Industry News

“When I first got to see behind a switchboard, it looked like a bird’s nest to me. Now I love switchboard work.”

As featured in The Guardian, Terease Wallace struggled at school and fell into retail before she got her licence to become an apprentice electrician at 50. Here’s her story…

I went through school in the 1970s and early 80s. I would get in trouble from teachers. I’d write words backwards or mix up the letters. I’d have all the right letters, but I’d mix them up and I wouldn’t even know I’d done it. They’d say “I’ve just told you, letter for letter, what to write!” I was always in trouble.

When I left school I worked at a supermarket. I’ve got nothing against people who work in hospitality and retail, I just never wanted to be in it forever. I always wanted to strive for positions that have been out of my reach.

I’ve always worked from the ground up. I’ve been promoted through workplaces. A lot of my background is to do with customer service: dealing with difficult customers, problem solving – if a call was “escalated” it would be escalated to me.

A few years ago my husband was starting his business and he needed an electrical apprentice. He looked at me and said: “You’re going to be perfect for this.” And I didn’t even see it coming. I suppose I believed in him.

I was nervous. I didn’t have a very good history in my schooling years. I found school very difficult. If I had to step in front of a classroom and read it would be painful to listen. You’re trying to form the shape to make a word and it’s incredibly stressful.

There would be times when even my good mates would have thought “I’m sure this girl is dumb” and I knew inside that I wasn’t. I knew there was something that was still OK in me, but I never fitted in and I didn’t know what was going on.

I took myself to the doctor when I was 16. He said I was on the severe end of the dyslexia spectrum and that I had a double whammy: not only was it in reading, but it was in verbal and hearing.

When I say I believed in my husband it’s because he brought to light the things that I lacked the confidence in. I was 45 when I began studying to be an electrician.

The moment I signed up, I knew I’d have to dedicate every spare moment. Nights. Weekends. I applied myself. I learned mathematics, trigonometry, science. I had to really saturate myself in all these areas because that goal was never going to be handed to me.

The way that I learn, the way I absorb words – and new words at that – I had to be prepared for that work. When the going got tough, I had to learn to dig deeper. In those four and a half years, I didn’t have a life. If I was going to get over the line, this was the only way.

I was in my final Capstone test – which is an incredibly strict test for apprentice electricians – and there were a lot of people finishing within the time frame and getting up, handing in their paperwork and leaving. I am very aware of the environment around me, and the longer I took to get through my questions the worse the swirling of the letters and numbers became.

I sat there for an hour trying to form one word and I couldn’t do it. I felt like I was going to have a meltdown. I thought: my goodness, I’m at the last hurdle of the race and I’m not going to do it. I was devastated. I had worked so hard to get to that point. When you get to the last Capstone, that’s where the proof is in the pudding. I went to the toilet. I splashed water on my face. I cried.

I had to go back and be truthful and say to the teachers “I can’t be in this environment”. I was taken to another classroom with a single teacher supervising and everything calmed down again. I was able to get through what I needed to. Without their understanding I wouldn’t have been able to make it. That is something I’ll never forget, because I was right at the finish line. I could have been robbed of my trade.

I got my licence in January 2019, at age 50. I cried.

I am proud of it. No one can take it from me, because that’s my work.

When I first got to see behind a switchboard, it looked like a bird’s nest to me. I thought: how on earth am I ever going to learn what this is about? Now I love switchboard work. I fully understand it. When I close a switchboard door, I think: wow, I do know that. It surprises me sometimes.

When you take on something new, it’s very intimidating. Not only are you learning, but you’re trying to strengthen your mind. Trying not to be intimidated. Trying not to get up and walk away.

There would be a lot of women my age who went through schooling like I did and may not have had the support or understanding. To them I would say: don’t think it’s too late for you.

Go after something you may have a passion for. It really is truly different. It’s worth an attempt.