Nicola Butcher runs her own carpentry business based in Stevenage, Herfordshire. She is a carpenter, painter and general handywoman – carrying out internal carpentry work and kitchen fitting. Nicola is a passionate believer in supporting her local community, so she recently volunteered for the BBC’s DIY SOS programme on a project in Welwyn Garden City.
“…The more we talk about women in trades, seek out tradeswomen to share their experience and talk to young women about career prospects in the construction industry, the more it will seem the norm, and the more it is seen as the norm, the more young women will consider it as a career…”
Discovering my love of carpentry
I left school five years ago at the age of 16 and due to being home educated and family circumstances at the time I did not take my GCSEs. This meant I did not qualify to enrol on the beauty therapy course I had planned. Unsure about what to do next, I considered other careers, but out of nowhere I was offered two weeks work experience with a carpentry company.
After these two weeks I discovered I had a love for working with my hands, and carpentry in particular. I was offered an apprenticeship and of course, I accepted. Five years on I now have my NVQ Level 2 in Carpentry and have been self-employed for just over a year running my own small business.
A typical day
A typical day for me is waking up around 6.30am. If I had time the day before I pick up the materials for the next day’s work so I don’t have to rush around in the morning. If I haven’t had time I am usually out of the door just after 7am with the aim of getting to my customers house at 8am.
I start work just after 8am every day and usually don’t stop for lunch – I just eat as I work, finishing around 3pm or 4pm. On my way home from work I will visit new customers to measure up for the work they would like and / or pick up materials for the next day’s work.
Once I do get home I usually spend half an hour catching up on messages I’ve received throughout the day or other work related enquires. At around 5.30 – 6pm I make dinner for my partner and myself, and once we have eaten I usually find myself putting a quote together or still catching up on messages I’ve had through the day! Work stops at around 9pm and I’m usually asleep by 10pm!
The challenges of building up my own business as a sole trader
The hardest part for me has been cash flow and controlling my spending. It’s all too easy to get paid for labour and materials in one lump sum at the end of the job and then start thinking to myself that the account payments at joinery suppliers can wait because I want a new duvet cover or bed runner! I have since learned to budget my money and instead of paying my accounts at the end of the month, I make the payments when I get paid for the goods.
Another challenge for me was self-confidence, and it is still something I battle with now. I constantly worry that I am not good enough and my work is not up to standard. It’s hard when you are on your own at first with nobody to lean on or help you out, but every time I finish a job and receive praise from my customers this helps me greatly.
I struggled at first working by myself all day every day too. You never appreciate the everyday banter on site or in your office, or even the quick chats at lunch until you work on your own. I’m completely the opposite now, I love working on my own, just being able to get my head in the zone and crack on, although I have been told by one man I occasionally work with that ‘his ears are still ringing the next day’!
The best bits of being my own boss
The best bits are just about everything! If I had to pick a favourite part, it would have to be when the job is complete and you are showing the work to the client who has a beaming smile on their face.
Second to that would be when I’m networking to promote my business – I love talking about what I do and I constantly hear comments such as: “The passion you have for your business just floods out of you.”
I also love that I’m one of the first women in the area pursuing this career. It’s something quite special, like waking up at 5am and being the first one outside, creating the first footprints in the fresh snow, knowing very soon everyone will be walking in this same path, and soon the uniqueness of your footprints will be gone, but for now, they are there.
Skills shortages in construction
There is a lack of skilled labour in the construction industry. Most of the tradesmen that I know (without wishing to offend any of them..!) are of the older generations. Off the top of my head, I can think of about five or six young skilled tradesmen, and of these none are in their 20s (like me). Because of this I believe in the next ten years this skills shortage will only get worse as there seems to be a generation gap in the industry.
We need to be doing more now to prevent huge damage to the UK construction industry in the future. I believe that schools, colleges and existing tradesmen and women need to work together to help correct misconceptions about the industry. We need to show the young people of today what a great career they can have in construction, and especially how much money you can earn after training without the future debts that arise from university education.
Getting more girls and women interested in careers in carpentry
We need to get more girls and women interested in carpentry by talking about it more! A friend of mine was telling me how she markets her physiotherapy business; her marketing strategy is based on brand recognition. She recognises people will not know company and its brand overnight.
In the same way, we need to use repetition to ignite recognition. The more we talk about women in trades, seek out tradeswomen to share their experience and talk to young women about career prospects in the construction industry, the more it will seem the norm, and the more it is seen as the norm, the more young women will consider it as a career.
I often attend careers fairs at local schools and colleges to talk to students about being a woman in the carpentry trade in the hope that some will consider it as a career. This is something I have done voluntarily off my own back, often giving up a day’s work to the cause. Although this makes me feel good I feel it should be recognised more.
With the Government focusing on apprenticeships and talking about skills shortages in the British construction industry I am surprised how little help I have had from my local council, despite approaching them and asking how I can promote myself as a woman in construction locally in order to help other women (not to promote my business).
Volunteering for DIY SOS
I’ve watched DIY SOS on TV for years and it was quite an inspiration to me growing up, so when found out it was coming to Welwyn Garden City (and only 15 minutes from my house) I was really excited and signed up right away.
It was an incredible project to take part in and to quote the family’s comments after the project had finished: “On the morning of the first day, 200 angels showed up at our door.” We were all there as one team, not just to renovate a house but to give someone their life and independence back. That’s not something you can say every day and there certainly is no better payment for your work than knowing that not only have you changed someone’s life, but saved it too.
During the build there remained a friendly atmosphere among all tradesmen and women despite the fact we were often in each other’s way! And we all remained in high spirits throughout the project knowing it was for such a good cause. I would do it again in a heartbeat if I could, and highly recommend it to any tradesman or women if the team turn up in a town near you!
Coming up next
There’s plenty going on behind the scenes at the moment! I’m looking forward to working with my local college, North Hertfordshire College, during this new school year.
I have plans to start up a summer or evening workshop on basic carpentry skills next year and I’m working hard with plans for this at the moment to make this happen. It will be a workshop open to both young men and women, as well as those looking to retrain, or even those that just want to work on their DIY skills.
I will be attending the Toolfair trade show in Coventry on the 22ndSeptember too, and hopefully I will get too meet a few of my Twitter followers while I’m there!