Matt Nelson fell into directional drilling as an off-season alternative to driving snow groomers at Rainbow Ski Area near Nelson. And after swapping chattering teeth and icy white-out mornings for building and maintaining essential infrastructure that matters to everyday Kiwis, he says he’s “never looked back”.

In May, the 30-year-old received the Young Contractor of the Year Award at the Civil Contractors New Zealand Otago Branch Hynds Construction Awards 2024, held in his home town of Dunedin.

“I put a lot of effort into what I do, so it feels really good to get the recognition,” Matt says.

Now a site foreman for Dunedin company Pro Civil, Matt started off in civil infrastructure when he was just 17, working in Nelson as a directional-drilling labourer.

Although he’d discovered what would become his long-term career, he admits he didn’t realise he would enjoy the new role as much before he began.

“I got into civil construction as a fill-in job. I got my WTR [Wheels, Tracks and Rollers Endorsement] in between ski seasons as I wanted to go back up the ski field as a groomer driver. In the meantime, I got a job on the fibre rollout after talking my way into a drill crew.”

But after advancing his knowledge and experience in drilling, Matt saw that civil construction was the place to be. He then left the skifields behind to work on the Westport Water Tunnel Pipeline project. This multi-million-dollar undertaking involved installing a 1.2km pipe to replace collapsed water pipes supplying Westport, and to this day it remains the favourite project of his career.

Settling in Dunedin with his family, Matt started work with Pro Civil in early 2022 as part of a deal that he would be leading his own team within six months and overseeing his own projects.

Matt took the opportunity and ran with it. He says he never gets bored on the job, whether he’s in the trenches with his team of six or planning the next project.

“I just like putting pipe in the ground. Also, it’s great being part of a tight team and I enjoy pulling off tricky jobs.”

He says the biggest challenge has been coming up through the ranks and managing people he used to work with, but he’s enjoyed the development.

“I’d like to think people respect me because I’ve worked my way up.”

Matt’s leadership ability and dedication to health and safety were mentioned by award judges during presentation of the Young Contractor of the Year Award, as well as his focus on creating a positive and inclusive culture, where everyone’s having a good time as well as working hard.

“I believe that my team going home safe and happy at the end of every week is a true reflection of my performance,” Matt says.

“The team culture and the emphasis we put on it means I’m working with my mates. And that means it’s not a chore… We work long, hard hours, but everyone is still happy for a beer and a yarn together on a Friday.”

As well as the recognition and his recent achievement of Civil Trades certification, one of the most rewarding aspects of the job is the difference it makes in the lives of everyday New Zealanders, he says.

“If we weren’t here people wouldn’t have clean water coming out of their taps – what we do is super important.”

He encourages others to consider entering the civil infrastructure construction industry, whether they are school leavers or people thinking of changing careers.

“There are so many different branches of the civil industry, you will always have something new to learn and try, it’s a great industry to be part of, with endless career opportunities.

“The industry pays well and there’s some pretty cool jobs and projects to get involved with. Don’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty.”