Lessons in life can spring from the most improbable sources. The legendary guitarist Les Paul never forgot one he’d had as a small boy.
A road workman on a lunch break fascinated him by playing lively tunes on his harmonica. Suddenly the workman stopped and handed young Les the harmonica, saying, “Here, you have a go.”
Les shyly declined, mentioning he couldn’t play. The workman jumped up angrily and shouted, “Never say you can’t until you prove you can’t!” He handed him the harmonica again and said, “Now, Play!”
Young Les modestly complied, fumbling away making awkward sounds from the instrument. The workman, now more kindly, took the harmonica back from him and said, “All right, son. You’ve proved you can’t play at the moment. It don’t mean you can’t ever play. Always remember that, kid. Never say you can’t until you prove you can’t.”
Les did always remember, and applied it to everything he tackled in life. The harmonica was the first musical instrument that he mastered, but he was destined for much greater things as an innovator with the guitar.
As a teenager, I’d read this story in one of those Readers Digest features called something like, “My most unforgettable moments”. It stayed with me because Les Paul’s amazing guitar performances had made him an idol of mine. I started to include it in my own life because it sounded pretty good. How do we know we can’t, if we don’t prove we can’t?
In my tourism career, I found it a useful way of addressing problems. In Sydney during the late 60s, South Australian Tourist Bureau did very well out of interest in the semi-desert and desert areas of the Flinders Ranges and Central Australia. But one problem was that tourist services were virtually confined to the winter months from April to September. The climate could be quite severe in the summer months, and air-conditioning was not then commonplace.
Yet many people, because of their employment or business, could only travel in the summer months. I negotiated for some time with tour operators before one took the plunge with an Ayers Rock- Alice Springs tour ex Adelaide starting from Boxing Day. It required a little adaption such as air-conditioned vehicles and avoiding much travel through the middle of the day. But it could be done. The tour was oversubscribed, leading to another departure. That operator expanded the following season and other tour operators offered services after that success.
It was more daunting for the Birdsville and Strzelecki Tracks and Simpson Desert areas. Even during the winter months, only four-wheel drive vehicles could be used and great care had to be exercised. One ‘regular’ couple that had grown to love desert areas had a long ambition to tour there, but could only travel during December-January. Again I lobbied various operators before one agreed to try it. My couple were among the first to book in what became a successful, in-demand tour.
They could not contain their joy when they returned to tell me about it. He developed a shocking sun skin cancer on the forehead but felt that it was a small price for what was the trip of a lifetime. I tried to bring that attitude to my later career in employment counselling, never say you can’t, until you prove you can’t.
I received just such a challenge at Portland when Bev came to see me. She was seeking Labour Market Program (LMP) assistance to do a two-year travel course. I should mention that the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) could only approve LMP assistance for course durations of up to one year. Anything longer had to be recommended and approved by me. As it turned out, it was singularly appropriate that it went to me.
Bev had no problem meeting the eligibility requirements for assistance. She was in her late twenties and had a most unusual background. As a qualified chef, her employment future had seemed assured until an unusual accident at home in Melbourne. She fell off a stool while doing some repairs at home. From the subsequent head injuries she had a stroke. After rehabilitation, and parental support in her native town of Portland, she had made a partial recovery, but had a permanent paralysis of her right side – arm and leg. She got around with a walking stick and had learned other things such as writing with her left hand.
Being used to her own independence, Bev was determined to return to work. She could never return to cooking because of the heavy work shifting pots, plus the general agility now denied her with the right side paralysis. So she looked at retraining for work as a travel consultant where her disability would not be a major problem.
This was the dilemma for me. She could have remained on disability pension for the rest of her life, but she wanted to work and deserved to be encouraged. Yet coming from the travel industry myself, I knew immediately that it was unsuited to her. She was an introvert personality. She had no clerical/administrative background.
Without exceptional motivation, it was hard to see how she could adapt. Part of my recommendation was based around the prospects of her getting employment after completing the course. I just couldn’t see it happening in Bev’s case.
On the other hand, I felt that whatever I did, I should not say to her that she can’t do it. She ought to be encouraged, but the challenge was to get her going in a vocational direction that would be beneficial. Instead, I asked her why she had decided to do a travel training course. Her answer was startling and enlightening. She had been determined to work again as she recovered. Whatever she tried to do, she’d always been told it was not possible. Finally, she’d received a lot of encouragement from a social worker. She suggested the Travel course to Bev.
The choice was inappropriate in my view. But it was understandable that, having been given no encouragement to that point, she should snatch at that option. I had formed quite different ideas based on my experience in rehabilitation. I believed that it was easier to make the transition to a new career if you could draw on the knowledge and experience of your existing trade or occupation.
For example, I’d had considerable success with former building industry tradespeople (plumbing, bricklaying, carpentry, painting) by placing them in hardware store retail sales. Their particular knowledge was a major sales asset for the hardware stores’ primary client group of home handymen/renovators. Often the essential need of these customers was the knowledge/advice of how to address a problem or an emergency. The sales of recommended products followed from that advice.
I’d encouraged other injured tradespeople into getting TAFE training qualifications so that they could teach or assess/test apprentices. These methods lessened the amount of learning needed to enter a new occupation, while drawing on areas of knowledge in which they were competent. My idea with Bev was that such a pathway would make it a little easier to achieve her goal of useful employment.
The trick was how to bring her around to this idea without discouraging her. What I had in mind was something like an Advanced Certificate in Hospitality, which was essentially about kitchen management in a hotel or restaurant. It took in such things as planning menus and supplies, arranging services, training apprentices and kitchen-hands plus specialty things such as nutrition, diet and hygiene. It would still require her to develop additional skills, but in the context of advancing on her existing knowledge and skills.
South West TAFE at Warrnambool had a School of Hospitality and Tourism, which was ideal for what I had in mind. It had options of courses in travel/tourism and hospitality/cookery. I said that, for a start, I’d prefer that she do a course locally (the one she’d originally nominated was in Melbourne) so that she still had parental/family support. She agreed with the sense of that, and I said I’d set up an interview with the Head of that school.
I rang him to discuss setting up an interview with Bev. I explained the background and where I was hoping to take it, bearing in mind that I did not want to discourage her. He proved remarkably sympathetic, having a brother with a major disability. He said that he’d show her right through the department and what each course did and led to. He was confident it would be enough information for her to decide for herself and he looked forward to her becoming a student there. I contacted Bev and arranged her transport to Warrnambool for the interview.
A few weeks later, she saw me again about getting training assistance to do the Advanced Certificate in Hospitality. It was a two-year course, just as the travel one was. I happily arranged the recommendation/approval for this course, including the daily commuting bus transport from Portland. I left it to my new friend at TAFE to arrange whatever modifications might have been needed to allow Bev to cope physically.
I still feigned innocence on the whole thing, and I asked her what had changed her mind about her choice of course.
She replied, “Oh, I realized after I went over there that a travel certificate was a stupid choice and that this one made a lot more sense.”
Although I had manipulated the situation a little, I had left the ultimate decision up to her. I was glad she’d reached that conclusion.
I saw her at the end of the year at Warrnambool, when there had to be a renewal of her training assistance program for the second year. She had passed the first year requirements comfortably, and was satisfied with the course she’d selected. The only change was that she’d decided to relocate to Warrnambool for the second year. The daily travel (one hour each way) had been a bit tiring with her disability.
She gained her qualification. I next saw her was a year or two later at Hamilton. I was visiting the Wool Bales, which was a tourism project at Hamilton organized by Yooralla to employ people with severe disabilities. Bev had been recruited (in the ‘open market’) to supervise and train people with disabilities to prepare meals and food for visiting tourists. She seemed very comfortably in her element, training and supervising disability trainees in this work. Visitors to the Wool Bales greatly valued the quality of the food output. The trainees adored Bev as she hobbled about the kitchen barking out instructions.
I felt a sense of satisfaction not just at the end result but also that I’d had contact with her at all CES offices in this region that I served, starting at Portland, then Warrnambool and finally Hamilton.
It seemed to reinforce to me that where at all possible, you should not close off options to a person seeking to enter or re-enter the workforce. In many cases what they want to do may be a pointless dream, but it should not be up to us to deny them that hope. Rather, by questioning, logical inferences and examples we should encourage people to reach their most achievable goal.
With Bev, I could have justified rejecting her application for training assistance on the grounds that firstly she may not be capable of completing the travel course, and secondly that completion alone would not lead to employment. But of what benefit to her in her efforts to find work? Yet if I had merely approved it on the basis of ‘doing something’ it could have led to similar disappointment. I needed to find a way of not refusing her, but opening up other possibilities. Then she could more easily commit to her own best interests.
My political hero was Don Dunstan, who for a while was also my boss when SA Tourism became part of the Premiers Department. Although he did not consciously adopt an attitude identical to Les Paul’s workman, it was similar but just expressed differently.
When faced with urgently needed reforms, whether from decriminalizing homosexuality to imposing a deposit on beverage containers, Dunstan would always ask the question, “Well, why not?”
If he couldn’t give a rational answer to that, then he’d do something about it. The political difficulty was not an issue. Should it be, he would work on bringing opponents around to it. What mattered was whether it was right or needed to be done. It does require political courage. Other states have buckled at drink container reform just as soon as the selfish beverage lobby turned up the heat on them. But what is right is often more important than what is politically safe to do.
Who would have thought that the outlook of a road works laborer from 90 years ago could still resonate? It does seem a good approach to life.