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Giving regional job seekers a lift into work

A lack of skilled workers has led Port Augusta crane operator Max Services to start an academy to train up its own staff as well as uplift industry across South Australia.

Jul 18, 2023, updated Jan 31, 2024
Max Service's Port Augusta depot crew, one of six depots across the state. Photo: Supplied

Max Service's Port Augusta depot crew, one of six depots across the state. Photo: Supplied

The company, founded in 2002 as Max Cranes with three cranes and four staff, has grown to become a major regional employer with 250 staff, 90 cranes, 13 prime movers, 34 trailers and six depots.

Company co-founder Mark Kuhn said they have succeeded in becoming a significant player in the mining, industrial and power sectors across South Australia and Victoria because of their staff.

He said they recruit and train employees with a focus on providing pathways through the company.

“We’ve been striving for a long time now to be an employer of choice,” Kuhn said.

“We value our people, they’re our key asset and we do a lot of personal development and career development with our staff through our Max Academy, which we’ve been doing for a couple of years now.

“We’re the only one in Australia that is training its own people in-house, offering certificate three and certificate four in mobile crane operation.”

Kuhn said the academy was born out of frustration in not being able to find “walk-up start”, quality employees in regional areas, but the spin-off has been the creation of a solid pathway program for job seekers.

“We treat it more like an apprenticeship rather than just a short course where you might grab a high-risk licence and get out on a crane and you might do good or you might do bad,” he said.

“We’re really giving them a broad experience through our mechanical workshops and various sites, so you can be an apprentice diesel mechanic, a crane technician, a crane driver, truck driver, rigging person or go through the administration and management stream.

“There are lots of choices and it’s unusual in the regions for large companies to offer that diversity of training themselves.”

Some of those one-time job starters are now working on Max Services’ 1200 tonne capacity hydraulic/mobile crane, used mainly for wind tower maintenance.

It is the largest mobile crane in Australia, and it is currently enroute to BHP’s Olympic Dam site to assist in a major component change out.

“We’ll be working on the Clark shaft winder changeout, so that will be a very high-profile job for us,” Kuhn said.

“Without that winder, the mine doesn’t work.

“And we love nothing more than to see some of our young people, who might have started with us 10-12 years ago, now operating the largest mobile crane in Australia, doing this vital work.

“That’s very satisfying to see.”

Meeting demand

Kuhn and two other co-founders began the company when they saw a gap in the market while working on the former detention centre just outside the Spencer Gulf town.

Having started in business in the Barossa Valley, then Perth, Kuhn soon realised there was a need in Port Augusta and set about filling the gap.

“The strategy was always to try and get as much of the market as we could,” he said.

“The growth has been quite organic over the 21 years, purely through opportunity with expansion through the mining, industry and power sectors.”

Almost three-quarters of the Max Services business is now contracted to “six or seven major players in SA in mines and industrial and gas”.

Far from being content with what the company has built up, Kuhn said he and his management team were “forever looking for an opportunity” to complement existing services, and it has certainly paid off.

Contracts at Prominent Hill and Carrapateena mines, now run by BHP, the Whyalla steelworks and its various industries including shipping, work at Port Pirie’s Nyrstar, and one of the largest contract operators in oil and gas at Santos’ Cooper Basin operation at Moomba, has set them well on track.

Max Services was also involved in the recently completed Whyalla to Port Lincoln power line construction and is currently in Mildura working on the SA to New South Wales power interconnector.

“What the people in our company have achieved makes me very proud,” Kuhn said.

“If there are any young people out there that are looking to get themselves a solid career in the industry, that is quite well-paid and well-regulated, make contact with us.

“We’re always employing, always looking to improve, and the business is growing fast.”

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