“It doesn’t matter where you start out. As long as you stick to the road, you’ll reach your destination.”
These are the words of Bhavin Panchal, a 31-year-old site co-ordinator working in one of New Zealand’s most picturesque regions to connect communities to high-speed internet.
Born in Gujarat, India, Bhavin moved to Aotearoa and began working for Marais Laying four years ago. At the beginning, he was a self-described “newbie who was starting from scratch” but he’s quickly risen through the company’s ranks, become a fibre jointer and team leader, before landing his role as a site co-ordinator.
At present, he works with a team of 16 people on the West Coast and Southland Fibre Network Build Project. Trenching through stunning but challenging mountain terrain, they are laying hundreds of kilometres of ultrafast fibre in two remote and breath-taking sections of the South Island – Haast to Lake Hawea and Te Anau to Milford.
The project will bring world class broadband to some of the country’s most isolated regions and also allow for mobile phone connectivity along sections of remote highway – life saving if you’re in a car accident and handy if you’re a tourist.
The work is challenging; there is no cell coverage for most of their route and the weather can be treacherous. Minimum temperatures reach a bracing -5°C, with the team often having to deal with rockslides and snowfall. Despite the barriers they face, Bhavin and his team are highly productive, and they enjoy the challenge.
“Even though it’s a very physical and mental job, I feel extremely lucky to do it,” he says.
A key responsibility of Bhavin’s is traffic management, which is a vital aspect of the work.
“We lay the first line of defence for people to work and pass the site safely. You have to be on your toes, especially in difficult weather. If a landslide happens, we need to have a good contingency plan in place.”
They often get great feedback from the public and regular compliments from his bosses, who sometimes visit with clients to show them off as a prime example of how to undertake a project and manage the traffic.
This is mainly down to their amazing teamwork; the way that his colleagues come together to get a job done is key to their success. But another driver behind their outstanding progress is the highly advanced equipment they’re using, including one of New Zealand’s largest and most advanced rocksaws, which has the capability of cutting through 500m of solid rock per day.
Looking like something straight out of Mad Max, these machines have a giant spinning saw that “chomps through rock like a piece of cake”. They are able to trench on steep angles because of their incredible counterbalance instruments and can lay multiple fibre cables straight into the freshly cut trench, without having to stop.
As a self-confessed technology geek, Bhavin says he loves seeing how the technology works and has given a lot of the machines a go himself, often to help develop his skills and learn something new.
In fact, it’s this eagerness and tenacity that got Bhavin to where he is today. He loves a challenge, so when he applied for his role as a cable jointer, he nagged his supervisor to show him how everything worked and jumped at the chance to try things out, even if it was pushing the limits of his experience at the time. He’s excited by all the opportunities his job provides and is constantly learning.
Bhavin hopes to stay in the civil construction industry – “this company has given me loads of brilliant opportunities”, he says. He still sees endless possibilities ahead of him, with many ways to improve and move further up the ladder.
For those considering a role in the industry, he wants to stress that the world is their oyster.
“There’s always a chance to grow and develop your skills, whatever you’re interested in.
“Ask employers what the different options are and see where this career could take you, because there are so many amazing options that anybody can do, anywhere in the world. I work with so many people who started from zero and now they’re at a manager level or even higher. With the right determination, tenacity, and willingness to learn, you’ll do well”.
Today, Bhavin is celebrating his 31st birthday while New Zealand is in lockdown. As he usually works away for long stretches, he’s taking the chance to have a rest and recuperate before starting back when the South Island’s COVID-19 restrictions ease slightly to Alert Level 3 tomorrow.
He’s looking forward to getting stuck in again, though. He thrives on his work and can’t wait to see the West Coast and Southland Fibre Network Build Project through to the end. Connecting those remote, rural communities will bring immeasurable benefits to the people and businesses there, and one day in the future, Bhavin looks forward to coming back with his family and saying with pride: “look, we built that”.