Learning new tricks

Following his teenage dream, Simon Russell proves it’s never too late for a career change.


Ian Bushnell

Simon Russell isn’t your average apprentice. For a start he’s a 41-year-old family man from a background far removed from the building industry. But that hasn’t stopped the former public servant from Canberra resurrecting his teenage dream of being a carpenter and collecting a prestigious national award in the process: the 2018 HIA Jim Brookes Australian Apprentice of the Year award partnered by Stratco.

Presented to him in Singapore in May at the HIA–CSR Australian Housing Awards, the award capped a five-year journey, which had its risks but proved that you can change your life if ready to make the commitment.

Three years ago Simon swapped environmental policy at the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) for a building site, retrieving his original career aspirations as a 17-year-old. These had come to nothing when he couldn’t find a host employer in his home town of Shepparton, in northern Victoria.

Instead he followed his parents’ advice to try university instead, gaining a degree in environmental policy at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). But the hankering for the tools never really left him and after about eight years at the MDBA the father of three found himself questioning his future there.

‘As a family we decided to stay in Canberra, it’s the perfect place to raise kids. So I said to myself “I better make some changes now before it’s too late”,’ Simon says.

Nevertheless, with kids and a mortgage it took a couple of years before he finally made the break, with the full backing of his wife.

Owen says Simon was always hungry to learn and is a good communicator

‘She’s been a massive support, she said go for it. Financially it was a backward step but one we were prepared to take for happiness and doing what you want,’ Simon says.

He found a host, The Smart Housing Building Group in Fyshwick, and approached HIA for advice.

‘I wanted HIA involved because of the support and employment security they provide,’ he says.

‘They facilitate the training and I thought that was a good idea, particularly when you’re not sure of the industry yourself. I was pretty keen to have that support. I think that’s a massive benefit particularly when builders are so busy already.’

Simon was nominated for the award by his host and now current employer Owen Scott for displaying great communication on site, taking pride in his work and always completing jobs to a high standard.

But it wasn’t a seamless transition from the public service desk to worksite.

‘It was a massive shock. I didn’t even know what to wear. I didn’t have a clue,’ he says about his first day working on a pergola.

One of the biggest challenges was feeling the competitive pressure of working with much younger apprentices whose hand skills were superior and who have grown up around the trade, but Simon believes his maturity helped him negotiate those early times. Simon says although he was thrown into work such as renovations and extensions, it took him about 18 months for things to really click – not to mention getting used to those frosty early winter starts in Canberra.

Simon Russell

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By his third year everything started coming together, and the lessons from Owen Scott on attention to detail, discipline and learning from his mistakes were sinking in.

Simon recalls the first time Owen gave him the responsibility to build a deck. ‘I think that’s where trust and confidence started,’ he says.

The highlights of his final year included successfully building a Japanese-style outdoor area and granny flat.

Simon says his boss had drilled into him the importance of being methodical and attention to detail. You get that right at a foundation stage and you’re away. Carry that through and your build is going to be of a high standard,’ he says.

Simon says his goal continued to be building his work speed without sacrificing quality.

Owen says Simon was always hungry to learn and is a good communicator but coming from a different work culture was a challenge.

‘Getting him to have confidence and learn from his mistakes was a big thing. Once he got through that he was fantastic,’ he says.

He says Simon’s maturity showed in his reliability, the way he earned respect and the fact that he was a good listener.

‘Knowing that he’s there to better himself and have a change in career, that’s a pretty big call on Simon’s behalf and I was happy to see him succeed,’ Owen says.

Simon is now working towards his builder’s licence so he can eventually start his own business doing what he loves – building people’s dreams.

‘I know people who say I wish I could have done that. Well you can but there’s obviously sacrifices you’ve got to make’

‘I really love being able to transform a house for someone. To see the client go through this process where there’s dust and dirt everywhere and it comes up to what they’ve envisaged, I think that’s why I love being a builder,’ he says.

Simon sees building techniques changing in the industry with more elements pre-cast and manufactured off-site, and commercial methods being applied in the residential sector.
‘You look at 3D printing. That could completely change the industry. Modular homes are already starting to happen,’ he says.

Already he has worked with a range of diverse materials such as plastics, foam, renders, brick, floating slabs, steel and aluminium.

He’ll never be able to look at his own home in the same way as before his apprenticeship.

‘I put in a kitchen before I became an apprentice and I look back now and go “no, I’ve got to rip that out and start again”,’ he says.

Employing his own apprentices is definitely part of his business plan. ‘That’s what you’ve got to do in this industry, and I think you get a lot out of seeing young people coming through the system,’ he says.

And the not so young too. Simon would encourage anyone to do what he has done as a mature apprentice ‘if that’s what you’re into, your passion’.

‘I know people who say I wish I could have done that. Well you can but there’s obviously sacrifices you’ve got to make,’ he says.

And those 6am winter wake-ups are just part of the routine now.

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