Gorgeous Dunny makes a welcome return to The Pub with another of his wonderful Memoirs of a Country Employment Counsellor. As always, thank you very much, GD.
(Image Credit: My Opera)
Working for an interstate tourist office in Sydney was a great teacher. There are so many variables in what may go wrong concerning someone’s holiday bookings that you quickly learn a number of failsafe checks to put in place when confirming the booking in the first place.
Even so Murphy’s Law could apply: if anything can possibly go wrong, it will. In the pre-digital age, when Adelaide seemed and was a long distance from Sydney, mistakes could occur of which you might be entirely innocent. To Sydney customers, however, the only thing that matters is that their holiday got spoiled in some way and that they’d trusted you to get it right. They could be quite generous, but if they felt ripped off they could really go for the jugular.
The worst thing you could do, even if it was true, was to attempt to shift the blame by claiming someone in South Australia messed it up. So I quickly learned to put myself in the customer’s shoes, identifying how it would have upset them, and accept responsibility for the error. If you could make good in some way you did, but admission of error was the key to regaining client confidence. It served me well then and even better when I got to managerial level.
I was able to win over aggrieved people by this approach. Even on the rare occasions when it was an error by one of my staff, there was no way I’d hang that person out to dry. If you were being paid as Manager, I felt you were obliged to accept responsibility for your staff. (Afterwards in private might be a different thing and might warrant a boot just to make sure it didn’t happen again.) That approach was good for morale and responsibility, while still keeping the customer paramount.
By the time I got into counselling, that attitude was pretty well in my genes. Mistakes will occur, even by me. What matters more is accepting them and what you do to rectify the error or make amends.
The worst one I can remember occurred in the most innocent of ways. The Hamilton CES Manager approached me to help with a dilemma.
Thorntons, a Penshurst-based agricultural engineering company, was feeling the pinch with the collapse of the wool industry prices. With no new orders coming in, they needed to retrench staff. Even worse, although Thorntons were a good recruiter of apprentices, they wanted to terminate one of their apprentices after two years. The lad in question, David, had coped adequately with the first two years of his boiler-making apprenticeship, but the feeling was that he’d have trouble with the more demanding third and fourth years.
The Manager wanted me to see David to cushion the blow of losing his job, and to help in placing him in an alternative occupation. So I arranged to interview him at the CES to discuss the possibilities. I went over it fairly tactfully, especially the point that the employer did not feel that David would be able to complete the apprenticeship anyway.
I was keen to secure alternative employment for him and discussed some possibilities. Among those I was most hopeful for was to join the armed services. If he was capable, having two years apprenticeship training, he may be able to complete his trade occupation. Alternatively, if that was beyond him, he may be able to complete a less demanding metal trade such as fitting or welding. I gave him the Services brochures and arranged for a recruiting officer to see him on their next call at Hamilton.
David had been fairly quiet, but had generally seemed agreeable to where I was taking it. So I felt reasonably satisfied that I’d made a difficult task a little less painful. Thorntons were well regarded as an employer and it seemed reasonable to cooperate with them in lean times.
But it was not so simple. David’s mother rang the CES Manager the next day and was furious. She made it clear that David was not interested in joining the services. She felt even stronger about Thorntons’ role in the matter, believing that it was cynical to avoid their responsibility just because they were struggling. By this time I was talking to her.
She said that it was too late to be wondering if David could cope with the apprenticeship. He had been recruited in open competition, and all of his school records were given to Thorntons. It included all details of a learning disability he had had. So they should have known exactly what they were in for with David. This was the first I’d heard of a disability, and I asked her to leave it with me. I immediately contacted Thorntons and requested all records on David’s application and appointment.
Sure enough, it confirmed exactly what his mother had said to me. David’s entire school records were in this file. It included full details of a disability David had, known as Specific Learning Disabilities.
It is a most unusual one, in that the person does not have an intellectual disability or limitation. Such people are capable of learning and developing, but the disability can make learning difficult for them, and the pathway may be slower than for others. Where it is addressed, however, with individual support and understanding, the person will make progress towards the desired goal. David had obtained that support through high school following the successful intervention of the Education Department Psychology Unit. It had enabled his progress to year 11 to be relatively normal.
What got me more curious, however, was his choice of boiler-making for a career. It is the most demanding, in mathematics and science, of the metal trades. One of the others such as welding, or fitting and turning would surely have been less challenging for him with a learning disability. I put that question to his mother. Her response was, “Oh, he’s wanted to be a boilermaker for as long as I can remember. Since about aged 13 years, he’s spent just about all his leisure time in the shed at the back working on boiler-making.”
It is extraordinary that Thorntons should have missed or overlooked his learning disability when recruiting and interviewing. Perhaps it helped that David was very clear in his own mind what he wanted to do, and he probably ticked all the right boxes when interviewed and/or tested. And he performed satisfactorily for the first two years of his apprenticeship. It was only when demand for business collapsed and the management asked whether they could afford three apprentices, that they looked hard at David’s productivity. It was fair to say that his performance might have been below that of the other two. But it had still been good enough to pass his first two years.
Given his school records, there is no question that David would have qualified for the Disabled Apprentice Wage Subsidy (DAWS) Labour Market Program (LMP). I have long regarded DAWS as the best and most effective of our LMPs. Its value is that when applied effectively it will enable a person with a disability to obtain trade skills and qualifications. Once a person is trade qualified, he/she has marketable employment skills, usually in demand.
The disability itself is thus less a factor in selecting a person for a job. It is simply a matter of if they have the skills and qualifications to do a particular job. It shifts the focus to that, rather than what a person may not be able to do because of a disability. In other words a person thus qualified is competitive in the job market, whether obtaining or retaining work. That person in all probability will not need to claim disability pension or unemployment benefits. In addition to empowering that person, it will lead to a public saving in social security benefits.
The best-known feature of the DAWS program was its wage subsidy, which was then $135 per week for the duration of the apprenticeship. In practice that meant that as a proportion of the apprentice wage, it came down as the wage increased. In the first year, it was nearly 100% of the wage. In the second year it was still quite a hefty percentage of the wage. But in the third year, and more so in the fourth year, it became a smaller percentage of the wage paid. If the apprenticeship stretched into five years or longer, the wage subsidy continued until qualified.
Approval for DAWS, however, can invoke more than just the wage subsidy to the employer. Other assistance was aimed at the apprentice to enable him/her to work, or to cope with training. Somebody with a severe disability may need some modifications to the workplace to produce on the same terms as others. Somebody with literacy or learning difficulties can get individual tutorial assistance in order to learn the theory parts of the training.
With David having a Specific Learning Difficulty disability, this last-mentioned tutorial assistance would have been very valuable. It seems that he coped with the first two years without any intervention. But in the third and fourth years, there are stronger mathematics and geospatial components. In particular you need to be able to read plans and blueprints. Thorntons’ concerns about David coping with years three and four could have been genuine, but DAWS tutorial assistance might have helped overcome the problem.
I rang Thorntons about DAWs assistance for David in the hope that they might reconsider. But having persuaded themselves that David would not make it, they were not prepared to reconsider, even with DAWS. It placed me in an awkward position with David’s mother. In my opinion, she was justified in feeling that the employer had stuffed up, firstly by not reading all the reports on David and secondly attempting to use the slump to avoid their responsibility. The State Training Board Representative, the CES and I were also at fault for taking the employer’s side.
Personally, I felt it more than I disclosed to her. The way I looked at it, I had gone along with the briefings of the others when I interviewed David. I broke one of the most fundamental rules of successful counselling. That is, you should never make or plan any action without checking all the facts. That is the value of a professional, that although you accept briefings you never take any information for granted. You must try to gather all available information before resolving on an action.
All she knew was that I’d done a sales pitch on her son to convince him to accept a change of vocation. That was true, but what was less excusable, at least to myself and to my own standards, was that I didn’t act independently. I’d never have acted as I did if I’d known what was in David’s school reports. I stuffed up as badly as the others.
The error must be acknowledged, but the most important thing then is not so much to lament it but to take some action to retrieve things. David still has no job or career prospect. I contact my own peer seniors at State Office. It was not so much that I needed to be told what to do. It is more that it is a professional resource centre. I can get advice on any disability. What I wanted was a reference to an educational psychologist who specialised in Specific Learning Disability. They supplied me with such a person. I arranged an appointment for David to be assessed.
It meant he had to travel to Melbourne. So I arranged travel for him and his parents to go for this assessment. Some time afterwards I received a phone briefing from the psychologist and a written assessment.
Interestingly, his opinion was similar to mine after I’d read the Education Department reports on David. That is, that boiler-making was a very big challenge for David, and that he might have been better served in going for one of the less demanding metal trades. However, he thought that having passed two years of it, he probably could complete it with difficulty. It may just take him longer than the normal four years.
The State Training Board Representative had responsibility for apprentices, and I contacted him with this subsequent information. He arranged for David to work for an “independent” employer for two weeks in order to be assessed on his suitability to complete years three and four.
His report was favourable, and he saw no reason that David would not be able to complete his apprenticeship. With Thorntons unwilling to re-employ him, David thus went onto an unplaced apprentices list.
Basically that meant that he would remain registered unemployed and claiming benefits until we could find a new employer for him. It was not a perfect situation, but he and his family were reasonably satisfied with it.
I did have an additional weapon with his DAWS eligibility, even if Thorntons declined to use it. I arranged for our disability placement agency to take him as a client. In that respect, he was a good prospect for them. He was motivated and work-ready. In addition to attracting the subsidy, the tutorial assistance available to him ought to ensure he completes his apprenticeship and is trade qualified.
It turned out exactly like that. He remained registered unemployed for about three months, but an employer was found, and I approved DAWS program assistance for him. That was at Warrnambool, which required relocating, but neither David nor his parents were concerned about that. Besides, a living away from home allowance was paid then. I saw him with the signing up and with the filling in of paperwork for DAWS assistance. He was happy about the shift and seemed to have established a good relationship with his employer.
His employer was well informed of David’s limitations and needs. He established his work requirements around that. By a coincidence, I happened to know the employer socially. I asked about his progress, without revealing the full extent of my involvement.
The employer said that he was satisfied with David as an employee, albeit he did have some limitations. He was a little slow on some tasks, and he was not good at reading blueprints. But knowing of these, he was able to work the tasks around what David could do. The placement agency also played a role in helping him with those components where he needed mentoring on the job, as well as arranging tutorial support at TAFE.
So with just a little more support and supervision David was able to become trade-qualified. It took him over five years because of his learning difficulty, but he was able to learn. And the DAWS program assistance continued for the duration of his apprenticeship. Once qualified, he had skills in demand and good prospects of work. His employer mentioned that there would always be some limits because of how he could read blueprints, but he was employable.
Stuff-ups will occur. It is recognising it and retrieving the situation that matters more.