EMPLOYEE AWARD: Des Anderson is recognised for his contribution to the Woolgoolga to Ballinda project. INSET TOP: James Fonmosa. INSET BOTTOM: Des Anderson.
EMPLOYEE AWARD: Des Anderson is recognised for his contribution to the Woolgoolga to Ballinda project. INSET TOP: James Fonmosa. INSET BOTTOM: Des Anderson. RMS

First nations people paving road for others

NEARLY 10per cent of the workforce involved in the Pacific Highway upgrade identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

The upgrade is paving the way for the next generation of skilled workers and business owners are exceeding targets set under the NSW Government's Aboriginal Participation in Construction program.

With the construction at its peak, there are more than 3300 people working to finish the final stages of the 155km project, with 281 people or 9per cent of the workforce identifying as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.

Road and Maritime Services director of northern region John Alexander said more than $43million had been invested in Aboriginal participation on the Woolgoolga to Ballina upgrade, boosting the local economy and Aboriginal community while exceeding the target of 1.5per cent of total project spend.

"More than a third of Aboriginal workers on the project identify with one or two of the local Aboriginal nations of Gumbaynggir, Yaegl and Bundjalung,” he said.

"We know the benefits employment brings to an individual and the flow-on effect it can have on their family and their community.

"The 20-year Pacific Highway upgrade program has offered many employment opportunities for local Aboriginal people and continues to create a long-term skilled workforce in northern New South Wales.”

James Fonmosa is a proud Bundjalung man and a seventh-generation Aboriginal local from Fingal Head. He is also a business owner who is contracted to carry out earthworks on the Pacific Highway upgrade just north of Yamba.

"Down 2 Earth Earthworx has been operating for just over a decade focusing on civil construction, road infrastructure and land clearing,” he said.

"Personally, for me and the business, this is a massive achievement - to show our own people that you don't have to be anyone exciting or someone with a lot of money, you can get out and have a go.”

"Anyone's capable of doing this stuff, it's really important for me.

"Watching my mob and employees of mine develop, open up personally and have confidence in themselves - that's my main thing.

"What I learnt most being in this position is to work together: communication, safety and always looking out for each other during the day.

"The whole Pacific Highway upgrade, to see it finish is pretty exciting - not just one part of it, but the whole outcome.”

James Fonmosa
James Fonmosa RMS

Desmond "Des” Anderson is a local Aboriginal man from Cabbage Tree Island in northern NSW. He has worked in civil and building construction for about 20 years and currently works as a leading hand with Roads and Maritime subcontractor SEE Civil.

In this role, Des manages labourers and machinery as well as ensuring tasks are completed on schedule.

"There is a sense of accomplishment when completing a job, seeing it through from the beginning - such as clearing - until the first cars drive down the new road,” he said.

Des cites the high salaries available for skilled workers and managers in the construction sector as a key attraction, as they can provide a good lifestyle for families and build wealth within communities.

And for those planning to seek work on the project, he has firm advice.

"Just put yourself out there and don't be frightened to have a go,” Des said.

"Go after it and don't be shamed - just back yourself and have the confidence to be able to get in and do it, it's not that scary in the end.”

Des was recently recognised for his contribution to the Woolgoolga to Ballina project by receiving the Civil Contractors Federation of NSW Aboriginal Employee of the Year award, presented by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

Outside of work, Des is the coach of the Cabbage Tree Island Rugby League Football Club under 15s and open reserve teams that compete in the NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout.

"Even though life gets really busy, it's an awesome feeling to juggle my own work and the stuff that I do for the football club,” he said.

So far, 26km of new highway has been opened between Woolgoolga and Glenugie with major work underway on the remaining sections of the 155km corridor to Ballina.

More than 80 per cent of the $15 billion duplication of the Pacific Highway between Hexham and the Queensland border is complete.

The Pacific Highway upgrade is already achieving significant improvements in road safety: fatal crashes have halved, down from more than 40 each year to an average of 20 annually in recent years.

The Woolgoolga to Ballina upgrade will help save lives and reduce injuries, improve travel times, deliver efficiencies in freight movements and continue to contribute to regional growth and job creation when it opens to traffic in 2020.