When Kim Nikolai transferred out to Civvy Street, after 35 years in the Army, he expected to take a year off, kick up his heels and go exploring.
But after numerous overseas tours, to hotspots in the Middle East, as well as humanitarian trips to Fiji and Cambodia, he was itching to get back to work.
Within weeks Kim was offered a job with Cranecorp Australia, one of the biggest mobile crane companies on the west coast, and he has spent the past few weeks touring the company’s main operating centres in Kalgoorlie, the Pilbara, Mid-West and South West, getting a feel for the challenges of the job and working conditions in some of the State’s most remote mining regions.
Kim joins a growing team of veterans who are finding their niche and helping fill a shortage of skill and experience in Western Australia’s busy crane industry.
Cranecorp CEO Rod White said veterans were often highly trained, with valuable experience in scheduling, logistics and mechanical trades, that were in strong demand in the crane industry.
“We are experiencing a significant skilled labour shortage at the moment and it is hard to find people of the calibre to meet our standards,” Rod said.
“It is amazing that veterans struggle to find jobs after they leave the military but they often don’t realise they have readily transferrable skills.
“More importantly, their discipline and methodical approach to work is a really good fit in industries like ours where rigid safety and compliance standards are a core part of the job – they work as a team, give and take clear instructions, follow processes, respect authority and take responsibility for their own actions.”
Cranecorp has eight ex-military employees from Army, Navy and even the New Zealand SAS, and is keen to take on more. They are part of a diverse, multinational team of more than 200 that includes female crane operators and maintenance apprentices, Indigenous trainees and corporate partners from Aboriginal enterprise, and staff who have migrated to Australia from around the globe.
“We haven’t set out to recruit for diversity, we simply take on the best people for the job. If you do that with an open mind in this country, you are sure to get a variety,” Rod said.
“Some companies plan for reverse discrimination, to reach targets, but if you do that you can’t be sure of getting the best candidates for the job.
“We continuously invest in our people because it is their attitude and skill that gives the business an edge in a competitive industry like ours. Our people make all the difference – otherwise the only differentiators you have is to buy bigger, more expensive cranes, or compete on price.
“Technology and systems play a huge part in giving you a competitive edge but finding the right people is really important. It was tough before COVID hit and the borders closed. It has been even harder since then to find people with the right attitude.
“I’m surprised because crane operators and riggers are well paid but for some reason it doesn’t attract people into the industry. For that reason, Cranecorp is developing more apprenticeships and we have our own training and leadership programs in place.”
The company saw strong similarities in Kim’s skills as an Army logistician with the requirements of a construction fleet controller juggling manpower, equipment and vehicle schedules with military precision and regimented operations and safety procedures.
A looming 50th birthday was the catalyst for a rethink and a recharge.
“Mentally I was ready to do something new,” he said. “I expected to be working for at least another 10 years and I wanted something that was completely different.
“I had taken time off to care for my terminally ill mother on the Sunshine Coast and my sister, who is a Police Officer in Queensland, convinced me it was the right time to move out of Defence.”
“On the spur of the moment, I decided to move to WA. It was the only state I hadn’t lived in. A sea change sounded great and my son, who is in real estate, suggested I look at the great property prices south of Perth.
“I had a month to discharge so I bought a house sight unseen at Wannanup, near Mandurah, and moved in during COVID quarantine.
“It’s a full-on job. There are ten things on the go at once and never a dull moment – where I come from, I like that.
“The military runs on roles and regulations and, although you are not working to make a dollar, the processes are very similar.
“The company has been incredibly supportive and the training has been exceptional.”
Kim and Cranecorp are supported by Working Spirit, a not-for-profit employment service run by veterans for veterans. The group promotes veteran employability and talent while helping individuals manage the stresses of finding meaningful employment and adjusting back to mainstream life outside of the ADF.
“I love Defence. It has been my life for 35 years but I really love what I’m doing now and I have to pinch myself each day to believe it,” said Kim.
A keen cyclist, Kim stays fit by working out in the gym or riding up to 50 kilometres a day on his road bike.