RMIT University has celebrated 10 years of Indigenous apprentice plumbing success.
The specialised program began in 2004 when the Plumbing Trades Employees Union (PTEU) offered to fund Indigenous apprentices to stay in Melbourne and enrol in the Certificate III in Plumbing at RMIT.
Since then, the PTEU have employed 80 per cent of RMIT's Indigenous apprentice graduates.
Bob Vaughan, Compliance Officer at the PTEU, explained that before the program, the government would provide grants to communities to get running water and decent plumbing.
"Very little was getting done with the grants, so that's when the union decided to start a program where we would bring the students to Melbourne to undertake an apprenticeship, and then they'd go back to their community to do the work themselves," Mr Vaughan said.
"It's a win-win situation."
Later, the PTEU worked closely with Broome’s Aboriginal community to form NUDJ Plumbing Services to take advantage of the influx of new homes and other developments during the mining boom.
The program has very high completion rates - in the last 12 months, eight students have graduated and successfully completed the Victorian Building Authority registration exam.
The students have come from across Australia - from Laverton in Melbourne's west to Kalgoorlie, Broome and Port Hedland in Western Australia, and Darwin, Tiwi Island and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.
Third-year plumbing apprentice Ramone Menham travelled from Broome for the program.
Hailing from Broome, student Ramone Menham has just completed his third year and is about to receive his journeyman's ticket - one of the final stages of the program.
"I've done all my school work now, I just have to sit my exams. Once that's done, I'll be a fully-registered plumber," Mr Menham said.
Indigenous workforce development expert, Professor Ruth Wallace from Charles Darwin University, worked with RMIT's trade teachers during the early stages of the program to provide cultural training and assist in creating a trusting and supportive environment - a factor crucial to its success.
Teaching methods were modified to incorporate culturally appropriate ways of learning and culturally sensitive analogies involving real-life situations.
The innovative methods have proven to be effective, while still taking into account the key competencies of the course.
The working relationship between RMIT staff, the PTEU and the Ngarara Willim Centre has been instrumental in providing strong cultural and academic support to all Indigenous plumbing apprentices
One of the later developments has been the introduction of a work integrated learning opportunity involving a not-for-profit organisation.
Students have carried out work for the Fitzroy All Stars Football and Netball Club under the supervision of plumbing teacher, Wayne Ellerton.
Mr Ellerton said the new initiative had been a real triumph for the students and he had been impressed with the work completed so far.
"At the football club, the students have learned how to plan and install the new facilities, as well as carry out repairs to an underground drainage pipe," he said.
"By combining a theory lesson with their practical assessment tasks, we manage to combat the boredom of sitting in the classroom."
Mr Ellerton said students in the program were often quite homesick, and in the future he would like to see the apprentices housed in a family home situation while they were studying.
"The students do miss their family and friends, but one of the highlights of being involved in this program has been hearing stories about their community and how they enjoy repairing leaky taps and toilets when they return home in the school holidays."
Brothers Peter and Luke Harrison hope to eventually start a business when they go back to Echuca after completing the program.
"The best thing about this program is that we are starting our career: working is much better than staying at home. And we're spending our own hard-earned money," Peter Harrison said.
"My brother and I are keen to start our own business back in our home town one day.
"But first we want to get more experience in the industry - work a few years in the city with the support of the union."
Due to the positive learning outcomes so far on the project, RMIT is now exploring future opportunities to provide students with more real workplace learning activities in the community.
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