Olivia Thomson standing in front of a digger

I definitely didn’t grow up wanting to become a heavy-machinery driver. I never thought I’d end up here. In a way it was destined, although the path was not straight. As a kid, I would sit in on the floor of my dad’s grader with my blanky and a packet of Tim Tams and wave to the cars coming up the road at 5am, so by the time I was sixteen I was used to working alongside him and in the earthmoving business. Still, as a little girl I dreamt of being a wedding planner or a marine biologist, never a grader driver!

After school I went to university to study law and commerce. Not long into it, I found myself thinking, “What am I doing?” I really didn’t enjoy it. So I rang up Dad and asked if he had a job for me for the summer, and just never left.

Working with family has its pros and cons. My dad can be quite hard on me at times, but then again, because of him, I can drive a scraper better than most of the boys. I got my wheels, tracks and rollers licence when I was seventeen; started off driving a roller and worked my way up. With our business being a family business, there’s a lot of flexibility and leeway that I probably wouldn’t otherwise get. That being said, when we’re on a job, we can be away from home for up to three months working twelve-hour days, so it’s not by any means easy work.

The challenges of the industry are the working hours and long contracts away from home. If I was working for a bigger company, there would probably be the chance to get home at the end of the day, but it’s just Dad and I, so we are hands-on and away a lot. It’s hard to keep to routines when away, and it takes its toll on social life; it can be hard on your mental wellbeing. I just always keep reminding myself that I’m getting paid for this! But we do need to see some progression on working times in the industry.

Being a woman in the industry has its tests as well. When I was younger, I didn’t really realise I was often the only girl around, because I was working beside Dad. Now, I do notice the odd look of, “What are you doing here?” from time to time, but once the guys see me operating the machinery, they don’t question it. I also notice people doing a double take when they see me operating a huge machine as they drive past a worksite – like where we’re at the moment, right beside a motorway. But, it’s a bit like a superpower! It’s cool to think that I can do this – it’s a skill that most don’t have!

The satisfaction of the job comes from seeing something progress from start to finish. When we come along, the land is just a flat paddock or a hillside and at the end of it, there’s a whole new subdivision and people’s homes on it. There is so much that goes on before the builders can come on-site that people don’t often realise. Shaping the land, the drainage – all that, we make it happen. We don’t get to build someone’s dream home, but we do the foundation work, without which it couldn’t be built at all.

It takes a pretty tough cookie to work in this industry. Someone who enjoys the outdoors, doesn’t mind getting muddy and dusty, and who is a forward thinker, would do well. With determination and a splash of talent, we literally move mountains.

THREAD & PIJF logos

This story is part of THREAD, a year-long project by Shepherdess made possible thanks to the Public Interest Journalism Fund through NZ On Air.

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