Talk to almost anyone senior in the workforce and they will tell you a story about the entitled millennials on their staff – apparently, these youngsters want to run the show, aren’t actually that keen on working, and have attitudes that could do with a swift adjustment. At the other end of the scale, we have an ageing industry full of hard-working old guys, who would rather drop dead on the job than retire, who seem reluctant to or incapable of finding someone to take over the management of their business.
As with most things, the truth of the situation is somewhere in the murky grey area between the two. A new company in the industry is a case in point. The Digger Collective and its partner business Hustle NZ have been set up by a pair of young men, and their way of doing things is very 21st century. Keegan Webster started his career as a carpenter just five years ago at the age of 18. Having grown up around machinery, he was able to drive excavators, tractors, and the like.
“I told my boss, ‘if you ever need digger work done, hire a digger and I’ll drive it’.” Keegan then bought a “cheap old Bobcat” and started supplementing his carpentry work with digger jobs over the weekends.
“I got busier, so I bought a slightly newer digger and an old truck,” he says. “I then hired a friend of a friend to help operate. He started on a casual contract but then I offered him a retainer, and we grew from there.”
Next came the five tonner, and then an eight tonne excavator. By this time, Keegan had quit carpentry and had begun to use his project management degree to supervise commercial construction projects.
“When I got off the tools, I found I had more time during the day. I was able to take calls and run my own business on the side. My boss was happy for me to do this as my contracting business would help out with his projects.”
However, Keegan finally reached the stage where he had to focus on his own business, so he decided to go out on his own, with his company Gold Class Excavations. Meanwhile, Keegan’s friend, Simon Long, had set up a labour hire business named The Labour Collective. It had quickly grown from a couple of capable workers to a pool of 30. The pair could see synergies between the two businesses and decided to merge, renaming the contracting business The Digger Collective, and the labour hire business Hustle NZ.
“Once the synergy was there, we were able to take the best guys in the labour industry and train them up to be competent in the civil industry. We pick out the keenest ones and start them on small diggers, rollers, and site dumpers and they work their way up through the bigger machinery, getting the appropriate certification along the way. “Working together has pushed both businesses ahead,” says Keegan.
Based in Auckland, The Digger Collective now has a team of 27 ground crew, and covers the entire region. It is working on a number of significant projects, including the Southern Corridor Improvements on State Highway 1 for CPB Contractors, and is also currently building a large landfill cell for Waste Management NZ.
While The Digger Collective continues to grow steadily, Keegan and Simon are currently focussed on their labour hire business.
In true millennial style, the pair are turning the labour hire game on its head by setting up a digital model – cutting paperwork and bureaucracy, and thereby saving time and money. “The labour hire industry uses many tedious manual processes – paper timesheets and so on – and as a result is slow, labour intensive, and prone to errors,” says Keegan. “We started building an app to disrupt the status quo – to make it faster to find work or find workers.” By using the Hustle app on their phone, workers fill in digital timesheets, eliminating lost, wet, or delayed paper copies. A geolocation service in the app allows employers to see when their workers show up on site – and whereabouts, which is helpful when project sites are large.
Also, by being digital, payroll and invoicing are automated, eliminating the time and people needed for data entry. “We’ve essentially created the Uber of the labour hire industry,” explains Keegan. Currently Hustle has 80 workers on its books. Each of them has been screened and vetted – all the usual: license checks, police checks, drugs and alcohol screening, reference checks, etc – and are certified and able to do the jobs they have signed up for. Those signing on as digger or dump truck operators also have their skills behind the controls tested.
“Joining Hustle is simple,” says Keegan. “You just download the app and sign up. We then get in contact and start the verification process.”
At present, Hustle has four categories of workers – general labourers, hammer hands, carpenters, and machinery operators – but this will expand as the business grows.
Job vacancies are posted to the Hustle app daily by clients – for example, says Keegan, a contractor might want five labourers for a couple of months. Those signed up to Hustle are able to simply click ‘accept’ on the job vacancy and they’ve got the job. “You can’t accept a job you’re not qualified for,” explains Keegan. “So, those that are qualified as a general labourer and digger operator could take jobs in either category, while someone who’s only verified as a labourer can only accept labourer jobs.” Once the worker has clicked accept, all the necessary details about the job pop up – things like site address, contact person, emergency contact, start and finish times, days on, and so on.
“The app will also prompt them before work is due to begin,” says Keegan. “They’ll get a notification on their phone saying something along the lines of, ‘work starts in 45 minutes, you should probably leave now’.” Not only is the process simpler for the clients and workers, management of Hustle is more streamlined than its old-school competitors. “Our culture and our outlook on business is what separates us from our competition,” says Keegan. “It’s a whole new business model.” “We are able to pay our labourers more, yet still charge them out at the same hourly rate as other labour hire businesses because we’re not wasting money on layers of middle management – the technology is doing so much of this work for us.”
Hustle was only a month old when Contractor spoke to Keegan in March, but it has quickly grown from a pool of 30 workers to 80, and the number continues to rise. “Being a tech business, we have to make our mark pretty quickly, so we could grow quite fast,” says Keegan.
As for the question of youth, as Keegan says, “we’re proving you don’t have to be old to have the necessary skills and experience to succeed in this industry.”