It all began with a chance encounter with a road crew at a hotel near the town of Coromandel. Natalie Walker was working as a cleaner when she struck up a conversation with road workers staying there while completing a nearby project, eventually leaving her details with them on the off chance a job might come up with their employer Ventia.

The rest, as they say, is history. Natalie now works full-time with Ventia as a grader machine operator and foreperson, managing a team of three to keep the roads open and traffic flowing on the western side of the Coromandel Peninsula – an iconic holiday hotspot.

She recently celebrated her seven-year anniversary with the essential services company and says there’s a lot that she loves about her job.

“I love the people I work with, the places I get to go and see, but ultimately I love my job machine operating, truck driving and managing my crew.”

Working her way up through the ranks in Ventia’s road maintenance teams, Natalie has been in traffic control, driven rollers and trucks, and looked after the wellbeing of her colleagues as a health and safety representative.

“For me there’s no better satisfaction than starting at the bottom and getting yourself to where you want to be.”

For almost a year now she’s been juggling managing a road maintenance team and operating the hard-to-master grader she uses to level off roads.

The work is part of Ventia’s contract with the Thames-Coromandel District Council to maintain local roads in the area.

“It’s taken seven years to get where I am, but I can look back on what I do now and tell myself I made it,” the 29-year-old says.

Natalie says she has always had great support from her colleagues in the Thames-Coromandel Ventia team since she started and credits her mentor Graham Thompson and former supervisor Grant Scobie with helping her get so far in her career.

“From day one it’s been like a family – you come to work, enjoy the company of the people you work with and get the job done.”

The aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle last year brought home the importance of the work she and her crew were doing as they worked around the clock to get roads open so people could travel in and out of towns to buy supplies, she says.

“When Gabrielle was coming through I didn’t even want to leave my house, but it was such a rush being out on the road discovering all the problems with the road network and helping to get them sorted.

“It’s nice driving past and thinking ‘I helped do that job’. The locals do tend to thank you as well.”

The section of the road maintenance contract Natalie is responsible for has an annual budget of $1.2M and a typical day might find her managing her own crew plus subcontractors, a traffic management team, and up to eight truck and trailers.

Natalie says operating a grader is one of the highlights of her work, even though it’s a tricky beast to master.

“It’s very technical, you’ve got angles, corners, the swing of the blade.”

Someone can be taught how to control a grader, but it’s up to them to figure out how to use it skilfully, she says.

“After six to eight months of experience I’ve finally got to the point where I’m good at it.”

Natalie says she tries to inspire other women who have made a start in civil construction to advance their careers, taking the time to demonstrate the technical skills involved with operating a grader and encouraging them to learn new skills and consider other career opportunities on-site.

“I just try and spark their interest. They might say ‘cool, this is awesome’ and decide to step up.

“I’m a big advocate for women to join the industry and if they get some of the enjoyment, I get out of it, they’re rolling.”

She is proud of what she has achieved in her journey so far and says civil construction is a satisfying career.

“The further into the career I got, the more satisfaction I got out of myself and the harder I kept working.

“At the moment I’m happy where I am being a foreperson and operating the grader, I’ve got a bit of variety and I enjoy that. It’s a great feeling knowing that my hard work has all paid off.”