Learner support a lifeline for mature apprentice

March 6, 2023

Tokelauan Peni Panapa is partway through a New Zealand Apprenticeship in Mechanical Engineering (General Engineering) (Level 4). Working in the textile industry, Peni has outstanding knowledge of sewing machine mechanics — a rare skill that has made him a highly valued staff member by his employer, The Comfort Group.

Renowned for producing iconic brands such as Sleepyhead, SleepMaker and Dunlop foam, The Comfort Group is now Australasia’s largest bedding and foam manufacturer. More than 1000 staff are employed across New Zealand and Australia. Peni works in Otahuhu which is one of nine manufacturing facilities the company operates.

Peni’s first role when he started in 2004 was manufacturing bed bases, and after working across various divisions of the company, his broad understanding of the business and ability to operate sewing machines was noticed by management. In 2018 he was handpicked to move into the engineering department as the Head Sewing Machine Mechanic. The opportunity to undertake an apprenticeship came in 2019. Peni started the training knowing it was important to gain the qualification to have his skills formally recognised — but readily admits to struggling with the study in that first year.

In 2021 Peni’s Competenz Te Pūkenga Training Advisor Alan Smith introduced him to a new organisation initiative, a Learner Support online study group. Peni started participating and enjoyed interacting with other peers, but in 2022 things really took off for him when Competenz Te Pūkenga initiated specific online study groups for Māori and Pasifika learners. Peni decided to also join the Pasifika group and credits the group for the increase in his progress.

“When I joined the Pasifika study group, I had only completed a handful of assignments in my first year as an apprentice — I thought I couldn’t do it. Our tutor Tau, understands our backgrounds and encourages us, and Alan kept pushing me and offering his help.

“If it wasn’t for Alan, I wouldn’t be here telling my story. Encouraging me to attend the study groups and being supported at these, has meant I have so much more confidence.”

Alan has seen the huge jump in Peni’s progress and believes engaging in the Pasifika study group is the reason Peni has been consistently completing more work than he realised.

“It’s evident that being able to discuss things in his own language has helped Peni immensely. He is so motivated that he attends two study groups, temporarily giving up his beloved lawn bowls.

“Being older than most of his peers, Peni has kind of become the ‘grandfather’ at that level, he is vocal and helpful. In the Pasifika study group, he’s quite a leader.”

The engineering department is responsible for ensuring all machinery is safe and Peni has travelled around various facilities in New Zealand and Australia to maintain sewing machines. Group Engineering Manager, Nathan Carr points out that Peni also has more responsibility than your average apprentice.

“It’s incredibly hard to find young motivated apprentices in the textile industry and that’s an advantage of having a mature apprentice. I wouldn’t send an 18-year-old overseas to train staff. Plus, we have a lot of Pasifika operators and Peni understands them.”

Nathan is thrilled to see Peni thriving in the Pasifika study group and the progress he is making while earning and learning.

“The fact that Peni didn’t let pride get in the way of starting an apprenticeship and took up the extra support is a sign of his determination and commitment.”

Once qualified, Nathan has future plans for Peni which include him using his newfound leadership skills to ensure the company has a succession plan in place for this specialised trade.

Now at 51 years old, Peni is excited about his future and very appreciative of the support he has been shown. In addition to the assistance from the study group, Alan, his training advisor, and his co-workers, Peni notes the company owners are happy for him to work on his assignments in quiet times at work, allowing Peni to spend quality time with his family and four children.

“My family has been understanding and supportive of the time I spend on my studies, and I’m doing it for all of them.”

Peni’s advice to other mature workers considering upskilling is to stick to it.

“Ask questions when you need to. I’ve sat in the corner and was going to chuck it away, but by finding others who can help me, I am determined to get this qualification.

“I’m still short [in height] he chuckles, but I think with my age and maturity — and me just knowing things, it’s all helped me to grow.”

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