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Saddled up to career working leather

All he wanted to do was change his school subjects. Now Kaiya Hape, 17, is a fulltime saddlery apprentice at Easts Outdoor Work and Leisure — the only saddlery apprentice on the East Coast.

Halfway through 2017, as a Year 11 student at Gisborne Boys’ High School, Kaiya walked in to the careers office to switch subjects. By chance there was a Licence to Work meeting next door.

“I just ended up in the meeting. They asked if I wanted to sign up, so I said ‘yes’,” says Kaiya.

Run here by economic development agency Activate Tairawhiti, Licence to Work (LTW) is a work-readiness programme designed to bridge the gap between youth and employment.

Students must complete a minimum of 10 hours voluntary service in the community, 80 hours of work placement and a series of modules on important workplace skills, like communication and resilience.

“You really get a lot out of it,” says Kaiya.

“I learned a lot of safety rules and what to expect going to work.”

A Gisborne City Hit Pit fighter and Golden Gloves 2019 60kg division champion, Kaiya was able to count his time training 2017 Life Education Trust Fight for Life fighters, with Hit Pit, as his volunteer work.

His first 40 hours of work placement were spent at Gisborne District Council. He was going to do his full 80 hours there . . . until Easts Outdoor Work and Leisure co-owner Dean Cook rang LTW co-ordinator Karen Fenn.

“We’d had a few students prior — not with LTW — and they weren’t showing up or working very hard. We’d heard about the programme through other employers, so we gave Karen a call and she said she had a young guy in mind.”

There are currently 54 local businesses on the LTW books, with 117 students graduating from the programme in the past two years. Another 95 are taking the course in 2019.

“From the start it has been absolutely brilliant. LTW taught him heaps before he got here,” says Mr Cook.

“One thing that blew me away is that when he walked in, his phone went straight on to the smoko table and he didn’t look at it till break time — every other student, they are checking it constantly.”

Kaiya graduated from LTW in October 2018. He had impressed Mr Cook and his wife and co-owner Teresa Cook so much that they offered him paid part-time summer work. By the time the new school year rolled round, the offer of forgoing his last year of school to become a fulltime saddlery apprentice was made.

Kaiya was over the moon.

“I didn’t really like school and this is mean. It’s really different — I didn’t even know this was a trade before Licence to Work.”

The trade has evolved with time to be focused more broadly on leather works. Easts has also diversified to create things like custom shade sails.

“I make a lot of forestry leggings and saddle cloths. We do a bit of canvas work too,” says Kaiya.

The importance of industries fostering apprentices isn’t lost on Mr Cook.

“If we don’t take on apprentices, we are going to lose these skills and all we’ll create is a labourers’ workforce.

“Something like this will give Kaiya a specific skill set and security for life. Even if he wants to do something else when he’s qualified in four years, he will always have this to come back to.”

Partially retired and on-hand to help train Kaiya two days a week is legendary Hicks Bay saddler Joe Tihore. Mr Tihore trained Mr Cook when he was Kaiya’s age, so to have the pair now train Kaiya is special, says Mr Tihore.

“He’s a good boy with his own interests outside of Easts, which is important too. He turns up to work every day, he’s young, he’s keen and as far as I know — when I retire properly, he will be the only Maori saddler on the East Coast.”

They are reins Kaiya says he is stoked to take over: “Honestly, I couldn’t pick a favourite bit because it’s all pretty mean I reckon.”

From left, saddlers Joe Tihore and Dean Cook, with saddler apprentice, Kaiya Hape. Picture by Liam Clayton