Kurt Douglas – How a young man, going nowhere, turned his life around.

Kurt Douglas’s story is truly inspirational. How a young man, going nowhere, turned his life around. He took on a trade and then scaled the heights. Literally. The trade was scaffolding. And now Kurt has progressed from being ‘on the tools’ to senior management.

The story, initially, was a classic one of a young man having no direction. “At school, I didn’t apply myself. No effort was put into academic stuff even though I was ok at chemistry and physics.”

He left school with a couple of NCEA credits and then drifted for about five years, “just kicking around with my mates and on a benefit. There was a fair bit of abuse – alcohol, drugs, cigarettes.”

Kurt knew he had to get away from that lifestyle. “My partner could see it. I got the ultimatum. “Stay here and be a drop kick or we do something.” They moved away from Kaitaia to Whangarei. “She’s probably the reason why I’m not still in Kaitaia.”

To continue receiving a benefit Kurt had to do an LSV (Limited Service Volunteers) boot camp. “It was like Army basic training – routine and discipline but with cotton wool. Quite PC and motivational. ” The course took six weeks. No alcohol, no drugs and even the supply of cigarettes was limited.

“I came out feeling very inspired. It really did change my mindset.” And he gave up the drink. “I’m an all or nothing person.”

At a Mayoral lunch to celebrate the end of the course, Kurt met Chris Douglas from Northland Scaffolding and they had a brief chat.

At the same time, by chance, a pre-trade course in scaffolding came up, aimed at recruiting workers for the oil refinery. Kurt enjoyed it and was keen for some work experience. So, he rang Chris who took him on one day a week. Kurt says, “You have to get your foot in the door and prove your worth.”

Then the company needed some workers for a Saturday job. Kurt was up for it but said they had to pay him. “So, I did a couple of weekends and started making noises about full-time employment.” Chris says jokingly, “he pestered us so much I had to give him a job!”

“Basically, Chris took me on as a labourer,” Kurt says. “Then, as my skills got better, he applied for me to do the elementary block course at Tai Poutini Polytechnic. Free-standing scaffolding, nothing too technical.”

That took around six months to complete with quite a fast turnaround before Kurt went into his intermediate course, which took three to four months. “Then I went straight into my advanced ticket, which is the technical one.”

Maths was relevant at this stage, with calculations for counter-weights and fulcrum points, live loads and dead loads. “By then at least I had half an idea as to what I was doing.”

What Kurt is shy about admitting is that he finished the course with both an advanced ticket and the award for national Scaffolding Trainee of the Year. “It’s been the rise and rise of Kurt,” says Chris. “We can take a little bit of ownership as we’ve supported him all the way! But self-motivation is the key.”

Since Kurt qualified, Skills and SARNZ (Scaffold, Access and Rigging NZ) have teamed up to establish a proper apprenticeship, with scaffolding now officially recognised as a trade.

Soon after qualifying, Chris offered Kurt the position of Operations Supervisor. He was off the tools and into management. “He’s great at seeing an end goal. He puts a lot of passion and drive into his work, always trying to learn, always asking questions. His accelerated growth is extremely positive. It’s a cool story – going from nothing, to what he’s achieved in a short period of time. ”

Chris says Kurt works hard on himself, trying to understand people’s differences. “Sometimes he just wants to give them a kick up the bum and get stuck in. Like he does. But not everyone’s motivated that way.”

Looking to the future Kurt says scaffold design really interests me, learning what an engineer requires. And Chris is supporting him by introducing him to software design packages.

As much as he enjoys management, Kurt really liked his time on the tools. His advice to anyone thinking of doing an apprenticeship, “If you’re a physical, fit sort of person you’ll enjoy it. It’s a hard case bunch of guys.”

With the new qualification, he thinks scaffolding is going to become a popular trade. “When something gets completed to a high standard, I like that. You can stand back and look at it like it’s a piece of art. But it’s always a team effort. You can never take full credit for it. The brotherhood of the boys is very strong. Everyone looks out for each other.”

Maggie Myocevich -The woman challenging the ideals of what a great scaffolder should be

Mention the word ‘scaffolding’ and what do most people think of? A male-dominated, tough-guy industry, which is no place for a woman. There’s a perception women are just not physically or mentally strong enough to consider scaffolding as a serious career choice. Anyone thinking that hasn’t met Maggie.

In January 2018 Maggie became the first woman to sign on for a NZ Scaffolding Apprenticeship. Already she has Leading Hand status, is a Health and Safety rep and has won the respect of everyone she works for and with. It’s an inspiring story.

While labouring at the Marsden Point Refinery in Whangarei, she saw that there was a need for extra scaffolders on the weekends. “It was overtime work and I needed the money. They said no, so I put my foot down and kept asking until I got my way. I’m very determined.

That is how Maggie got the initial experience in scaffolding she needed. Then she saw an ad for scaffolders. She applied, knowing she wasn’t going to get past HR. “Because I was a woman. They wouldn’t say that to your face, but I just knew. It made me want the job even more. I annoyed the guys who ran the scaffolders until they gave me a shot.”
Being a woman, Maggie decided she had to do things better than anyone else. It’s the way she works, but it’s also to prove a point. And it’s a work ethos that has served her well. “Because being a female on a construction site you feel like you are going to have a target on your back.”

She says she was lucky. “I had a well-respected Leading Hand. He pushed me at times to make sure I was keeping up. But, I’d told him I was there to do the work and not be treated like a princess. He kept me on my toes.”

Maggie has never experienced any issues or trouble. “It has always been sweet.” She said that people were really supportive. “Initially, there were a couple of workers who went OMG, whatever…you won’t be able to do it.” She proved them wrong. Maggie doesn’t have a big physical build, but once they could see she was able and willing, they fell into line. “They didn’t give me any sh*t!” She says there was no resentment and nobody tried to makes things difficult for her. Once she was on board, she found great support from everyone.

Maggie eventually moved from Whangarei to Auckland and joined South Pacific Scaffolding. She says it’s a really good company to work for because everyone gets along and they are all good mates. It’s like family. “It’s awesome experiencing the stuff we are doing down here. I was used to industrial scaffolding, now I’m 40 metres up doing high rises in the city. It’s really exciting.”

Maggie at times leads crews, and she has been voted the Health and Safety Rep by her colleagues. She checks everyone is happy with their PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), deals with any safety concerns and makes sure the scaffolding is built to the guidelines. “You need people like me on site who are really strict, to yell when someone is not doing the right thing and putting themselves in danger. Everyone looks out for each other and is willing to speak out and intervene if something is not right.”

And it’s not just the crews who trust her and ask for her help. The GM recently asked her go over all the safety procedures and check they were up to date. There was a lot of consultation, with input from the workers as well. That’s what Maggie really likes – when everyone is talking and solving problems, bosses and workers alike.

In the early days she found it hard to match plans and an actual structure. “At first I thought it was impossible; I’ll never be able to imagine a scaffold that’s not actually there.” But Maggie watched carefully and learned.

There is no minimum educational requirement for scaffolding. What’s important is common sense. I was never the brightest spark at maths, but I’ve learned on the job. We use algebra sometimes. Once you have gone through it a couple of times with someone who can explain it, you get the hang of things. It’s a different kind of maths. I’m amazed now at how much I can actually do with algebra. It’s practical and useful.”

Asked what she enjoys most about scaffolding Maggie says, “Definitely the challenge …and the hard work.” That’s what has earned her the respect of her co-workers. It’s about trust and being comrades. “You rely on each other. It’s a crew atmosphere. You make some great friendships in this industry.”