Auckland Harbour Bridge has just been struck by a truck. Early reports suggest there has been structural damage and the bridge will have to close for significant repairs. It’s your job to calm the situation and make sure traffic chaos is averted.

That’s the situation Hannah Cocker was faced with just over a year ago when a truck crash on the eight-lane bridge threatened to cut off access between Auckland’s CBD and the city’s North Shore. It was a crisis moment, and one of the more memorable days she has experienced since beginning her career holding a Stop-Go sign in Marlborough 10 years ago.

“I will always remember that event and the response we organised – from setting up designated bus lanes on the motorway and managing traffic to organising for an ambulance to be sent safely down the wrong side of the bridge to get to an emergency,” says Hannah.

“We worked with so many stakeholders to make things right and I just remember all the people I dealt with and the fact the transport agency was just so proud at the end of it all when the bridge was fully re-opened in just 18 days.”

At 28 years of age, Hannah is now managing 54 staff as the Temporary Traffic Management Network Manager for the Auckland System Management (ASM) alliance. The alliance is a joint venture between HEB Construction, Fulton Hogan and Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency – all working together to operate and maintain the 456 km of roading that makes up Auckland motorway network.

It has been a rapid rise to management for the former Marlborough Girls College student, who started her career as a Traffic Controller with HEB in 2010. She grew up in a military family and left school at 17 to pursue a childhood dream of joining the Air Force. However, a chance meeting with HEB’s Marlborough Region Traffic Manager while Hannah was working at a Havelock pub turned her gaze towards roading.

After working on the roading network for a year she decided to give the Air Force a try, but in her words “it wasn’t for me”, and she quickly returned to the camaraderie of her road maintenance team. “It’s just a great environment. Everyone is just ‘bros’ out there – male or female – all one team.”

In her decade in the industry, she has also spent five years working with Downer, where she gained experience in roles ranging from quality assurance to contract engineer and asphalt lab technician.

She says every step on her way to management has been rewarding, and she particularly likes road maintenance for its unpredictability and the way it constantly challenges her to hone her problem-solving skills.

Talking with Hannah, you quickly realise that it’s problem-solving and crises situations where she is most at home. Whether dealing with road incidents, helping police set up border checkpoints during the COVID-19 pandemic, managing traffic during protest marches, or dealing with high-stakes incidents like the Auckland Harbour Bridge crash, she almost always keeps a cool head.

“I don’t like people being in bad situations but I do like being part of solving the problem.”

She says one of the most satisfying things about her work maintaining the roads with ASM is that people value it. Road quality and traffic matters to people and they care about work that is being done to make their commute easier or their trip safer.

The results of the work are highly visible too, she says.

“You would be amazed at the number of times we’ve driven past Waterview Tunnel and I’ve told my family ‘I built that’, as if I did it single-handedly,” she jokes. “I only did a small amount of the asphalt, but you definitely take pride in it.”

Hannah believes that “attitude”, more than anything else, is the key to success in the industry. It was only last year she earned her first business qualification – a Diploma in Business with a major in Project Management – having built the majority of her career with just the ‘Wheels, Tracks and Rollers’ Driver Licence Endorsement needed to operate many of the vehicles used in the roading industry.

“I got my foot in the door and just worked my way through. For school leavers, you shouldn’t worry about the specific role want to do – just get into a company, get your foot in the door and see where it takes you.”

Hannah was recognised last year with a ‘Women at HEB Making an Impact Award’ and strongly believes more women should get into road maintenance. When she began, just one or two other road maintenance workers in Marlborough were female, but times have changed. These days around a quarter of her Auckland team are female and the number of women in road maintenance is steadily growing across New Zealand.

“When I first started, proving people wrong was a big driver. I wanted to prove I could do it as well as anyone else. To anyone starting out, I would tell them to just do it, and don’t be scared of taking the opportunities that come your way.

“You definitely can learn the practical skills needed, you don’t have to grow up on a farm or similar. And for anyone wondering about their physical abilities, you will always be physically able to do it, you just might do it in a different way from others.”

Hannah will be taking a few days off over Christmas to relax and rewind with friends and family but will be back on deck soon after to help ensure work on the Auckland motorway network can be done safely and people travelling to see loved ones over summer can get there quickly.