“It sounds funny, but when you work on a highway, it’s very satisfying,” says Jess Wilson, a Pilot Vehicle Driver for SouthRoads. “Putting in marker pegs, fixing potholes, repairing both sides of a wide road, sweeping the highway – it’s just beautiful.”
After four years on the job, Jess still loves the everchanging views from her ‘office-on-wheels’. Whether it’s driving over Southland’s Jolly Hills to Lumsden under blue skies or marvelling at the coastal views on State Highway 99 along the bottom of the South Island, road maintenance in Southland is work that provides stunning scenery and interesting challenges in equal measure.
“Every day we are somewhere new,” she says. “I can be driving the pilot vehicle, or sometimes on the tools. That’s the best thing about it – it is different every day.
“You have to like getting your hands dirty and you have to like working outside.”
Jess has her Wheels, Tracks and Rollers driver licence endorsement and recently got her Class 2 Licence allowing her to operate small trucks. Next, she will learn to drive sweeper trucks so she can step in and to replace her work colleague Santaya Meikle when needed.
Santaya works closely with Jess, driving a SouthRoads sweeper truck laden with equipment to support road maintenance sites in Southland. She is often out on the roads with Jess as part of the day-to-day cyclic team – working on marker pegs, potholes and sweeping – or responding to weather events, traffic incidents and occasionally assisting emergency services.
“We go to callouts after accidents to assist with traffic or to provide privacy for those involved,” says Santaya. “I quite enjoy going to callouts because you are helping someone out at a vital time.”
Santaya also enjoys other unique challenges such as rounding up stock on the roads, which is quite common in Southland. She also enjoys the trust her managers place in her, and the autonomous nature of the job.
“Me and Jess get to be our own boss quite a lot. We work at least 10 hours every day, but it’s in nice locations and sometimes we get to enjoy lunch in a really scenic Southland spot.”
Jess and Santaya believe it is a great time for woman to embark on a career in road maintenance and join the movement.
“When I started working about five years ago, people would sometimes baby me a bit as a woman in the industry,” says Santaya.
“But they don’t now – the industry has changed.”
The civil infrastructure industry has become increasingly attractive since the pandemic, with people looking to get away from their desks or avoid taking on huge student loans to work amongst nature.
Although there is less than 20 per cent female participation in most construction sector businesses, the days of roading and civil being a ‘boys club’ are long gone.
The number of women working in infrastructure has grown rapidly. While precise numbers for the number of women in road maintenance are hard to come by, there are now around 40,000 women employed in the wider construction-related workforce, according to Minister for Building and Construction Poto Williams, and the number of women training to be apprentices is growing at nearly twice the rate of male apprentices.
This shift is due to women like Jess and Santaya paving the way for others, as well as initiatives that are increasing diversity across sites.
Many civil construction companies are working hard to encourage women to join their ranks and supporting them in establishing successful careers.
Support organisations like Connexis operate programmes like the Girls with Hi-Vis campaign to provide female students with hands-on infrastructure experience, and Women in Trades promotes trades and trades training as a viable career option to women.
The Construction Sector Accord’s Diversity in Construction initiative is also crafting “a roadmap to better invest in and promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the building and construction sector”.
Santaya’s advice to woman considering a career in roading? “Just do it. It’s satisfying and it’s good to be able to prove to the guys that we can do it just as well.”