Interview: True Matilda
Politics: State of Play
Industrial: Capital Dilemmas
Unions: Rhodes Scholars
National Focus: Rennovating the Lodge
International: People Power
Economics: A Bit Rich
History: Mine Shafts
Safety: Sick Of Fighting
Organising: Building a Wave
Poetry: Anger In The Bush(es)
Review: The Battle Of Algiers
Culture: The Word On The Street
The Locker Room
Co-operating At All Costs
All Good Except You
Rahul Sugumaran had sleepless nights before quitting his job and volunteering for a long-term pay cut.
He was soon to marry his childhood sweetheart, PE teacher Melanie, and, already, they were thinking about kids. He knew if they were going to live their dreams, something had to change.
The 'Sugarman' had decided an electrician's wages and opportunities were what they needed.
"I know lots of people who would love to change jobs," says the 24-year-old,"and they can't because of financial responsibilities."
The problem for the qualified fitter was finding an employer who would give him a start. That came in the shape of Electro Group, an ETU-sponsored company established to train the next generation of electrical tradesmen.
Two years into his time, he is confident the gamble will pay off.
It has meant going from running jobs as a tradesman to becoming an offsider again but that was part of the deal.
"I'd had a fair bit of exposure to sparkies as a fitter and I was very interested and wanted a dig at it," he explains. "I'm enjoying it."
He and Melanie intend using his Australian electrician's license to underwrite their travels around the globe. The qualification is recognised in the UK, New Zealand and Canada, useful bases for their planned travels.
The problem for Sugumaran was finding an employer willing to give an apprentice a start.
Electro Group places him and 300 other apprentices with different employers for short periods, and organises theoretical training through associated company, Electro Skills.
The sister organisations occupy the same complex at Rhodes, on the shores of Homebush Bay, across from Olympic Park.
The building is cavernous. It houses computer labs, electrical and metal workshops, a conference hall and competition space rigged up for Skills Olympics. There is even an imitation multi-level building to simulate telephone installation, not to mention space out the front to kick a footy around.
The program has placed Sugumaran with five separate companies, introducing him to housing construction, instrumentation, control and electrics in gas.
He enjoys learning the tricks of different tradesmen.
"There are always different ways of doing things," says Sugumaran, "it allows you to be creative."
He is one of 174 apprentices doing their time with Electro Group in Sydney.
Another, James McIlwrath, appreciates the links the company has with the ETU.
The fourth-year apprentice says he has a friend doing time with another organisation who faces "terrible" working conditions, and has never earned EBA rates.
"My mate said to me 'What's fares and travel?' when I mentioned them once," says McIlwrath "then I told him about site allowance and he almost shit himself."
McIlwrath started his apprenticeship with electric motor maker Fasco, but was laid off when the company moved its operation to Thailand.
"It was not very challenging at Fasco, sometimes we would be washing lights because there was nothing to do," he said. "The good thing about this place is you learn."
Australia faces a skills crisis as slimmed-down governments abandon responsibilities for trades training.
Not so long ago, thousands of electrical tradesmen would come out of local and state government workshops every year. In the 1970s, outfits like State Rail and Sydney City Council would each offer opportunities to 400 youngsters every year.
The private sector keenly snapped up the finished product.
But with the rush to privatise government enterprises in the 1980s came bean counters who transformed apprentices from investments into costs.
The result is an estimated national shortage of 250,000 apprentices across all trades in the next decade.
The Electrical Trades Union saw the trend coming in the early-90s and created Electro Group with the sole business of employing apprentices.
The non-profit company sends apprentices to "host" employers for periods of a few weeks to 12 months in an attempt to familiarise them with different sectors of the industry.
The concept was so successful another business, Electro Skills which is a Registered Training Organisation, was formed to teach apprentices their theory.
Together, they guide apprentices through theoretical and practical aspects of the trade - able to dovetail work and study because of their close association.
CEO, Norm Cahill, says Electro Skills goes beyond TAFE to offer a "wholistic" learning environment that includes remedial training and seminars on money management and workplace safety.
Electro Group might pay students to study in a final week before exams, while Electro Skills can rearrange class times and exam dates to suit apprentices commitments with host employers.
"If they show the intent we'll bend over backwards to help the students," says Cahill.
"Most employers would show apprentices the door if they acted up because of problems at home or because of debts but we work out ways to help, often with the help of ETU organisers."
By the same token Cahill is happy to "read them their fortune" if attitude or performance becomes a problem.
Cahill believes Electro Skills which has trained over 6000 people in trades and post trades studies in its nine operating years is ensuring the future of the industry and the financial security of licensed sparkies.
"We are future proofing this industry against the conservative and short sighted views of the past," he says.
The heart of the mission though is education and it is clear both Cahill and training manager, Mike Horne, get satisfaction out of their jobs..
"There is no greater joy than seeing someone come in as a kid and come out a competent tradesperson," Horne says.
Learn more about Electro Skills and Electro Group at http://www.aeitc.com.au
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