From the Far North to the West Coast, New Zealand has been hammered by heavy rain and flooding in recent weeks, brought on by a series of atmospheric rivers – plumes of moisture from the tropics – over the country.
After the waters have fallen, there is always a mess to clean up, whether that be from roads washed away or slips across the road. This winter, road crews across New Zealand, and particularly in the sodden South Island, have been hard at work cleaning up the mess of the winter wet.
Overseeing crews in one particularly snow and flood-prone area is Millan Visser, a 26-year-old delivery manager for Downer in Canterbury. Millan’s home patch is SH75, from Christchurch out to Akaroa, but he oversees crews working maintaining the state highway network across the entire Canterbury region, from the Rakaia River northwards. While the recent floods to hit Nelson have left much of Canterbury relatively unscathed, the province is counting its blessings for the reprieve after its wettest July on record.
“We had a lot of surface flooding on the roads, a lot of slips,” says Millan. “That hillside [on SH75 to Akaroa] is constantly moving, so you always get a surprising number of slips that seem to fall down.”
Millan is back in Canterbury, where he was born and raised, after a stint up in Gisborne working in roading for forestry. There isn’t a lot of forestry going on in Canterbury, however, so when his partner wanted to move back, Millan quickly found his previous work experience transferrable.
“I was in charge of a pretty big roading project on forestry land in Gisborne, so it kind of fit into what I knew already. There’s a bit of a learning curve, having to learn about asphalts, and chip seals, and that kind of thing, but the basics are all the same – managing people, coordinating projects, and road construction.”
In road maintenance, no two days are the same, but that’s all part of the job’s attraction. With high levels of public engagement and reports coming in regularly from members of the community, the day could involve anything from dealing with dead cats on the road to repairing car-sized potholes.
“After a flood back in early July, we closed State Highway 1 just out of Rolleston, so that was pretty major, but we did it all in about an hour or so. There was a pothole the size of a car so it was all hands on deck, and the result was quite cool to see.”
The variety is not the only perk of the job. For those who enjoy the outdoors over the sterile confines of an office cubicle, road maintenance is a ticket to the best office view going.
“Working in and around the mountains is pretty awesome. You really can make it what you want to make it. Take your laptop and turn the outdoors into your office if you can find reception. I love having the ability to just leave the office and go and get a breath of air while checking on the network.”
Millan takes a lot of enjoyment from his work and is the youngest on his crew by some years, especially when it comes to boots on the ground. Despite this, he believes that road maintenance and civil infrastructure work is an attractive career for anyone of a certain character.
“Being adjustable is really important. Adaptability. That’s the bonus of this job, where you get to be a jack of all trades instead of a master of one.”
“For a school leaver, it’s a good start for understanding – to learn why and how to maintain roads, so that when you go on to build them, it actually makes sense while you’re doing things. And it’s really satisfying, when you can get people on their way and keep them moving as quickly as you can.”
Jack McNabb, a 21-year-old road maintenance worker with infrastructure services company CORDE, just happens to share many of attributes Millan mentioned. He has a love of the outdoors, a willingness to learn, an enthusiasm for hands-on work, and he puts those traits to good use every day.
Jack’s team has the contract for road maintenance work with the Waimakariri District Council and their stand-out efforts were recently recognised with a national award for maintenance work presented to CORDE at the recent CCNZ Hirepool Construction Excellence Awards.
Starting out in road maintenance straight from school, Jack was recommended to the job by a family member. He says he initially saw it as a short-term gig but quickly realised that he enjoyed it and has been with CORDE almost four years.
While he started out as a labourer and driver, Jack is now operating excavators and working towards his Class 4 heavy truck license. He is also participating in a leadership course soon, with an eye on perhaps becoming a site foreman in the future.
“I like the construction aspect of it, even if it is on the maintenance side. Building, or going through the process of making or fixing roads, or boxing up a footpath, that kind of thing. I come from a farming background, so getting into machinery is always quite enjoyable.”
As part of a crew that has been out there in the thick of it throughout winter, Jack has seen his fair share of flooding events, coupled with the gratitude that sometimes accompanies their response work.
“There’s been times where the whole street is underwater, and you’re taken aback by how much water there actually is. There’s been quite a lot of that kind of thing around Kaiapoi.”
He says its satisfying work, and he can recall times when members of the community have thanked him – including with a batch of home-baked biscuits on one occasion.
Road maintenance work isn’t glamorous but it’s work where you get to build or fix essential infrastructure, making a difference in communities all over New Zealand. The demand is always high for workers who know how to put in the effort and are keen to learn on the job.
“Come and try it out,” says Jack. “For me, it was supposed to be a stop-gap job for a year or so, but I really enjoy the work, and I’m still here four years later.”