From hairdressing to workforce development

Introducing Erica Cumming
GM Engagement and Partnerships

Erica Cumming was involved in the establishment of Waihanga Ara Rau and has recently been appointed GM Engagement and Partnerships. We discuss the opportunities and challenges she sees in the industry, her vision for the organisation, and her proudest career achievements.

What attracted you to Waihanga Ara Rau?

I met the Interim Establishment Council members when I was contracting for TEC a couple of years ago and came across to the Workforce Development Councils as they were being set up. They’d asked if I would provide some other support to this organisation as they were getting their staff on board and give some support to Phil (Aldridge, CE Waihanga Ara Rau). Working with BCITO as the Advocate for Women, I saw some of that work continuing in the Industry Equity Project and thought there were opportunities to see that working. Even though that's not been my life, I felt reasonably comfortable in the construction and infrastructure sector and thought there were plenty of growth opportunities.

What does success look like for you in your role?

Success for me in the longer term would be that the voice of industry is genuinely being heard in the advice to TEC, reflected in the workforce plans, and in the development of qualifications; that we've got a range of voices that are heard, particularly voices that haven't previously been heard before, so particularly Māori, Pacific, women, and people with disabilities; and that we are being more diverse; and that we can hand-on-heart know that, because of those voices being heard, that it’s made a difference for businesses and therefore also for learners, that all learners can enjoy success.

What opportunities and challenges do you see externally from the conversations you've had so far with industry?

The opportunities are for voices that aren’t being heard, and I think that's important. So, being more diverse with our reach and thinking about that, that's a real opportunity. And then the opportunity to make a difference for those people.

There’s also an opportunity in better direction, particularly around the advice to TEC, which I think is particularly important, and the endorsing of programs so that we are working with training providers about programs that are genuinely working for learners who perhaps may not naturally choose to learn in traditional ways. So, there are some great opportunities in there.

And what about challenges?

The challenges? Well, the main challenge is who do we reach out to? Ensuring that we haven't got consultation fatigue or engagement fatigue, that we don’t end up with too few voices in our reach, ensuring that we are respecting people's time, and seeing how we translate what we hear from our engagements into some absolute outcomes.

Some of the other challenges are, when does one voice become ten voices, and is ten enough to make change? What actually results in change?

I think there are some other challenges too, particularly for Māori from our team’s perspective, that we are a national organisation, but we need to engage [locally]. I mean, Iwi/hapū are in the region. When we have a national view, that's not necessarily the view of individual Iwi/hapū, so how do we actually build those relationships with a small team across the motu and for people to feel like they’re genuinely being heard? As opposed to someone popping up going, “Oh, but I'm in Wellington, I've heard this….”

What’s your vision for Waihanga Ara Rau in five years’ time? What’s your dream? What would you like to see?

Being seen as a trusted advisor, not the voice of industry because that’s not our right to have – but that Waihanga Ara Rau is seen as the organisation that carries the voice of industry into the vocational education space and that we can hand-on-heart know we're making an absolute difference for industry, and for people in the industry.

You've mentioned the word trust, so would you also say that gaining that trust and confidence by listening and acting within our role and remit are what we can do?

It’s being true to our word, and if we say we will do something, do precisely that. But I also don't think Waihanga Ara Rau should be trying to be everything to everyone - stick to our knitting and be seen as the organisation that people want to come to a conference with. That Waihanga Ara Rau is seen as an important friend in vocational education who makes a difference for industry.

What are you most proud of in your career, and what’s the one thing you wish you’d done differently?

I bought a business when I was 19 and had the privilege to train several apprentices, and that was a pretty privileged place to be for someone young. I had a story that I hung onto when I left the Hairdressing Industry Training Organisation (HITO) that a woman had told me, “I am because you were”. She had been in an unhealthy environment as a training provider, and I spent time with her and told her that she needed to be true to herself, and the fact that I had impacted her life was quite significant.

I know that there have been people that I’ve employed, either in my hairdressing career or my time at HITO, or worked with in other times since then, people that have chosen to reach out or sometimes come to me for support or advice and I guess probably what I’m most proud of is that actually in some way I’ve made a difference in those people's lives.

I did a master’s degree, which was pretty amazing. I was working full-time, and it was pretty crazy, but that's a self-thing, you know? I chaired the International Professional Standards Network (IPSN) - it was incredible to do that for the girl from Gore! But that's just kind of a self-thing. It was much more about the people.

Anything in your past you would have done differently? You don't have to answer that if you don't want to!

It would have been great to think about how to be more present at times. Sometimes when you become too busy with everything, opportunities are missed, or you haven't been the best you could be for everyone - not that you really can be - but there's some important stuff about being present. And what could I have done differently? I've often had an open-door policy, which is great, and maybe sometimes it would have been better to close it just now and then.

Back when I was a business owner, people like me could get this idea about trying to be perfect, which puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on them. And now, towards the end of my career, I’m focussing on making a difference. If I'm going to do something, it’s because I want to feel I can make a difference. That’s more important to me than a label.

How do you keep your team keen and motivated?

Keeping focused on what our purpose is. Sometimes other things get in the way of that, but at the end of the day, people come to work to do a good job - I genuinely believe that – it's about ensuring that we keep focused on our purpose because it's easy to get side-tracked.

It’s also sometimes about recognition. The engagement and partnerships team’s role is building relationships, engaging, and listening. Keeping my team motivated is knowing that something positive happens because of their mahi. They've acted in everyone’s best interest to gather information and feedback, and they bring that back, and where does it go? That helps keep them motivated because they genuinely care about the industry. So how do we ensure their knowledge journeys into advice and all those other bits and pieces? It's about actually showing them respect, so they know their work matters.

If you'd like to touch base with Erica, you can reach her at