Higgins Construction is working to improve the numbers of females in construction. Its Christchurch crew includes Rachel Kirk, far left, Elena Hofman, centre, and Vanessa Hopkins bottom right.

Roading infrastructure company Higgins Construction says it is committed to hiring women in key positions, and currently has three in leading roles on its Safe Highways 74 project in Christchurch.

Surfacing engineer Rachel Kirk

How did you get into the industry? I’ve wanted to drive trucks since I was a little girl. While completing a certificate in Civil Construction, Quarrying and Mining at Polytechnic in Greymouth, I applied for a job as Class 4 Asphalt Truck driver for Downer in Christchurch and was successful.

I drove the truck for about eight months, then became an asphalt paver operator and quality assessor in an asphalt crew for two years. From there I became a contract engineer, then a contract delivery manager. I have now worked at Higgins for about 10 months.

What is the best part of your job? The people I get to work with. Higgins staff are incredibly friendly and helpful. Another thing I enjoy about this role and my wider career is that I am continually learning. This is the type of industry where you can constantly upskill and evolve and are supported to do so. I find Higgins a safe, feedback enriched environment.

What have been your biggest challenges? My continual journey of personal development.

What is your advice for any other women wanting to get into civil trades? If you’ve got the drive go for it. Resilience and a sense of humour are helpful qualities in this industry. Assertiveness, courage and honesty are also beneficial. Don’t be afraid of the lads, the vast majority are great to work with and a bit of “assertiveness” sorts out those that aren’t.

Truck driver/machine operator Vanessa Hopkin

How did you get into the industry? I started around 2005. There weren’t very many women on the job site then, so it had its challenges, but I really enjoyed it, driving rollers and working the diggers. It’s actually fun and the team work is great. After a few years I got the opportunity to work with Higgins and that is where I am today: grooming roads with best prep possible ready for the icing on the cake (asphalt seal). We are very passionate and proud about the work we do.

What is the best part of your job? I love being able to drive machines: rolling, driving trucks, shifting soil and road materials with diggers. I’ll give anything a go and I’ve always been given the opportunity and mentoring to get in and give it a try. I work with not only family but a great bunch of people I call family.

What have been your biggest challenges? Every different role has its own responsibilities and everything you drive has different challenges. Precision is key: if you are driving a roller and you don’t get the measurements right you’ll ruin everyone else’s work and it’ll have to be done again. You need to concentrate and be on your game. Safety is another major priority, you need to be sure where your team members are at all times, but communication is the key, when you’ve got a great team everyone works together to get the job done.

What is your advice for any other woman wanting to get into civil trades? If you want to do it just go for it! It’s a great industry and you can just keep moving forward. And if you’re ever unsure always ask. It’s not an easy job but you feel great when you have achieved new goals and tried new things. Never let anyone say you can’t – that’s my motto.

Project manager Elena Hofman 

How did you get into the industry? I didn’t know much about the industry or civil engineering before I got involved. When I was young I had a fascination with geology and grew up helping my dad with the handyman work on a lifestyle block. He saw a newspaper ad for a civil engineering cadetship and gave me a nudge to apply. I got it, left high school early and got stuck in working for WSP-Opus for six years as a civil engineering cadet/technician, then two years at Grey District Council as an engineering officer.

During this time I also studied for a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering, part-time by distance-learning which took eight years. After the Kaikoura earthquake I was deployed within a week, working directly with contractors to get the water and sewer networks functioning again.

The buzz I got from working on the ground with the contractors was life changing. I enjoyed the quick problem-solving, being more involved in the actual construction and the pressure that came along with it. I decided to try the contracting world and was fortunate to secure a position with Higgins where I have been just over two years, working my way up to a project manager and now delivering projects worth more than $5 million for our major clients. Even now I still get the same buzz from being out on the job.

What is the best part of your job? The awesome people I work with is by far the best part. They are supportive, talented and they never fail to make me laugh. I love delivering a project that will benefit the community for many years to come. Saying ‘we built that!’ gives me a huge sense of pride.

What have been your biggest challenges getting to where you are now? I set high standards for myself and am passionate about my projects, so this means I tend to overwork sometimes. I am learning to balance it all more and schedule timeout for myself.

If I had to name one it would be people’s first assumptions or  impressions of me and my feeling like I have to earn their respect.  As a 27-year-old female I am perhaps not your “typical” person who manages civil construction projects.

There have been times when people have assumed I was an administrative person, someone’s wife, or just a random “girl” on site. People have asked me “can I talk to someone in charge?” To overcome these challenges I’ve learned to not take things personally and to remember that other people’s behaviours are just a reflection of what they have been exposed to during their life.

What is your advice for other women wanting to get into civil trades? Back yourself and give it a go. There will be times when you need to roll up your sleeves and put in the hard work, but it is worth it. It’s very satisfying and exciting work and the culture within the civil trades industry has a real family vibe – you’ll be well looked after by the team.

You really can do anything you put your mind to, as long you are willing to put in the work to back it up. There is something in this industry for everyone. You can get involved in the professional services side (such as design, financial control, contract management) or be more into the on-the-ground construction and operate a digger like Vanessa or an asphalt paver like Rach. No two days are the same in the civil trades and that’s what is so good about it. I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else.


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