Young Indigenous trainees search for parts at the car graveyard just outside Wiluna. (ABC Goldfields: Tom Joyner)
For many years, the town of Wiluna has had a problem — available jobs but few qualified locals fill them.
- Wiluna has long suffered disadvantage, such as substance abuse and high unemployment
- The community decided to revive the local training centre — but in a drastically new way
- The centre is now thriving and the key to its success is a culturally aware, community-led training environment
Situated at the tail end of the Canning Stock Route and on the edge of the Western Desert, 1,000 kilometres from Perth, Wiluna is surrounded by mines staffed by fly-in fly-out workers.
The town itself is sleepy, with a general store and a modest museum displaying photos of its heyday.
Poverty, marginalisation, and disadvantage are words often used to describe the town’s situation. But in the past few years, things have begun to change.
In an enormous training centre on the town’s fringe, a group of men are hunched under a ute examining its innards.
Most have never completed any formal training, yet this is not the first time vocational education has been available in the town.
“I’ve never experienced this before. [At] the old TAFE, none of these projects ever happened, this here is better,” graduate Stewart Long said.
In 2010, a TAFE campus opened in Wiluna. But after just a few years, circumstances changed and the multi-million-dollar facility was transferred to the Wiluna school.
Former stockman Mac Jensen managed the training centre’s transformation in Wiluna. (ABC Goldfields: Tom Joyner)
“It was agreed [the school was] better placed to improve local stakeholder, industry and community engagement and increase the uptake of training opportunities,” a TAFE spokesperson said.
When the Wiluna school dreamt up a new training centre to provide employment opportunities to high school students, they had one man in mind to manage it — Mac Jensen.
“This was a diabolical mess,” the former stockman and army officer said.
“There were car bodies and dead animals, we had to get all of that out of here.”
But he didn’t just get the workshop in order; he started to bring people together.
‘What we do is we listen’
Two years on, a second group of students have just graduated.
Mr Jensen believes the key to the centre’s success has been creating what he describes as “a Martu-specific training environment”.
The Martu are the traditional owners of an enormous desert area around Wiluna.
CEO of TAFE Directors Australia Craig Roberts said working with employers’ and locals’ needs made for an ideal training model for remote Australia.
“It brings together the best of both worlds,” Mr Roberts said.
“Local Indigenous communities can determine what’s best for them, and it sounds as though employers have really come to the party as well.”
Elder Stewart Long has been hired by a mining company since graduating from the training centre. (ABC Goldfields: Tom Joyner)
Martu elders were consulted to ensure the centre would provide training that was needed and could lead to employment.
“The elders aren’t involved here, they’re embedded here,” Mr Jensen said.
“We form very strong bonds with families, because it’s the families who help us get the students in.”
When training first commenced, families were invited to visit. They lined the workshop wall and watched their relatives in class — it was a new experience for everyone.
In a context of multi-generational welfare dependence, Mr Jensen said creating training that interested people had been important.
Automotive training was the obvious choice for the isolated community where mobility was fundamental.
The training centre partnered with Central Regional TAFE in Kalgoorlie to provide vocational courses to high school students and adults.
Alwyn Begelhole, a Central Regional TAFE automotive teacher, enjoys the creative challenge required to teach in Wiluna.
Hundreds of kilometres from the nearest car shop, he takes his students to the car graveyard on the edge of town to fossick for spare parts.
His two keenest scouts are Choco Long and his brother Stuart ‘Blondie’ Gilbert.
For the two young ‘VET in school’ graduates, the training has been life-changing. Before enrolling, both had stopped attending school.
“Things just go wrong. Young people drink alcohol and all that. Just waste your life,” Choco said.
While his TAFE studies were interrupted by a stint in prison, he has now graduated.
“Prison is not good. When I got out, I was looking forward to coming back to TAFE, so I can do my certificates,” he said.
From prison to graduate
Mr Jensen has watched the pair transform into confident boys who are on first-name basis with their future employers.
“He’ll be the first young kid ever who’s gone straight into a job from school. And Blondie’s right behind him”, he said.
The centre, which is funded by mining companies and the Wiluna Shire, connects trainees with employers.
Training at the Wiluna centre is tailored to meet the needs of the local Martu people. (ABC Goldfields: Tom Joyner)
Supporting cultural obligations
Local mine managers visit the centre on graduation day and mingle with the trainees over a barbecue.
General manager of mining company Blackham Resources Guy Simpson says having locally based employees makes economic sense.
Blackham was the first miner to help fund the training centre because it saw an opportunity to train local Martu people for mine work.
Mr Simpson said the company wanted to “give local people the opportunity”.
Rowena Roberts of another mining company, Salt Lake Potash, has 25 years’ experience in engaging Aboriginal people in the mining industry.
But she had never seen a centre like this.
“It is a unique model. It’s community-driven,” Ms Roberts said.
Salt Lake Potash helps fund the centre and has employed a recent graduate — Martu elder Stewart Long — who will be permitted to balance his cultural obligations with work.
“We can build a workforce around [cultural obligations] and make sure that people are supported,” Ms Roberts said, mirroring the ethos of the training centre.