One employer makes a big impact


A school-industry partnership set up to encourage girls into engineering shows the impact one company can make. About half of the students involved in Pacific Aluminium's programme have gone on to study engineering.


Southland Girls’ High School-New Zealand’s Aluminium Smelter partnership

The partnership began on a flight to Invercargill, when Southland Girls’ High School (SGHS) Principal Yvonne Browning and the then-General Manager of New Zealand’s Aluminium Smelter (NZAS), Paul Hemburrow, discussed the under-representation of women in industry. They decided that providing role models and experience in industry would help encourage girls into engineering and physical sciences-related roles.

Working as part of the team

NZAS ran a pilot educational programme in 2008, in which students were based at the site and worked on individual projects. It was so successful that the programme became an annual event. Students must formally apply to be part of the partnership, with only four selected each year.

It involves:

  • A school visit in March; Community Relations Officer Andrea Carson talks to Year 12/13 students about the programme, and an NZAS engineer and chemist discuss their experiences studying and career pathways
  • The selected students have a half day familiarisation visit in August
  • The programme starts in September with a one-day site induction and connecting with women employed at the smelter
  • Students are treated as team members and wear the company uniform.


Completing a work project

The projects are based on real work the company needs done. Earlier in the year, the NZAS leadership team comes up with eight to ten project ideas. Paul King, SGHS Head of Physics, discusses them with the students, helping them choose a project best suited to their interests, whether it’s environmental studies, statistics or hands-on work.

The girls have five days to complete their projects, and on the last day give a presentation about what they’ve done and their experiences at NZAS. Andrea notes that students frequently comment they didn’t think what they were learning in school was relevant to industry until they worked at the smelter.


Of those participating in the programme, around 50% have gone on to study engineering. The increased awareness of engineering as a career leads students who weren’t selected for the programme in that direction also. “I can’t think of any girls who went into engineering before this programme,” Paul says, “but now there are at least three or four each year.”

Current NZAS General Manager Gretta Stephens says the company is very proud of the partnership. “The programme helps resolve the ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ effect. To watch the student presentations on the final day is an absolute highlight for me.  By the end of the week they have transformed themselves into confident young women who are very excited to talk about their time at Tiwai – it is fantastic.”

 Subject choices

Learning about the career opportunities means students are more likely to choose subject options that prepare them for engineering or related study. Paul says that Physics is going from strength to strength in the school. “In recent years we have had up to 80 Year 12/13 students taking Physics. They realise the need to do STEM subjects for a good career.”

Promoting alternative pathways

So far, says Paul, he has mostly dealt with students heading towards the four-year engineering degree. However, this year he has used resources from the Make the World public awareness campaign in class, so students are becoming more aware of alternative pathways into an engineering career. In the future, students will learn more about the New Zealand Diploma in Engineering and Bachelor of Engineering Technology qualifications as well as the Bachelor of Engineering (Honours).

A benefit to the company

“We would definitely recommend this initiative to other employers,” Andrea says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to build relationships with potential employees of the future – and to showcase your organisation.”

“We’re a half hour drive from Invercargill so relatively isolated from what is happening in our community – any chance to build closer ties is beneficial. Only about 9% of NZAS employees are female, so it’s also an excellent opportunity to promote gender diversity.”

NZAS offers three tertiary scholarships for any student beginning study towards a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours), and an annual scholarship for a child of a NZAS employee. It also provides prizes for the SGHS prize giving.

Adapting the programme

The programme has been tweaked over the years. The site induction has been tightened from two days to one, and the NZAS visit to the school was introduced to raise awareness of the programme.

Restricting the programme to four students each year, Andrea says, means there is competition to secure a place.

Find out about Make the World

Our thanks to Andrea and Paul for their time and advice; if you have any queries, please get in touch:

October 2016