Flying high

THE David Wirrpanda Foundation has doubled its enrolments and increased the number of indigenous employees placed in mining work in the past two years. By Brooke Showers
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David Wirrpanda

Brooke Showers

Former West Coast Eagles footballer David Wirrpanda established the foundation seven years ago and its course for indigenous students increasingly creates more indigenous job placements in the mining workforce.

The Central Institute of Technology in Perth trains and teaches indigenous participants through its Solid Futures program and operates a joint venture with the David Wirrpanda Foundation which mentors the students and places them in employment.

Mining industry support for the DWF has been gaining momentum.

“The foundation began in 2005 and has grown dramatically,” Wirrpanda said.

“It’s expanding on its core programs and building capacity toward quality outcomes in education, health, personal growth, leadership and career opportunities.

“The mining industry has been crucial in the development of DWF through sponsorship, recognition and relationship building in supporting our services, which largely align particularly in the area of indigenous employment and welfare.”

Both 2010 and 2011 resulted in strong employment outcomes for DWF graduates in the mining industry.

In 2010 there were 40 indigenous workers placed in mining positions by DWF and in 2011 the figure increased to 60.

So far this year there have been six employment outcomes.

The importance of attendance is ingrained into the Solid Futures program, drumming in the routine to fuel a strong career ahead.

Of the 40 employees placed by the DWF in 2010, around half are still in the mining workforce and retention has been steadily improving.

Of the employees placed in the mining workforce with the assistance of the DWF in 2011, around 60% have remained in their roles.

The key to the foundation’s success is a combination of engaging training from the Central Institute of Technology and Wirrpanda’s connection to the sporting arena which allows the organisation to attract strong mentors and support from major mining players.

“A big part of our focus is the education side of any of our students and the expectation we have,” DWF business development manager David Hynes said.

“We ask the students to take up their part in it, become clear about what the pathway is and be consistent with attendance from the beginning of the program.

“One of the strengths of that has been the relationship built with the students through the program, so it flows on naturally into the workforce.”

The mentors employed by DWF are highly regarded members of the indigenous community who develop strong and supportive relationships with participants while they are studying.

DWF has attracted well-known indigenous mentors including Australian rules footballer Troy Cook, Kelly Hedland, West Coast Fever netballer Josie Janz and state netballers Kirby Bentley and Bianca Franklin.

Hynes said the mentors were also pivotal in finding employment for each participant and maintaining weekly contact.

“The mentors develop strategies with the employer for supporting and retaining the participant, as well as supporting the participant through their first nine months of employment,” he said.

Mentoring during the first 13 weeks of employment is critical for retention and if employees make it through this period, they are generally expected to make it to the 26-week mark.

The fly-in, fly-out lifestyle which often accompanies employment on remote mining projects is not suited to everyone.

The DWF students who remain in employment are all working FIFO rosters, some as tough as four weeks on, one week off, away from young families.

Most of DWF’s former participants were placed in entry-level mining positions, such as labourers or trade assistants, although a few employees have since been trained up onsite to become plant or machine operators.

Central Institute of Technology Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs and community learning and partnerships coordinator Susan Moustaka said it was really important to have Aboriginal lecturers as academic role models in the Solid Futures program.

“Across our programs we have five Aboriginal lecturers and three non-Aboriginal lecturers,” she said.

“It’s a very powerful role model to see an Aboriginal lecturer.”

Solid Futures is funded by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations and also attracts support from the mining industry.

Hynes said there was an abundance of employment opportunity with many mining companies looking for good indigenous workers.

Mining companies and contractors that have supported the Solid Futures program and employed DWF students include DWF sponsor Rio Tinto, Leighton Contractors, Monadelphous and Georgiou Group.

Students enrolled in Solid Futures can complete either a certificate 2 in business or a certificate 2 in resources.

Students are taken through the underground simulated mine called The Cut at Perth TAFE and attend minesite visits wherever possible to gain hands-on experience in the industry.

The program lays a strong foundation of attendance for Aboriginal employees when they are in the mining workforce.

Moustaka said if the students only showed up once a week, it was unlikely DEWR would place them in employment.

In order to pass the course, students must come to class daily, which is a great skill to ready them for the next stage into employment.

Cultural pride, confidence and self-esteem are also addressed in the program, helping indigenous students learn skills and systems which will improve their overall performance once they enter the workplace.

“There is a lot of strength in their cultural background and so it’s all about re-engaging and being supportive in a relaxed but meaningful environment,” Moustaka said.

In 2009 there were only 10 students in the Solid Futures class but the program now averages around 40 students a semester.

“We try instilling in them that education is a powerful thing to have,” she said.

“We encourage them to identify opportunities to learn more.”

Wirrpanda began the foundation to inspire indigenous people’s growth and to provide an education that would lead towards a better quality of life.

“The DWF assists in accessing the wealth of opportunities available to indigenous people,” Wirrpanda said.

For miners to retain the indigenous workforce and encourage workers to pursue more training, it is important to maintain a healthy and proactive relationship with each individual.

“Continue to build relationships and understanding with indigenous employees, through coordinated communication mechanisms, whether it’s through mentoring systems or workplace process,” Wirrpanda said.

This article first appeared in ILN's sister publication