When James Poore was named carpentry apprentice of the year he didn't see it coming.
As comedian Ben Hurley read out the winners' names at an awards evening in Wellington, the 22-year-old thought he had blown it.
"When they announced the third and second places I thought 'it's either going to be all or nothing for me'. It was pretty freaky," he says.
"For a moment I thought I had bombed out and wouldn't be placed anywhere. But I won - I just did not see it coming."
Before Poore was named Registered Master Builders Carters 2012 Apprentice of the Year, nine of the country's top carpentry apprentices - selected at regional finals in August - were put through their paces.
They each faced a 45-minute interview before a panel of four building industry judges, and then on the day of the ceremony they had to complete practical tasks such as making building a staircase using only hand tools.
"I did well in the interview and thought I did okay in the practical section, so I figured I was in line for a placing - but never thought I'd come first," says Poore, who works for Kalmar Construction and its sister company Harbour Construction.
The Mairangi Bay resident, who is due to complete his four-year apprenticeship next month, was joined by his parents and sister at the awards.
He says everyone was proud of his achievement, but admits the practical tasks, which made up one third of the points, weren't easy.
"I completed the dovetail joint test quicker than anyone else, and it turned out pretty good. But I made a silly mistake with the staircase, working to the wrong marking," he says.
"It frazzled me. But when I finished I thought I've done all I could do. I was quite pleased with what I had achieved and was just wondering how the other eight people got on."
For winning the national event Poore won a $5000 business tools' grant from building supply firm Carters, an Outward Bound leadership programme valued at more than $3600, hand tools worth $1000 and an iPad. He also won $2000 from Carters for winning the regional event.
Christchurch-born Poore hasn't had his "Big OE" yet, as he started his apprenticeship with the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation when he was 18. But he is already drawing up his travel list.
"I want to give it another year or two with my employer and then do a big trip to Europe," he says. "I want see England and visit Ireland ... and will probably spend a year away."
"I think with so much building work going on that I'll find a job when I come back and may even head down to Christchurch - although I'm not too keen on the cold winters. I wanted to build my reputation, make a name for myself, get some contacts, and complete my training before I looked at doing anything else."
The competition's judges say Poore nailed the contest and stood out with his comprehensive knowledge. "He is organised and methodical in his practical work, and he was confident and easy to talk to throughout the interview.
"He is a true all-rounder."
Second place went to Adam Knott, 25, of Wellington and Aucklander Ben Bersma came in third.
Bersma works for Gardien Construction and says being limited to using hand tools to complete the tasks was a real test of his carpentry skills.
"Everyone on site is using power tools, so the three things we had to build on the day of the competition was a real test of our craftsmanship - it was pretty challenging," says the 24-year-old.
"I had no idea where I would be placed out of the nine of us, there was some pretty stiff competition.
"But I felt really happy that I was placed in the top three apprentices in the country. It was a bit of a relief."
Bersma did building work in England while on his OE, and returned to New Zealand to start his apprenticeship. Like James Poore, he hopes to be fully qualified in a few weeks' time and says he enjoys the creative side of the job.
"At the end of every day I can look back on what I have built, I enjoy the creative side of the trade and I enjoy a challenge," he says. "It is a very rewarding trade."
Bersma hopes to run his own building firm and says the next five years will be spent honing his skills as a project manager and site foreman.
"I am working at gaining all the experience I need to move up the ladder," he says.
Judges at the national final say Bersma has the ability to foresee potential problem areas of a build even on high spec projects.
"He demonstrates a level of commitment within the industry that will carry him to further success in the future. He is a confident and passionate young man, and his consistency and the quality of his practical work really stood out," say the judges.
Bersma won a $2000 Carters voucher, a $3600 Outward Bound course, an iPad and a Stanley tool package.
Registered Master Builders Federation chief executive Warwick Quinn says the competition is a great way for the industry to support young people coming through the trade.
"It is an excellent stepping stone and a challenge that will hopefully give these apprentices the boost they need to be successful in this industry," he says.
The 2012 national competition marks the event's sixth year.
- Steve Hart is a freelance reporter at SteveHart.co.nz