Life is full of crossroads. Picture this – you’ve just finished school and you’re deciding the next big stage of your life. You like the idea of studying further, but you also want – or maybe even need – to start earning money. Or perhaps you’ve already been in your career for a while, working the same job for a decade. You’re desperate for change but you’re scared to take the leap, unsure what you’re even leaping in to, never mind whether you’ll like it or not.

This is exactly the position Hinearoha McAllister and Chris Pethick found themselves in. Fortunately, they landed on the ideal solution: infrastructure construction cadetships.

Cadetships are offered by civil construction companies to give people a taste of the industry. Each programme varies slightly, depending on the companies offering them, but the fundamentals are the same. Cadets go through a series of “rotations” within each segment of the business, undertaking a variety of tasks that give them an in-depth, nuanced set of skills across all aspects of the profession. They also have the chance to study and gain qualifications, such as the New Zealand Diploma of Engineering and the New Zealand Diploma of Engineering – Practical. And the best bit? The company pays their wages and covers their course costs. The opportunity to earn while they learn is a luxury not found in many sectors.

“I’ve had exposure to all elements of the industry”, says Chris, a 34-year-old first year cadet with Downer, a large infrastructure construction and civil engineering company offering several cadetship programmes. Originally from the UK, Chris became a chef while travelling and built his way up to being a head chef of a couple of kitchens, but he was desperate to shake things up a bit.

“I had just bought a house and had been working in kitchens for so long that I wanted a change. I thought the best way to do this was through study because I didn’t want to settle into one specific thing straight away. That’s why the cadetship stood out to me, especially in civil construction, because it gives you so many options.

“With the cadetship, you try different things all the time and you constantly learn something new. Because they give you a taste of everything, you can see what you enjoy the most and what suits you the best and then take that forward. So far, I’ve worked on housing developments, roads in beautiful national parks, and I’ve had a go on all the machinery. It’s been great.”

This is backed up by Hinearoha, who completed a Fulton Hogan cadetship and now works in the Bay of Plenty as a member of the company’s asphalt Quality Assurance Team: “I did loads of different jobs – from working in the lab doing testing, to being in a quarry, and putting together a Q&A on how to work with asphalt. Being exposed to all aspects of the industry is a really great way to learn.”

Another key pillar of cadetships is their commitment to building relationships. At the start of the programme, cadets are typically assigned an individual mentor and on-site “buddy” for each rotation.

The primary role of mentors and buddies is to guide and support the development of a cadet. They take the time to demonstrate technical skills and safe work practices, while creating an environment where the cadet can ask questions and develop a close partnership. This helps the cadet to grow professionally and personally. Adding this human connection makes the programme special to both the business and the people going through it.

“My favourite part of the job is that even when I am working on hard stuff, it’s made easy by the good people I work with; everyone here is really cool. They make the days go faster”, says Hinearoha.

Chris agrees, saying “they look after you very well.” He works in Queenstown, a place he describes as feeling like a small town in the sense that “you get to know everyone very quickly”.

Once a cadet finishes their programme, the world is their oyster. Often, people travel and work all throughout New Zealand and the Pacific, and sometimes even further afield. For Hinearoha, she has her sights on becoming a civil engineer, which she will do by completing a degree funded by a Fulton Hogan Scholarship.

Chris is particularly interested in the environmental aspects of the job, an area he sees huge potential in.

“There are massive opportunities and lots of growth in the civil construction industry; they are always looking for people to work in this sector. I’m especially keen on the environmental projects we work on – that area is growing vastly.”

But as for right now, he likes where he is. “I’d definitely like to stay in Queenstown. It’s very scenic here”.

Speaking on one of their recent cadet cohorts, Fulton Hogan’s Bay of Plenty Health, Safety, Quality, Training, Environment and Sustainability Divisional Manager Becky Cox says: “The impacts on the families, our staff and the cadets has been extremely positive. A lot of our staff recognise themselves in the cadets, and have taken an interest in the success of these young people in our business.”

Gone are the days of the standard 9-5 or pathways through university. As Chris and Hinearoha have shown, there are many ways to step into a new career when you’re facing a crossroads. Whether you’re a school leaver, are getting back into work after a long break because of travelling or having kids, or if you feel stagnant in your current job and want to learn something new, a civil construction cadetship might be just the thing you’re looking for.

Many other civil construction businesses also offer cadetship schemes, which can be accessed by emailing the company direct to enquire or – for those still in school – talking with a school careers advisor.