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From benefits mum to inspiring worker

What the story of a 24-year-old painter and decorator reveals about the barriers construction must remove if it’s to attract the very best people.

Amelia Rodriques has a story that shows up both the industry’s problems and its virtues.

On the positive side, her experience underlines what a hugely rewarding career the industry can provide.

On the negative, it highlights unfortunate barriers for anyone wanting to get into the sector – barriers that would have proved insurmountable without the determination and drive shown by someone like Ms Rodriques.

The 24-year-old is a painter and decorator at Islington-based K&M McLoughlin Decorating.

She has been on a remarkable journey from single mum living on benefits in east London with few hopes and aspirations to an enthusiastic tradesperson passionate about her job and making her mark in life.

“I love my job – it makes me feel there is nothing I can’t do,” she says. “There are so many opportunities and jobs in construction, but they need to be flagged up to girls more.

“All of the careers advice at school aimed at girls seemed to be about hairdressing, nursing, beauty.” 

Limited careers advice

Ms Rodriques admits she wasn’t a model pupil, having even been excluded during her final year; two Cs at GCSE was all she came out of secondary education with.

She tried a few different college courses, including nursery nursing, though never saw any of them through.

Aged 19, she became a mum.

“I was just so lost. I needed to find something to do in my life, something practical”

Amelia Rodriques, K&M McLoughlin Decorating

Her decision to pursue painting and decorating came in 2012, following a terrible low in her life: the death of her second child aged just seven weeks.

“I was just so lost. I needed to find something to do in my life, something practical.”

Within a month of enrolling on a painting and decorating diploma aged 22 at a local college, she knew she had found her vocation, though it wasn’t an easy path to follow by any means.

“I finished my first year and got my diplomas and NVQ level one, but couldn’t progress to level two NVQ without a placement for one day a week.

“I applied and emailed so many painting and decorating firms; no one bothered to reply to me… they could easily have said, ‘We can’t take you because you don’t have enough qualifications’… politeness costs nothing.

A helping hand

“I went back to college in the autumn and after a few arguments convinced my teachers to let me stay – they could see how determined I was and suggested I contacted Kevin McLoughlin and Jean Duprez [at K&M McLoughlin Decorating]. I felt absolutely driven not to give up.

“They initially gave me a month’s trial and then took me on; I’m just so hugely grateful. There need to be more employers willing to give people like me a chance.”

Ms Rodriques is also critical of the system. “It’s crazy. There really ought to be work placements attached to college places.” 

She works from 8am till 5pm and says it can be hard juggling commitments with looking after her daughter, if she’s working some distance from home.

Flexible employment

“The hardest thing is finding a childminder who wants to start at 6.30am, they don’t work to suit the hours of the construction industry.

“Sometimes both of us are up at 5.30am so I have time to drop her off and then get to work.” Her employers though are extremely flexible and accommodate her needs wherever possible.

“There really needs to be more employers like mine. If it wasn’t for the opportunity they gave me I’d still be a benefits mum”

Amelia Rodriques, K&M McLoughlin Decorating

The structure of the industry where so many people are self-employed can also make it difficult for those in her situation. “I have a childminder to pay and a property to maintain so I can’t afford not to be on the same wage every week.

“There really needs to be more employers like mine. If it wasn’t for the opportunity they gave me I’d still be a benefits mum. I want to go to work so I can give my daughter the life she deserves and I deserve.”

As for the future? “I want to get as many qualifications and as much experience as I can and eventually I’d like to work with kids, trying to convince them not to make the same mistakes I did.”

But for now she says she’s more than happy doing what she’s doing, which at the moment is wallpapering a luxury hotel in the Docklands.

“The best bit is going into what is dirty space and by the time I’m finished it’s immaculately clean,” she says.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Good on you, an amazing story and a very determined person, I agree wholeheartedly with everything she said, and it starts with schools.

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  • There should be a system similar to UCAS for placing 16 year old GCSE school leavers into work placements and apprenticeships.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Bola Abisogun

    Excellent; what an inspiration to us all and well done to her employer for being both approachable and flexible!

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