Threading It All Together

Today’s Guest Poster is Gorgeous Dunny, with another of his compassionate and compelling episodes from his time as a Country Employment Counsellor with the Commonwealth Employment Service.

These memoirs were written two decades ago. They are at least doubly relevant today: the Australia we now inhabit is beyond imagining when I was growing up in the late 1950s to early 1970s, though – unfortunately – most likely not to the greedy devotés of Ayn Rand … we all know what they intend for people with disabilities, especially those with limited education and/or those who are older.

As always, Gorgeous Dunny, the denizens of The Pub are more than grateful.

Effectiveness in my case work depended on bringing a range of diverse skills, knowledge and experience together. Labour market knowledge was the foundation to it. That included vocational knowledge not just of the range of jobs and occupations, but of the skills and traits needed in particular jobs. It extended to demand for certain occupations within labour market areas.

The Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) network offices all had their own Work Information Centres (WICs) which were constantly updated. In all capital cities our Department of Employment Education and Training (DEET) maintained much larger versions of these through Career Reference Centres (CRCs).

The CRCs had specialist careers counselling staff, extending to industrial psychologists. They had a specialist library, which catalogued and printed all current information for the WICs and CRCs. Marketing and publicity staff prepared videos, glossy brochures and posters on careers.

The depth of information covered everything from detailed descriptions of every occupation, the skills or qualifications required, the types of courses and training available to obtain them (and the colleges offering them), and the personal, physical, intellectual and psychological traits needed to perform effectively.

Among my other duties in the region, I would attend jointly with CES staff at Careers Expos functions held locally. We would get audio and VHS cassettes, posters and other promotional material sent to us from the CRCs. Some of this was quite interesting to read. I can remember some clever posters, which, through a series of visual links, brought together a person’s hobbies, interests, and best school subjects to possible careers.

I must have retained that information in the back of my mind when I was dealing with Eric. He was about 38 years old. Although he had left school quite early, he had had a good employment history and record as a farmhand. He was in a very bad car accident, sustaining back injuries.

He had been in recovery and rehabilitation for two years and now wanted to return to the workforce. The permanent damage to his back, however, put paid to the notion of returning to what he had known. Labouring was simply not a possibility. My immediate thought was for him to do bridging education and then look at some occupation for which he could train and qualify. However, going to school or TAFE could sometimes be daunting for someone twenty-plus years removed from study.

I needed to know more about what he might be capable of. So I used a technique we’d been taught of asking him to tell me of his hobbies and interests – how he filled in the day. The aim beyond icebreaking is to learn more of what a person may be good at, or likes, or has a passion for doing. The curious (to me) thing that he mentioned was that he liked doing giant-sized jigsaw puzzles. It struck me because I personally was not good at doing those same exercises. They called for geospatial skills and aptitudes.

I remembered that poster on linking interests to careers and checked it out. While various possibilities were available, I also had to narrow the options to his situation of limited schooling and limited physical capacity, along with his likely mature-age entry. Ideally he would benefit from something of not too long a duration. I concluded that interview by making a follow-up appointment, allowing me further research time.

At the next interview I recommended doing a Survey Assistant’s course. One was available through TAFE at Warrnambool. The advantage of this course was that there were many roadwork engineers and councils in the region using surveyors. Demand for work was steady. It would take two years to qualify, but was almost a guarantee of work. I pointed to the aptitude that he would have through his geospatial skills. His research, after our previous interview, must have taken him in the same direction. He readily agreed to my recommendation.

He enrolled in the course, which was two years in duration. He was, of course, eligible for Labour Market Program (LMP) assistance because of his injury and disability. Through the provisions of the LMP, I arranged payment for the course and associated books and equipment, plus travel costs commuting to Warrnambool.

After his first successful year, he began applying for positions. He was offered work even before he completed his full qualification. I felt some satisfaction at steering him in the right direction from obtaining that clue from his ability at jigsaw puzzles.

When dealing with people’s problems in getting to their desired goals of employment, I quickly understood the value of niche matching. That is, trying to align the person’s strengths and motivations to the particular needs of certain employers or industries. Indeed, my very first placement success of any kind, well before I became an employment counsellor, occurred in just such a situation. I was working in Elizabeth CES as Youth Access Counsellor, and relieving during the lunch period as a CES counter assistant.

Deidre, a mature-age jobseeker, approached me in a very angry mood because she had been declined a referral to a vacancy. The general grounds usually given for the refusal was “no recent work history”. And that is what angered her. As she explained to me,

“When my marriage broke up and I still had children to support, I could not go for fulltime work, but I didn’t waste my time. I did a receptionist/clerical course with TAFE over several years. I have a keyboard speed of 50 words per minute, with training in reception, telephone and bookkeeping. I’ve done the right thing in getting current skills, but you still won’t refer me to a job! What do I have to do?”

I thought that they were reasonable concerns, but I also understood the priorities of our placement staff to meet the employer’s stated needs. Otherwise, employers would simply not lodge vacancies with us. But I felt that there was a further option, which staff had simply not put to her. I took her to an interview room to explain in detail.

As I explained it to her, it was a matter of horses for courses. She had employment skills and training, but it was untested in the open market. Why not instead confine her search to the closed market? What I had in mind there was that we also had vacancies for people eligible for the Jobstart Wage Subsidy. As a single parent, long-term unemployed, Deidre was eligible for the subsidy.

Competitively, her position was much stronger because the only other candidates also had to be eligible for the Jobstart subsidy. Her current recent training was then an advantage. In certain positions, such as reception where she may be left on her own, her maturity could be an advantage compared with others. Labour Market Program (LMP) positions such as Jobstart are only a small fraction of all vacancies. However, Deidre had a driver’s licence and car, which meant she was not restricted to local vacancies.

Through the computer Job Bank system, I could thus access suitable vacancies over a large part of the metropolitan area. I found several positions to refer her to and she obtained interviews.

In her very first one, she was shortlisted for a final interview, and was rated second to the person selected. At her second job interview, she was offered the position and since it was a drive of only half an hour, she accepted. We arranged the paperwork and she started. The position became a perfect fit because the staff were basically sales, relying on someone like her with responsibility and initiative. She called personally to express her appreciation. I knew then that I could do well.

I took another lesson from my time in Adelaide. I did a supervisory follow-up with a person placed at a hardware store under Jobstart. Ron was a carpenter by trade, but a debilitating back and shoulder injury had forced him out of his trade. Both Ron and the employer were very happy with the placement, even though his injury restricted him to three or four days per week, and for very good reasons.

The greatest sales asset hardware stores had was the advice they gave to customers. It governed what purchases were made. Weekend sales were high because that was when home handymen were busy with renovations. Often they needed help when something had gone wrong. So a former building tradesperson was perfect to advise customers on how to do certain things and what they would need to purchase in tools and materials. I adapted that information successfully to my work as a country employment counsellor.

It was a technique I adapted. Seven-day retailing did not then apply, but it did in certain industries such as hardware retailing, which was growing rapidly. I encouraged injured ex-tradespeople from the building industry (carpentry and joining, bricklaying, plumbing, painting and plastering) to consider such an option, and also to be available for weekend work.

Another option I used for injured tradespeople was to consider becoming a trades trainer and teacher at TAFE. That required first going to TAFE to obtain a certificate for teaching and training, but the cost of this could be covered under our Labour Market Program (LMP) assistance. The principle in both cases was to draw on existing knowledge and training. That way, it was not such a daunting task to venture into a new career, as the extent of a disability might otherwise have forced.

But what of those injured workers without previous skills or training relevant to work they might now do? In my region this concern occurred quite often through the wool industry. Many long-term unemployed had once been shearers. Harness and other safety equipment for shearers were only then coming in. Many had been shearing for over 20 years without that. The strain on the back had led to many having to give up shearing. Only a few might have been invalided out or claimed compensation, but many more could never return to shearing.

The trouble was that a back injury, even when not incapacitating you, would rule out many occupational choices. A lot of labouring positions depend on body strength. Factory jobs and some other employment will often require a medical report. A work history with a back injury would mean an insurance risk for employers. Generally, a person would be passed over for selection even when he might be capable of doing the job. Worse still, most had left school early and had shown little interest in education or training.

It presented a challenge to me as a counsellor to elicit all I could about the individual right down to likes and dislikes. Again I had some success with niche placements. At some point I discovered the occupation of Boiler Attendant. It was a requirement then that every factory have a licensed boiler attendant on the premises when operating. The physical demands were minimal – barely more than those of a night watchman.

To obtain the licence, a person did a course and then was tested. The main technical requirements were a mechanical and hydraulic aptitude. My client group were mostly from farms and had long acquired such skills in the do-it-yourself style of farm work. The hardest challenge for me was convincing them to take up the study, and to adapt to correspondence work (the course was conducted by RMIT in Melbourne but available off-campus).

Many were starting from a long way back. I had calmed a lot of anxieties, but I still took the extra step with many of arranging tutorial and “hands on” experience at a local factory. That helped take it from a theoretical concept to a practical one, where they were much more at home.

Factories in country Victoria regularly had such vacancies and they were classified as “hard to fill” ones. So in addition to getting people interested in training and qualifying, I encouraged them to consider relocating. The CES could offer relocation assistance to place them, anyway. I had considerable success with placing people into such positions.

My feeling was that they were too young (in their early forties) to give up seeking employment. Re-education and training such as occurred with Eric was not always realistic. But something tangible such as the boiler attendant occupation was often within their reach. Employers also valued what I was doing, simply because they knew how hard it was to get licensed employees, and that my client group were likely to stay.

My most interesting result in this field ultimately failed but is worth relating. Jerry had lost his right arm in a motorcycle accident. I saw more horrific injuries, especially lost limbs, from motorcycle victims than any other category. I was not at all surprised that third party insurance premiums were so expensive for motorcyclists. The cost of emergency, intensive care treatment and rehabilitation would have been huge.

Jerry was an angry person, which is reasonable after his accident and loss of an arm. All he wanted to do was earn a living working. He had a history in labouring and factory occupations, but now was turned away from any job. It took some persuasion for me to interest him in a boiler attendant’s qualification occupation. Even without an arm, he saw himself as capable. He drove a car. He was licensed for an automatic, but claimed he could manage a manual by using his stump right arm to hold the steering wheel while he changed gear.

Convincing him he could do the course was difficult but I arranged for a disability trainer to work with him. Reading plans and written instructions would not have come easy. So I arranged to get him practical work experience with an actual factory boiler.

I got excellent support from the engineers at the Nestlé factory in Dennington (Warrnambool). These were accomplished engineers, very proud of their unique factory record. They had devised a way of burning the husks from the coffee beans as fuel in their boilers. The husks are very low combustion. It was a brilliant feat to work out a system with fanning air though the embers to achieve that, in addition to maximising resources. That factory at Warrnambool was the only Nestlé one in the world to do that.

They were very happy to take Jerry under their wing to get the practical (I called it “hand-on”) experience. The only difficulty they foresaw was that boiler has to be closed securely with a steering wheel-type device. Normally that would have required both hands, but they worked out a system with a platform where he could get firm standing balance and tighten the wheel with his one good arm.

It worked well for a few months, and it seemed that he would cope with the course. But suddenly he withdrew and disappeared from the area. I believe that he had troubles with his marriage and simply left the district. It was disappointing, in the sense that we had overcome major problems to get this far, only to have it fall apart for personal reasons. Sometimes these also must be resolved before you can be fully work-ready.

Sometimes I asked myself if I placed too much faith in developing skills in people with major disabilities. My belief was that it gave them a chance to get employment where they were previously uncompetitive against a physically able and stronger person for unskilled work.

Twenty-plus years on, a lot of the small factories and mills have disappeared from country areas. So one of my favourite ploys would be less fruitful today. The upside is that with harness equipment now used in shearing, there are probably many fewer older shearers sustaining back injuries and needing to find another occupation.

The biggest problem I have is that the resources invested in DEET and the CES network have simply been discarded. It was critical and diverse labour market information, and it has not been adequately replaced. Modern methods of gaining data on employment are now researched through the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

My understanding is that these figures are reliable. But they lack the local profile on industries, types of skills, and available workforce. If the resources were better, could I still be effective today? I believe that niche opportunities for disadvantaged people would still be there today with enough investment, time and imagination. I say that even knowing how much the job market has changed in the last 30 years.

For instance, I dealt with people with some employment potential but subjected to chronic pain, which may leave them incapacitated for some hours or days. In the workplace until the nineties, attendance at set hours and days was regarded as essential. I felt then that if there were systems where they could be paid ‘piece work’ for what they actually did or produced as distinct from attending at fixed hours and times, we could employ more people with something to contribute. In addition to having independent income they could participate more fully in society.

I believe that the current changing workplace may even allow more potential for such flexible employment and self-employment.
The National Broadband Network (NBN), if it can be completed in its original concept, would allow just such possibilities. The Independent MP, Mr Tony Windsor, supported it because it offered the potential to overcome the two biggest problems for country Australia: distance and economies of scale.

If it is possible to set up business just as economically in a small country town, in your own home, or anywhere, as it currently is in a capital city, then a new phase of lifestyle and workplace flexibility is near. Perhaps it will require that all of us take a step back from personal greed.


408 thoughts on “Threading It All Together

  1. CTar1

    Excellent casting. How about Kevin Andrews as Band Leader – conducting ““Nearer, My God, to Thee”.” ? Or part of the design crew that ensured there was not enough “Welfare boats” for the passengers.

  2. CTar1

    Jeez that rock was close. Buggered If I’d have stayed in the car . As for that pilot !!!!!!

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