Above: Ethan photographed at the 2020 Water New Zealand Association Conference in Hamilton.
Ethan Keith’s life has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, from sporting highs to addiction lows, and now he’s working hard to make things better for himself and his family. He talks to Mary Searle Bell about his story.
As a high schooler, Ethan’s life looked promising. Not one for academia, he dropped out young to follow his sporting dreams. He played rugby league at a semi-professional level for a highly successful North Island team before moving to Australia to join a development team for the Canberra Raiders.
However, his league ambitions didn’t take him any further, and with a partner and children to care for, he returned to New Zealand still a young man.
Ethan got a job with a concrete laying firm, but things started to spiral downwards when he began abusing drugs and alcohol. He hit the bottom, undergoing rehab during a short stint in prison.
Ethan knew that he needed to do something to get his life back on track, not just for his own sake, but for that of his family.
When he was released from prison in late 2018 he joined Downer as a general hand on a 10-month contract on a pilot for its Te Whanake ki ti Ora Programme, which provides guidance and support through the delivery of a holistic health model encompassing family, physical, mental and spiritual health for those of Maori descent.
His initial role with Downer saw him working on the Shared Pathways project in Horowhenua. This project involved the construction of a 2.5-metre-wide trail network connecting the major communities and attractions in the district. It links together existing paths and trails and provides access for cyclists, runners and walkers to coastal reserves, rivers, mountains and lakes.
“When my contract ended, I was given the opportunity to move to the civil infrastructure side of things and I grabbed the opportunity.
“That was three years ago now, and I’ve been pipelaying mainly – water and sewer – and have really enjoyed it.
“The team here is excellent and the morale in the crew is great.”
At the time of our interview, Ethan and his team were in the middle of laying a water main and constructing a road crossing to take water from the mains pipe to residences on the street.
“I particularly enjoy the variety this job gives me – one day you’re digging a trench, the next you’re removing redundant water mains or laying pipes or driving trucks. Every day is different. I’m always learning new skills from my workmates.”
Ethan says he particularly enjoys the planning side of things, things like organising vehicle movement plans and truck management plans.
“Ten months ago, I started studying for my Level three Civil Works and Infrastructure certificate. I’ve finished my first module and am on track to finish the second in the next couple of weeks.
“I’m really enjoying it, which came as a bit of a surprise. I was never good at studying at school – I thought rugby league would be my life.”
Ethan’s efforts to turn his life around and his dedication to his new career has not gone unacknowledged. Last year Downer nominated him for the 2020 Water New Zealand Trainee of the Year award, citing his self-motivation and enthusiasm for his new role.
The application states: “His natural leadership skills means he has quickly moved into a support role for the crew foreman. He is well respected by his peers, and he’s the ‘go to’ man for most of the paperwork.”
Ethan was stoked to win the award; “I’m doing something I never saw myself doing and I’m really enjoying it.
“I’d like to continue expanding my knowledge in the civil industry – there’s so much more than just pipes.
“My ambition is to get off the ground. I’m confident I could take up a supervisory role in the future.
“I am very grateful to have people around me that allow me to feel confident about my ambitions. And outside of work, the support of my partner and children are key factors to my success.
“I’m happy to say I’m staying away from drugs/alcohol and have been sober for three years now.”
As for Downer, it has seen excellent results from its recruitment drive that saw Ethan join the team.
The company says it needed to address an aging employee demographic and skill shortages in its recruitment and retention plans.
Ethan’s particular programme, Te Whanake ki te Ora, is for new employees who self-disclose they may be at risk of drug or alcohol use, and are supported to remain drug free through counselling, random drug tests, lifestyle workshops, a buddy system, celebrations, and family involvement.
This programme is supplementary to Whakatipu Tetekura, a Downer initiative for school leavers of Maori descent at risk of becoming NEETs, (not in education, employment or training).
Downer considers the programme a win-win solution. It provides employment for individuals who may have challenges gaining and maintaining sustainable employment, and the business gets loyal, committed, productive employees.
As for Ethan, he’s thrilled his life is back on track and he’s found a career he enjoys.
This article is published in the May 2021 issue of Contractor Magazine.