New project offers training, work and a career path
Annie Watts, from Perth, had just finished a Diploma in Community Service Case Management. She thought no one would give her a job out-of-hand, so volunteered to do some one-on-one mental health work with UnitingCare West.
"That was when my job provider told me about the UnitingCare Women and Employment Demonstration Project. I know I wanted to get a job in community service, and thought this would get my foot in the door. I was told this first Australian trial for the project offered training and a placement."
Long term unemployment is one of the great barriers for people wishing to return to the workforce.
In many cases, the stretch without a paying job is down to being a parent, and yet child-raising gives people skills that can be applied to the workforce, particularly industries like community services.
The Women and Employment Demonstration Project (WEDP) is an innovative employment program designed to select, train and mentor people back into the workforce, and then to provide them with a career pathway within community and aged care services of UnitingCare.
The project is also a partnership between UnitingCare Australia, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Employment, and is strongly supported by Minister Michaelia Cash.
After successful tryouts at UnitingCare West in Perth and UnitingCare Wesley Bowden in Adelaide, a third trial at Wesley Mission Queensland started in September.
Annie said she felt confident about her ability to complete the training, but was worried about working in the disability area.
"I knew that it was going to take me out of my comfort zone. I didn't know what to say or how to act around people with a disability.
"I was upfront with them about my concerns, but told them I would push myself. They said that's great, that's what they wanted to know."
Kylie Hutchinson, Executive Project Manager for UnitingCare Wesley Bowden in Adelaide, which ran the second trial of WEDP in March this year, said many attendees come with fears and preconceived notions about support work
"They might be concerned about interacting with people who are older or who have a mental illness, for example, and those fears need to be dispelled or explained.
"Some attendees are simply not very self-aware about their ability to do support work. Much of this is dealt with through conversation, self-assessment and then training."
Kylie Hutchinson said the information session WEDP and the screening of participants takes place on the same day.
"Support work is described to attendees, and we have a support worker on hand to talk about what's involved," she said.
"At end of the information session, out of 20 to 40 attendees, only two or three will leave. The remainder then visit five ‘skill stations' where we assess their values, judgement, empathy, and ability to think outside the square.
"The screening is done by three coordination staff from UnitingCare, one person from TAFE, and one neutral observer."
Charlotte Smillie from Adelaide said she also heard about the Women and Employment Demonstration Project from her job provider.
"I was thinking about looking for something along that line. It offered a three week course and a job at the end, so I signed up."
Charlotte said she was pleased by the opportunity the program had given her.
"It gave me a foot in door for studying and learning skills. The whole process was confidence-building."
She said she is about to start at UnitingCare Wesley Bowden, working with aged care and children with disabilities.
"I'm glad to do it all, but especially excited about working with children. I don't have a preferred path yet, and I'm looking forward to getting experience in both areas."
It gave me a foot in door for studying and learning skills. The whole process was confidence-building.
Kylie Hutchinson said once employed at UnitingCare Wesley Bowden, graduates start with easier shifts with specific outcomes. After a while many of them self-identify with one stream or another, although some prefer to be generalists.
"We'll work with them to develop their skills and career path.
"We support them and discuss with them about training and skills development. Although we can't afford to fund them through a TAFE course, for example, we will help them to enrol.
"We'll also help them figure out how to balance their work and study and show them what options they have.
"Having said that, some take a while to figure out where they want to go. Some will go on to more administrative tasks where they can draw on their experience, for example as a work coordinator."
Annie Watts is also full of praise for the program.
"It was great. I learned so much, and knowledge is power.
"I now feel confident about telling other people – family and friends, for example – about disability. The program really opened my eyes. I'm very glad I jumped on board. There was a great combination of theory and practice."
Kylie Hutchinson said WEDP offered a clear progression for applicants, from pre-selection and self-selection through to training, then work and a possible career path. She added that there were two important aspects of the program that contributed to its success.
"First, participants get work experience and learn to rely on their own judgement.
"Second, all participants have a mentor through training who will also keep in touch with them after they're employed."
Jen Fournair, who is also from Perth, now works as a support worker at the Warehouse Café, said the project supported and trained her to become job ready.
"I got a lot out of the course and really enjoyed it, and in the end got a paid job.
"Having a mentor was incredibly helpful. My mentor was amazing, and I learned so much from her."
This is a point picked up by Charlotte Smillie and Annie Watts as well.
"It makes a difference having someone with 20+ years of experience behind you," Charlotte said.
"I couldn't have done it without my mentor. That was a great part of the course."
Annie said her mentoring was one-on-one most of the time.
"My mentor told me what I needed to know about our participants and how to help them in individual and practical ways, for example by telling me about their allergies.
"I'm still in touch with my mentor; I still work with her."
Kylie Hutchinson said the WEDP project is achieving its aim of placing people in work.
"We'll test it against the number of people who get jobs, and whether or not they're still working in three, six and twelve months down the track.
"But we're confident enough in WEDP versus more traditional methods of recruitment that we're already talking about where to take it next."
I couldn't have done it without my mentor. That was a great part of the course.
Long term, one of the project's most important aims is to give people in community service a career path.
In the future Charlotte Smillie is looking for a flexible job.
"I would love to do nursing and work at same time, or paediatrics if I like working with children.
"WEDP has given me a great chance to see if that's what I really want."
For now, Annie Watts wants graduate to fulltime work and save money to build a home.
"I'll pick up whatever on-the-job training I can get, but am happy to delay any more formal study for a while.
"I want this to be my career. I want to work in community service. I'll work at whatever comes up – mental health work, for example – but I'm loving the disability work I'm doing, working with clients and doing things for them that help them."
Jen Fournair, too, would like to get fulltime work and in the future complete more study. "I want to work my way up in my field."
After the first two successful tranches in Perth and Adelaide, the federal government announced on 15 June that it would provide $10 million for a national rollout of the program.
With the final test tranche at Wesley Mission Queensland in Brisbane completed in September, WEDP will be rolled out nationally.
Annie Watts said that anyone out there thinking about doing a program like the Women and Employment Demonstration Project should do it.
"Soak it all up. Get as much knowledge as you can. But don't do it just for the money – you're dealing with people's lives."