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On the Road

04 Jul 2007

Pursuing a fervent passion for cars, Christian Alvarez became a new and used car salesman when he completed Year 12. It had been his adolescent ambition; believing it would suit his fascination for automobiles of all kinds.

But just two years down the track, he called it quits; unable to enjoy the stress and pressure of the job and preferring to don more casual attire and work with his hands in the outdoors.

While he had driven his family's cars down many a road after obtaining his licence, he never gave joining a road gang any thought; taking our highways and byways for granted as just thoroughfares in our modern 21 st century.

Now, the 22-year-old Bundoora resident is on a 12-month traineeship at Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT) studying Certificate II in Civil Construction organised by his employer, Apprenticeships Plus. He is supervised by the organisation's Training Development Officer, Daryl Pinner.

As part of his arrangement with the organisation, he is also training with the 4CER Ringwood army regiment in an Army Reserve Training & Apprenticeship Program (ARTAP). He studies basic engineering skills, undertaking practical experience in road building and maintenance as well as learning to build bridges and be a plant operator.

As an NMIT trainee, Christian is employed full-time by the City of Yarra as his host employer, working in road maintenance repairing potholes and re-asphalting main roads and back streets in the suburbs of Richmond, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Carlton and Clifton Hill.

He studies the theory of civil construction in his own time with a hard copy manual of the certificate course modules and then applies what he is learning in practice on the job. NMIT teacher Tim Hoare visits him on site twice a month to answer any questions and concerns Christian might have and also to assess his competency at the workplace.

All NMIT students are visited on site by Tim around Victoria, from Horsham in the west to Druin in the east as well as around the metropolitan area.

Tim said over the past ten years, there was a move for civil construction workers to obtain a formal qualification with more companies having to comply with quality assurance as they tendered for contracts.

'People are working to a higher standard today and the demand for professional quality tradespeople has increased,' Tim added. 'With the expansion of Melbourne and upgrading of our road system, there needs to be formal training to ensure our roads meet all traffic needs.'

The civil construction industry today is worth $10 billion nationally but experiencing a 'critical' skill shortage as older workers who retire are not being replaced, according to the Civil Contractors Federation (Victoria) General Manager Training and Development, Neville Kelly.

The federation is attempting to address this by recently employing a full-time careers advisor as part of a four-pronged attack to target parents, students, schools' career advisors and members of the federation.

'We are taking this skill shortage very seriously as so many people out there don't even know what civil construction is about and we are trying to get out there to tell them,' Neville added.

The Federation currently has about 450 company members and Neville estimates there are about 5000 employees in the industry around the state.

As a trainee at NMIT, Christian studies a range of modules such as carrying out measurements and calculations, handling construction materials and safely disposing of non-toxic materials, using civil construction hand and power tools, reading and interpreting plans and specifications, carrying out basic excavation, carrying out basic levelling, identifying, locating and protecting underground services, carrying out concrete work and using explosive tools as well as laying pipes.

'Civil construction is physically demanding but also highly skilled where I've learned how to use a jack-hammer and demo saw and pour asphalt to ensure the road is at the right height when you whack it down. Getting the level right can be pretty hard where you can get unintended speed humps or a pothole can occur again,' Christian said.

'Understanding the basics of a good road is not always appreciated by people in the community; they don't know how much hard work is involved and the skills required. But civil construction is a trade just like plumbing or electrical - and roads are an essential part of our lives that people take for granted as I used to, too.'

On the job, Christian works from 6am to 4pm Monday to Friday, often in a team with one other, sometimes in a gang as part of three separate gangs or the gangs together on a big job.

On an average day, he and his team-mate will be responsible for laying 3 tons of asphalt with one ton covering about 8 square metres.

'When you've got to dig up the road and then fill it back up again it's hard work, but I enjoy it and it's fun. I love working with my hands outdoors and being able to learn on the job rather than sitting in a classroom.'

Indeed, as opposed to his days trying to make a car sale, Christian said there was no stress, no pressure and he could do the job, go home and didn't have to worry about his work after hours.

And now, when he's driving along the roads in our suburbs and city, he casts a keen eye on the asphalt, picking out the bits that need fixing and assessing others' work for criticism or whether it's a good and safe road.

'The image of men who work on the roads is they smoke, with ten blokes looking into a hole and leaning on a truck keeping it upright. That's a myth. People can get frustrated when there's road works but we all need safe and strongly built roads. I don't take them for granted anymore and know I made the right decision to take up this work - absolutely.'

Christian said the new skills he was acquiring both through his traineeship and with the army opened up many different employment opportunities in the future.

Christian hopes to continue his studies and undertake Certificate III and one day aspires to run his own business.


Interview / Photo Opportunity

Media enquiries should be directed to the NMIT Communications Officer, James Gardener, on (03) 92691579, 0413 483 182 or

NMIT (Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE) - Situated on seven campuses and six training centres throughout Melbourne's north, NMIT delivers vocational training, higher education and lifelong learning capabilities for a global workforce. NMIT forges partnerships with community, industry and government to produce practical, solution orientated graduates capable of making meaningful contributions to their chosen field of endeavour.