why not give it a go?” says Peter.