Tom hero

On the right track

HIA Apprentice Tom Payton is a big supporter of learning a trade as a career path.


Ian Bushnell 

The builders of the future may be sitting in a classroom studying the wrong subjects, pitched at maximising university entrance scores, and oblivious to the possibility an apprenticeship might offer.

Just ask Tom Payton from Dural, NSW, the 2019 HIA Jim Brookes Australian Apprentice (partnered by Stratco). Taking up a trade wasn’t even on the table at his school, where the emphasis was firmly placed on achieving university entry.

The 23-year-old was even advised to drop mathematics in Year 10, something he has remedied but still regrets to this day.

Tom left school with an impressive range of community and personal achievements – including a Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award, and walking the Kokoda Track twice to help raise funds for a PNG school – but without knowing what he wanted to do with his life, only that university wasn’t for him.

tom award
Tom Payton accepts his 2019 HIA Jim Brookes Australian Apprentice award from Warwick Keenan, Stratco Australia.

‘The careers adviser never brought up anything about an apprenticeship,’ he says. ‘It’s a bit of a shame, if it had been promoted as a genuine career path at school I would have gone straight into it.’

It’s an issue he’s passionate about, saying that getting young people involved in apprenticeships and training is one the biggest challenges the industry faces. 

As the industry grapples with building quality issues, Tom believes strengthening apprenticeships and beefing up courses will lift skill levels and reduce the chances of poor workmanship.

‘Don’t cut courses back and don’t take out things [apprentices] really do need to learn,’ he says.

Now completing his Certificate IV in Building and Construction, Tom says it took him a couple of years after school to understand the value of formal qualifications and the potential of an apprenticeship.

Sometimes what you’re looking for can be right under your nose, and that was the case with Tom. After working on farms for two years, he went labouring, sizing up apprenticeship possibilities such as plumbing and landscaping but eventually finding his calling when working for his builder neighbour.

tom onsite

Tom believes strengthening apprenticeships will lift skill levels 

Jacob Pullan, himself a HIA Apprentice, took Tom on as a carpentry apprentice and remains his supervisor and employer. 

Enthusiasm, a hunger to learn and a liking for timber held Tom in good stead but his maths came back to haunt him when working on areas such as roofing, and it has been one of his biggest challenges. 

‘It’s now something I’ve had to completely learn again, or more like completely learn. I wasn’t using the maths back then that I am now,’ he says. 

Tom started out working with renovations, extensions and new homes, and enjoyed the range of skills that carpentry required, from getting the job up and out of the ground to putting in floor frames and the framework for roofing.

But the learning curve became steeper, more exacting and exciting in Tom’s second year when Jacob took on commercial work for new client SGB Group. Their first job was a restaurant fit-out, Fratelli Fresh, owned by Rockpool Dining Group in Sydney.

Big crews, big hours and big jobs with tight deadlines. It’s fast and furious but the payoff includes new skills and learning how to maintain high standards under pressure.


It’s fast and furious but the payoff includes new skills and learning how to maintain high standards under pressure


Working for SGB Group, Jacob and his crew are part of a large team that travel all over from Byron Bay to Melbourne to transform empty shells, mostly in shopping centres, into restaurants, and have now built 20 venues with SGB for Rockpool across the east coast. 

Tom says he has had to learn to comply with different sets of codes and standards in the commercial setting, and tackle a new range of tasks from constructing Hebel walls to joinery, building bars to installing suspended fixtures, such as chandeliers. 

He worked with new materials including steel, cladding, glass, slabs and suspension rods. And while speed is of the essence, so is attention to detail and achieving a high-quality finish. 

Tom loves the camaraderie and finds it a rich learning experience with every type of trade represented in the regular team that goes from job to job.

But while the commercial work has its attractions, Tom wants to mix it up with residential, liking nothing more than nailing a good hard-wood floor or hanging a door.


He also sees too much waste in the commercial side compared with the more frugal residential sector, and believes there could be more reuse and recycling of materials. He managed to build two bars and DJ stage for a friend’s party from leftovers he had collected.

As in many industries, technology is having an impact, particularly among the coming generation of builders. Tom is no different, recently buying a laptop and drawing software to replace his drawing board, pencil and paper.

He also finds social media useful to follow new industry trends and knows many builders who use sites such as Instagram to win jobs and promote their work to a wider audience. ‘I follow a lot of building pages on Instagram as well as different product pages to get ideas,’ he says.

HIA has been a solid support and great resource for Tom, who has heard his share of horror stories from other apprentices. ‘It’s really good that they keep on top of things. I can call them whenever and I have a really good relationship,’ he says. ‘With HIA everything’s been taken care of, such as insurance.’

Tom will finish his apprenticeship in March 2020, and then will focus on getting supervisor experience and obtaining his builder’s licence. Long-term he wants to run his own business but he is also drawn to aid work in countries, such as earthquake-hit Nepal where he has travelled, or helping to construct hospitals or aid centres for organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), in disaster and conflict zones.

Whatever Tom chooses to do, he is definitely going places. 


A strong leader

For host builder Jacob Pullan of JMP Building, it is Tom’s commitment and willingness to learn that stand him apart from other apprentices. Whatever areas he was lacking in, he has made up for it by going the extra distance to overcome those deficiencies, he says.

‘I told him, I’m happy to take you on and we’ll do the work and get you across the line,’ Jacob says. ‘He’s very committed to understanding and learning, that’s where this accolade’s come from – the fact that he didn’t know everything when he started but he was so keen to learn.’

Jacob has watched Tom grow and believes he will be able to do anything he sets his mind to. 

‘He’s already starting to pass down the things that he’s been taught to the first- and second-year apprentices coming through the com-pany now, which is awesome,’ Jacob adds.

For more information on hiring an apprentice through HIA’s Group Training Organisation (GTO), call HIA Apprentices on 1300 650 620 or


Enquire online

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