When the snow starts falling on State Highway 5 between Napier and Taupo, Jon Gray gets going. The Higgins Road Maintenance Supervisor is responsible for operating one of two snow ploughs that rumble into action from Higgins’ Napier depot when winter’s chill hits and snow begins to fall.
“How often we get the ploughs out really depends on the weather,” says Jon. “Some years it might be four to five times, sometimes it could be ten to fifteen. Our snow ploughs are very good in up to probably three to four inches of snow or if there’s been some snow and then rain, so it’s a bit slushy. Anything over that we get in a grader.”
Jon is a member of the Higgins team working to maintain State Highway 5 for Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency as part of the Hawke’s Bay Network Outcomes Contract. Based out of Napier, he’s been working the 95 km section of road for seven years, with Te Pōhue through to the Tarawera Cafe north of Te Haroto considered the “busy part” of the area when it comes to snowfall.
While New Zealand has had some pretty chilly weather of late, there’s been nothing but dustings on the surrounding hills for Jon and his team this year. However, more snow may still be to come, as winter is surprisingly not the season where snowfall is heaviest on State Highway 5.
“Normally its spring that’s worse for us,” Jon says. “When my cyclic truck and plough got stuck up there for three days back in 2016, I just had no traction coming up the hill, so I had to stop. Within an hour, I had about a metre of snow all over my truck. That was about five or six days before Labour Weekend, so very late in the year.”
Maintaining the highway is a rewarding job, but one that often involves working through the night. Six at night until six in the morning is not an uncommon shift for supervisors to work when cold weather is expected, to see what the overnight weather brings.
“A good part of the job is making sure the roads are open in the morning, especially with the Napier-Taupo Road being the only way in or out,” Jon says.
“Another good part is when you come across vehicles stranded while you’re ploughing and you can actually take the people with you to get them safe, or call someone to come get them.
“When the road was closed by snow for three days [in 2016] we had trucks and trailers stuck all over the place. You could easily see them, but there were times the snow was so bad, you couldn’t even see the vehicle underneath it.”
In addition to ploughing, Jon’s role involves a number of different road maintenance tasks, from filing in potholes and fixing road signs to repairing guard rails or wire ropes. This variety is just one of the many perks of the job, according to Jon. While the job isn’t for everyone, he says, a good attitude will get you far in the industry, as will a full driver’s license.
“We get so many [candidates] who are on their restricted. A lot of our vehicles, our utes and so forth, are becoming automatic only because so many people can’t drive a manual. The ute I drive is a 4×4 Hilux, but I think there are only about three left, and the rest have gone to Mitsubishi because they’re automatic.”
Jon made the shift to civil construction and in the mid-2000s after working in the building industry. He got his start on a stop-go paddle. That early work controlling traffic opened his eyes to the importance of every role on a worksite and the contribution each makes to a successful outcome.
“The traffic control job is so important. If you’ve got people working on the road in front of you, you have to stop the traffic, otherwise some of your mates could get injured or killed. After that, I progressively went through, and got my licenses to drive a roller and a truck and everything else, but I still remember what I learned on the lollipop – that every role is important, or it wouldn’t exist.”
There’ll always be a place for you in the civil infrastructure industry, if you aren’t afraid of putting in some hard yards and can seek out solutions instead of bringing up problems, Jon says.
“No matter what job you have, you have to be prepared to get in and get your hands dirty. You might be told to hang five from time to time, but as long as you ask what you can do to help and show you’re willing, it will be well thought of. I still wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work, and I’ve been in the industry for 14-odd years.”