From early school leaver to electrical engineering

Cori Potaka, electrical engineering technician stands in front of her work van

Cori Pokotea left school without NCEA and stepped into an essential service.

Having graduated with a New Zealand Certificate in Electrical Engineering (Level 3) from Whitireia, and then hired by electrical company Paradise Power to work as an apprentice, Cori Pokotea spent the COVID-19 lockdown providing emergency electrical services to families in the Hutt Valley. 

"Ovens, hot water cylinders and lights break all the time, even when the country is in lockdown", says Cori. “So we were pretty much run off our feet the whole time. It was quite stressful going into peoples’ homes, both for me and the person I was helping. We had to wear masks and gloves. But I really liked helping out, especially our clients who were higher needs, and a little frightened by everything.”

From school leaver to top student

Cori was only one of two female graduates to complete the New Zealand Certificate in Electrical Engineering (Level 3) at Whitireia in 2019, and finished top of her class. 

"Cori was a role model student and through hard work and determination landed a great job straight after leaving us. She's a committed worker and applies herself 100% to genuinely helping others,” says Cori’s Whitireia tutor, Alan Lee. 

“Although there are not many female electrical engineers, we're hopeful that this will change,” says Alan. “Cori has certainly helped pave the way and Paradise Power has already taken on their second ever female apprentice – another Whitireia student.”

Working hard to break blocks to success

"I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to be an electrician,” says Cori. “But I was always told that trades were for men. Women and men have different perspectives and see things in different ways so I personally think it's beneficial to have both in the team."

But this pathway to success hasn't always come easy for Cori. 

“School was not really my thing, which is why I left early in Year 11, but then I moved from the Waikato to Titahi Bay and enrolled at Whitireia in Porirua, which was close to where my Nan lived. It was a great learning environment for me,” says Cori. “The course work was challenging, but the tutors were hugely supportive and helpful. I still keep in touch with them now!”

Cori was supported through her study at Whitireia by the Māori and Pasifika Trades Training Scholarship (MPTT). 

Sam Atoni, Cori’s MPTT engagement mentor, explains the benefit of this support: “Our job is to support the students so they can be the best they can be,” says Sam. “We assist with providing tools, driver’s licence programmes and pastoral care. The best outcome for us is if students get work experience while they study so they can apply themselves and their knowledge in a real life environment. The goal is to secure an apprenticeship or employment at the end of study."

“But to be honest, with Cori, she did all the hard work and had unique initiative, she is just ‘that’ person and is an amazing role model,” says Sam.

Māori and Pasifika Trades Training

Māori and Pacific students wanting to learn a trade can apply for a Māori and Pasifika Trades Training scholarship, which is a government-funded scholarship to cover full fees and course-related costs.

As part of the scholarship you get mentoring, pastoral, cultural and academic support. Before you graduate, job brokers will help you find and prepare for work, including getting your driver’s license, site safety or first aid certificates.

Entry criteria

You need to meet the entry criteria for the programme you are enrolling in and be:

  • of Māori or Pacific descent
  • 16-40 years old at the start of your study
  • a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident
  • able to meet the entry requirements for your programme.

(This article was adapted from 'From early school leaver to essential service provider - young Whitireia graduate becomes role model' originally published on

Updated 25 Jul 2022