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Memo Canberra: How women can help fix Australia’s skills shortage

Mikaela Stafrace, WomenCAN Australia CEO
Progress can be serendipitous. Fine change can come from an encounter in a supermarket toilet.

By Mikaela Stafrace

Progress can be serendipitous. Fine change can come from an encounter in a supermarket toilet.

One such occurrence led a mere four years ago to an organisation that has found a way to provide women with free training, unique peer support, and jobs, in a more efficient and effective way.

WomenCAN Australia collaborates with registered training organisations, employers, governments, and communities to assist women back into the workforce, often after years of caring for others and/or dealing with adversity.

We also have a focus on women from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and newly arrived migrants. We are training, for example, several female Afghan judges forced to flee Kabul with their children after the Taliban emptied gaols after re-seizing power.

We are all of us but one or two bits of bad luck and/or flawed decisions away from catastrophe. Misfortune tends not to discriminate.

It certainly didn’t with the woman I encountered in a Coles toilet. She was washing her hair in the basin, having become homeless after a martial breakdown. She looked just like me. Our eyes met. She sought to reassure me she would be OK. She was concerned for me; not wanting me to feel discomfort.

Soon after, I quit my successful corporate legal career and set up WomenCAN. Founding and building such an organisation is challenging. The place is surging, repaying the investment of time and effort and funds with the advancements of the participants.

So far, almost 800 women in Melbourne and regional Victoria have received free training under our ‘earn and learn’ programs, all the while supported by a tremendous peer-support network, The Placement Circle, where women walk side-by-side on the path to financial independence.

The Placement Circle is based on academic research, and its pilot was tested by Victoria University. Our peer support is our not-so-secret sauce; it is fundamental to the success of the women who take the opportunity with us.

Everyone wins. The benefits to the women are self-evident and celebrated. Training organisations get dedicated, determined students. Employers get dedicated, skilled staff.

It saves precious public resources, as recipients of payments like JobSeeker become taxpayers, and the cost of the program, the training element of which runs for a year, is less than the annual JobSeeker allowance.

Local communities and economies are strengthened. There can be prosperous high streets without healthy backstreets. We work in those residential and commercial streets.

WomenCAN also runs a social enterprise – tradeswomen for women. We provide a lot of repairs and maintenance to public housing, and to private homes where, for example and understandably, a woman fleeing domestic violence and does not necessarily feel comfortable with a male tradie in her space.

That business, based in Melbourne, has recently spread to South Australia, where it is receiving much local support and media coverage. We visit schools, explaining trades provide terrific career options for women and girls.

And we are examining launching a second social enterprise, this time in northern Victoria, involving horticulture and food preservation.

Our close connection to communities means we detect trends in the employment market early. There is growing demand for staff is hospitality and horticulture.

We have been concentrating on aged care, childcare, and allied services. In Bendigo and Mildura, in a collaboration that includes the Victorian Government, we’re providing training and peer support for 200 women who have become or are becoming aged care workers.

The number of women we’re assisting is growing rapidly, indicating this model has national and international potential. It is something I believe ought to be trialled throughout Australia. It is part of the solution to the skills shortage shackling our economy.

The Federal Government has an opportunity to examine and perhaps experiment with our proven model. It is a positive story. Its genesis may have been serendipitous, but its evolution has been fuelled by effort and evidence, by effect and respect.

The mirror the media holds up to the community is, by definition, distorted; news is, well, out of the ordinary. But the mirror we get is too often too black; there is a disproportionate amount of bleak news.

The truth is that most people get out of bed most days and are kind to themselves and others. That leads to lots of encouraging, real progress, case by case, woman by woman. And that’s important news, too. Good news. There’s lots of it out here.

Mikaela Stafrace is the Founder and CEO of WomenCAN Australia.

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