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Picture this. You’re surrounded by bush on the edge of craggy sea cliffs on the Tasman Peninsula, at the mercy of the weather, hours on foot away from the nearest camping ground and road to civilization.
This is your job site and you’ve just flown in by helicopter to work a demanding eight-day shift building off-grid eco-tourism lodges in the remote landscape of the Tasman National Park. All materials have to be flown in too, environmental considerations mean construction is constrained to a tight radius and amenities are basic (if not downright primitive).
For Jake Blokker, this is just one example of the varied and challenging experiences he has been exposed to while working as a carpentry apprentice for HIA member AJR Construct – and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
‘In winter it was tough, sometimes you [were up against] 100km winds and you froze in sideways rain. Those days you really earnt your pay,’ he laughs.
‘Every day was an adventure though, and you learnt a lot more than just your normal building skills.’
Growing up on a horticultural farm in northern Tasmania, the youngest of four children and the son of ‘flat out’ business owners, Jake says he was put to work early.
As a result, the 23-year-old dislikes being idle, and is always itching to get stuck into a new project.
During high school he tried work experience with a few different trades but it was building that intrigued him more than anything; he soon discovered it is outdoors on the tools, alongside a committed work crew and under a boss he describes as a ‘top bloke’ that he feels at home.
‘I fell in love with [construction] and got straight into it,’ he says. ‘I enjoy the fundamentals of a job, starting out on a new site. When you finish, you can see what you’ve accomplished and can say you helped to build that.’
AJR Construct specialises in high quality residential and commercial construction, often complex remote infrastructure projects. Jake’s portfolio now includes custom-built homes, heritage-listed and indigenous-sensitive buildings, civil construction, plus a long list of additional training to undertake the work, from medium rigid truck and forklift licenses to dogman training, remote first aid and training for rigging loads on helicopters.
He was going into his third year when ground broke on the Three Capes eco-tourism lodges. It’s a special project in his mind, he says, not only for its award-winning architecture but for the educational curve it represented.
‘I learnt about using different methods to mix and pour concrete, working safely from heights four metres above your head, assembling wall frames, roofing, cement sheet cladding and ply lining. I started to pick up more responsibility and learnt a lot in that process.’
Jake’s budding leadership skills and exceptional progress in all areas from workmanship to client communication, prompted his host Adam Ritson to nominate him into the HIA Apprentice Awards as a way of recognising his growth – something Adam had never done before for previous apprentices he had trained.
The judges were impressed with Jake’s motivation, his ability to lift the morale of his team members in challenging work environments, and his knack for bringing new ideas and performance solutions to the table. These qualities, among others, saw Jake named the 2020 HIA Jim Brookes Australian Apprentice. ‘I nearly fell off the ladder when I was told,’ he recalls. ‘I probably should have got down first! I was taken aback…I couldn’t believe it.’
Having just completed his fourth-year, Jake is currently working his way through his Certificate IV in Building and Construction, at the same time as being thrown more leadership opportunities from his employer. He has been given a few projects to oversee as site foreman, including a $1.2 million workshop project that requires supervising a small team and client liaison.
While at first daunted to have to switch from following directions to giving them, Jake says he is loving the challenge: ‘It keeps the mind ticking, having to manage your time. I’m always trying to pick up efficiencies in doing things and making sure everyone else is on the same page.’
With his sights set on moving up the ranks, he doesn’t want to go anywhere any time soon. A big part of what he loves about his job is the camaraderie: ‘It’s a really good crew here, I work with a few fellas I grew up with through high school and my older brother is here too. It’s an awesome place to work and the variety of jobs is unreal.’
Perhaps his exposure to out-of-the-ordinary building work has given Jake a taste for the complicated. He recently bought land in Devonport – which others would no doubt have declined to consider – to construct his passion project. ‘Some people think I was crazy buying such a steep block but I’m looking to build my dream house on top of the hill and beat the naysayers,’ he laughs.
With inspiration drawn from the Three Capes lodges, the design will entail lots of timber features, big windows to capture views and a large concrete cantilever floor to create more house and deck space. And in the little spare time he has outside of work and study, Jake plans to get the digger in the ground real soon – conveniently assisted by a quid pro quo arrangement with his brother.
‘He’s building his house at the moment, so I go over there and he’ll help me build too. We just help each other out,’ Jake says.
With that bucket list item underway, the next big milestone is obtaining a residential builder’s licence (at least to begin with): ‘I’ll work predominantly in residential, which I enjoy. You get a lot more client appreciation! [But] I love it all. It’s good to dabble in a bit of everything, from houses to civil work, to see how all ends of it work.’
Whatever Jake has planned next, he no doubt has a bright industry future ahead of him.