Steph Graham, Youth To Work programme manager at Whanganui District Employment Training Trust (WDETT)

Youth Employment Leader Is in the Right Space

A youth employment service is yielding above-average results for young people in Whanganui.

Youth To Work is one of three services developed by Whanganui District Employment Training Trust (WDETT) to match the skills and training needs of employers, with the potential of local people.  WDETT has been active in the youth employment space for over a decade.

Funded by the Ministry of Social Development, the Youth To Work programme is committed to transitioning Whanganui rangatahi away from Jobseeker benefits and into employment.

Programme Manager, Steph Graham has led the initiative from its inception two years ago. Her qualifications and experience have helped to shape the 12-week programme, dedicated to people aged 18-29.  The programme covers CV creation, finding and responding to job advertisements, understanding the job role, writing a cover letter, getting through the application process, and preparing for interviews. Driver licensing is an important component, with optional add-on topics such as money management, drugs and alcohol, and health and safety.

Since graduating from Fielding High School, Steph Graham has worked in Germany as an au pair, travelled through Europe, spent time in London and dipped her toes into university study before heading to Australia. In Perth, she gained valuable experience in a variety of roles, giving a few career options a go. She found her vocation when volunteering in a community re-engagement education school: “When you are working with dis-engaged youth, they need a lot of one-on-one support. I volunteered every Monday for over a year to help out, and I found that I quite enjoyed it. It was easy for me, and I was relatable to the young people.”

As the second oldest of four children, Steph says the supporting role comes naturally, “I’m a big sister. Dad was a full-time tradie and often worked extra hours. Mum is a school teacher - a very busy, full time worker with four kids. So I stepped into that role of leadership in my home from a young age.” Motivating youth extended to her peer group as well, “I was the one who always encouraged them to get their drivers licenses, I was the one that would say, ‘You need to get a job’. I was kind of just that person, so it made sense that I would be in that space in employment as well.”

“From volunteering, I realised there is such a thing as that, in work.”

While in Perth, a short-term contract and a qualification in Adult Training and Assessment allowed her to assist with developing resources, and to study a Youth Work certificate: “By then I knew this was what I wanted to do. And it just seemed sweet that I could get paid for a job like that.”

She gained a full-time role in Melbourne as a trainer for a Youth Learning Pathway programme, working with young people in the youth justice space. “One of the Area Managers there taught me a lot about leadership, being graceful, and emotionally intelligent in leadership.  That was great to witness. And no question was a dumb question - she never made you feel inferior. It was such a cool thing to learn.”

After eight years in Australia and with her contract due to end, family ties beckoned, “I just had this really strong urge and calling to come back to New Zealand. It was time to come home”.

She was specifically looking to work with youth in an education and training setting when the opportunity at WDETT came up: “This role was exactly what I was looking for.”

Steph meets with her clients one-on-one. “Relationship is number one. If you don’t have a rapport or relationship, they won’t come back. So you must find a way to have them feel comfortable with you.”

“In youth work, a 50% retention rate is normal. If you lose 50%, and keep 50%, that’s pretty normal. I keep around 60% of my clients, so that’s above average. I know I’m doing something right. I’m happy with above average.”

“I think I can read what a client will respond to. I guess I’ve got the ability to build rapport. Or maybe it’s just that I’m relatable, because I’m young enough.”

Steph describes a few occasions where reluctant clients have initially not wanted to engage, but found the confidence to put themselves out there for work: “Those soft changes that someone has are quite lovely.”

“The ‘Aha!’ moments that people have are good. I love it when they see the whole programme through, complete what they’ve come here for, and get to the goal. They’ve come here to learn how to get a job and they’ve got a job. That’s awesome.”

The now 29-year-old recalls people who were significant in her own youth, such as an older woman at her first after-school job,“My colleague, Jill, would just chat about all the things she fitted into her life, so that motivated me. There’s so much I want to do in my life because of Jill. She coloured my world, and has played such a big part in my life, without even knowing it.”

“I’ve learned that it’s so important to not be doing nothing. Always fill in your time with something, even if it’s a little course, or travel. Always do something. And get out of your house.”

Interested Jobseekers can talk to their case managers at MSD, about joining the programme: “There are heaps of my clients in work now, who had never had a job before. I’m quite a significant person for them, like Jill was for me. They’ll never forget getting their Learner License, or their first job.”

“For young people, their first job is kicking them off. My first job was at Countdown, and that kicked me off for my whole life - that’s where I met Jill. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Steph encourages young people to take opportunities, give things a go, and gather experiences: “If you are afraid to do things, look at the bigger picture. There have been times in my life when I have been quite scared to do stuff and I’ve wanted to stay home. I’ve been anxious, or lazy even, but I think about the stories I want to tell my grandkids.”

“If you were ever to lose your sight, would you be sitting in darkness? Or are you going to have stories in your mind that you can replay? For me, it’s all about the future.”