In a Q&A series with people involved in the Ourschool program, Caroline Milburn, Ourschool’s CEO and co-founder, talks to:

James Dunstan, CEO of KS Environmental, a leading waste and recycling firm

KS Environmental in Dingley, in Melbourne’s outer south-east, was founded by the Smith family more than 40 years ago. It continues to be family-owned and operated, with Paul Smith as its managing director.

James, your company has provided work experience placements for young alumni in Ourschool’s program, bins for garden makeovers at our partner schools in the outer east and sponsorship of our latest Industry Insights session for students. Why? We’re a medium-sized family company with a long history of supporting the local community as quiet givers. The waste and recycling industry enjoys benefits from the education sector because every school, university and TAFE generates waste and recycling, which they pay us to collect.

So we appreciate that the education sector supports our industry. When it was brought to our attention that Ourschool was running programs to support students from the state school system, there was an opportunity for us to make a small contribution in our own way.

The other side of that coin is every industry should be promoting opportunities to encourage people into that industry. If you get an opportunity to showcase your industry, that helps to encourage people to consider or apply for jobs that they may not otherwise consider. Not everybody is going to be a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer.

Does your industry suffer from an image problem – do you think teenagers are unaware of its potential for new technologies and employment growth? The waste sector hasn’t been an industry of choice. There’s still a perception out there that our industry is only about big, noisy trucks and hairy truck drivers.

Most trucks are worth half a million dollars. They’re a sophisticated piece of equipment; the job involves a highly-skilled driving and operating role and it’s highly regulated from a safety compliance point of view.

And there are many opportunities for higher level roles such as engineers, accountants, marketing people and IT specialists.
Higher order technologies are emerging, the industry is highly regulated, and government levies are increasing. That’s going to mean prices will go up and will justify more capital for higher end, alternate waste technologies. And that will create more jobs for higher end positions such as engineers and process engineers.

But even so, I don’t think every school leaver wants to, or is capable of, setting their sights on going into an engineering degree. They might do something to get themselves established and do some mature learning later. There are plenty of jobs – mechanics, clerical jobs, processing data, truck washers, welders, equipment operators – there are a sea of jobs out there in our sector.

Do you think our society puts too much pressure on young people to think university should be their top priority once they leave school? The energy and waste sector offers a pathway for many people because everyone isn’t able to learn at the same time. Having gone to the state school system myself as a young person, I wasn’t able to learn at the time I was at school because of circumstances and most of the people I went to school with had a similar experience.

But beyond school, and after a few years of work, a little more maturity and changed circumstances, you still have the thirst to learn. You can jump into an industry at an entry point that may not be your future, but it may be your start.

I went to Heidelberg Technical School. I left school at 14. It was very common for kids like me, growing up in that area, to leave school early. It was unusual for the working poor to stay on at school until Year 12. We wanted to be independent. It was about the excitement of independence. I left early and was able to find a job that set me on a path for life. I was very lucky.

The traditional view of alumni networks is that of networks by the elite, only for the elite. Can that view change? State schools have got to start to see that they are as good, worthy and capable of having a successful networking system that reaches well beyond their own school environments into a professional or non-professional environment, as anyone else is.

The old stigma of “what school did you go to” is disappearing. What’s becoming clear now is that there is no shame in not having had a $250,000 school education or not having gone to Melbourne University.

Learning is not only about going straight from school to university, it can occur later in life. You might not do a trade until you’re in your late 20s. You might not do any university study until you are in your 30s or not at all. You may develop your skills and knowledge in non-traditional ways, which have not been afforded the dignity that you get from a formal education at a university.

Australia has a shortage of qualified tradespeople. How can we make trade careers more appealing? We have to make trades attractive by highlighting the nature and quality of the work. Whatever schools do to encourage more students to think of a trade as a career option, it’s got to be more than just the trade. It’s got to be about the attributes of the person expected to the job.

Take the example of a truck operator who picks up waste and recycling. If they can’t operate an iPad and a computer, they can’t have a job because our industry is computerised.

They have to understand the multitude of compliance requirements that go with the job and the various sites they go to. There are all sorts of things that make the job a lot more skilled than meets the eye. If trades are to become more attractive to young people, we need to sell the wider skill set to ensure that people don’t see trades as a bottom-rung role or industry.