Mark Hands: What makes a successful life

Choosing a trade may not jump out as the first option for young people these days, but why? What are their expectations for their careers? Mark Hands will dive into these questions and more at the 2019 HIA Summit on 7 August.


Anne-Maree Brown

Mark Hands
Mark Hands, CEO of the Australian Industry Trade College

As the CEO of the Australian Industry Trade College, Mark Hands’ idea of what constitutes success differs quite dramatically from his peers in education circles. His answer would not be measured in scores or grades, but would consist of something far more important – character. 

He should know, after all he took a road less travelled himself and has the life lessons to prove it. Back in the mid-80s, 18- year-old Mark, with healthy grades under his belt, made the well-worn decision to go straight into university. In an era when our knowledge of human biological science was in its infancy he selected to pursue a career as a biochemist, in fact a molecular geneticist. Yes, Mark says with a laugh, he can clone.

His teachers were pleased, his parents confident he was establishing a comfortable career, surely he was on the path to what our secular society would consider a successful life. But by the age of 21 Mark knew something wasn’t right.

‘I looked around at people well established in their life and career, but I noticed they weren’t happy, I could see my life heading that way too and I knew I had to make a change,’ Mark says.

‘One day I looked out at workers on Brisbane’s Story Bridge and thought to myself, I need to get out and discover what I really love to do,’ he says.


Shortly thereafter he met up with a friend working as a foreman during the building of Southbank’s Lyric Theatre. Enamoured by the energy and dynamism he saw in front of him the young scientist in the making made the decision to turn his academic hat over to a hard hat and become an apprentice carpenter.

Fast-forward to today Mark has told this story to a large number of young people in his educational care, especially to those who have been led to believe that the only mark of success is academic. As CEO of AITC, Mark proudly leads the charge towards the college becoming ground breakers, shifting the focus to industry-based real world learning. A college where Year 10, 11 and 12 students complete their senior education and start their school-based paid apprenticeships in the trade of their choice. 

AITC started more than a decade ago when Mark was approached by a group of industry leaders, who had the inspired idea that there was something missing in developing the next generation of trade professionals. With a background in the building industry, and a foray into school principal leadership, Mark was the perfect fit to champion their passion and AITC was born. 

But changing the conversation that university isn’t the only path to success wasn’t an easy message to deliver. In fact, his first detractors came from an unusual place, from the students themselves. ‘I’ll never forget the day I walked into a classroom of 15 year olds, and one said “Mr Hands we feel like second class citizens, we get given all the scraps, teachers just want to keep us dumb kids entertained,”’ Mark says.

‘It was so important to let these young people know there is more than just academic intelligence, what about spatial, emotional, technical intelligence,’ he says. ‘Australian parents and schools are enamoured with academic success leading to university as the only worthwhile destination, it’s just so limiting and anaemic.’

When asked what AITC do differently, Mark explains they educate with industry skills in mind. When they teach mathematics for example, it’s contextual to their working life. It’s mathematics that relates to tax, salaries, designing and building a home and budgeting. The response from the students is proof that it works. ‘Suddenly, the students say to us, they love maths, it never made sense before and now it does,’ he says.

AITC started with the idea that there was something missing in developing the next generation of trade professionals


Another proof point is that compared to the 50 per cent of university graduates that struggle to find full time work, 90 per cent of AITC students secure and maintain full time work on completion of their studies. This is in part a measure of teaching with industry needs in mind, but also AITC’s focus on developing strength of character.

'We look for and guide our students to be proud of what they can achieve without judging them academically. Point me to a young person who knows how to listen, respect, is self-driven, and willing to work – now that is a sign of a great employee,' says Mark.

‘But there is more to it, we have to let young people fail, as parents and educators we need to realise that true grit comes from the journey and the risks you take and the mistakes you make along the way. Mistakes teach resilience and stamina,’ he says.

Mark recalls a 15-year-old student who came into class wanting to be a mechanic, he’d had an accident and only had one leg.

‘He looked me straight in the eye and said “give me 18 months and you won’t see me as the one-legged kid” and he was right,’ Mark says.

‘His life had taught him the strength to overcome challenges. That student now works as a respected mechanic with a V8 supercar team.

‘His experiences served him greater than any academic achievement would.’

At AITC, Mark may not be able to create an army of bioengineered clones, but he knows how to create the next generation of employees the industry needs. Perhaps the power of one is mightier than many.

To hear more from Mark Hands on the topic of educating towards the future of industry, join us at the HIA Building Better Cities Summit in Melbourne, 7 August.


Register your spot

Employer Introduction to AITC

Related Articles

Dedicated and distinguished

Two of HIA’s distinguished employees and members have received Australian awards – congratulations to Glenn Simpson and Bruce Langford-Jones.

Ahead of the pack

Smart home technology is giving this HIA member an edge in a competitive housing market.

Positive change

Builder Dave Martin is focused on bringing positive change to the built environment, and is aiming for all his sites to be zero waste by 2020.

When the darkness ends

Anthea Comerford, 33, is a national training manager in the automotive industry, a published author and a speaker for Beyond Blue, but she nearly didn’t make it to 24.

Join more than 120,000 like-minded subscribers