At 18 years old, Otara resident Nga Tuiti was desperate to find a full-time job. Temporary roles, providing minimal and sporadic income, supplemented by benefit payments, wasn’t what she wanted her 20s to be. But, like many other south Auckland youth, securing decent, permanent work was proving a near-impossible task.

What was it that made things significantly tougher for someone like Nga Tuiti? Employment statistics certainly showed she was in keeping with a local trend. In the Government’s third quarterly labour market report in 2015, a section dedicated to South Auckland highlighted the significantly higher likelihood of youth (aged 15 to 24) from the area not being engaged in employment, education or training compared to their counterparts living elsewhere in the city.

Leah Gates, employment manager at the Auckland Chamber of Commerce has spent 10 years working with young people like Nga Tuiti. A bubble of energy that greets you at the chamber’s centre on Lambie Drive, Gates has overseen the organisation’s CadetMax youth employment programme in Manukau since its inception in 2008. In the past three years, she has also overseen a similar sister programme – Career Start – in Tamaki. Nga Tuiti and her older sister Tamia Tuiti first met Gates last March after being referred to CadetMax by Work and Income.

“I didn’t know I had to do so many things for an interview,” Nga Tuiti told Newsroom.

“When you come out of school or temporary work, there’s so many things you have to learn for an interview – the way you talk, the way you establish yourself … telling them about your skills – CadetMax taught me a lot.”

The sisters – who are only a year apart – were part of the same CadetMax intake in March last year. With about 30 other cadets, they were put through the programme’s intense “induction” week, targeted at developing skills needed for job-hunting, as well as those required in the workplace.

“What employers are telling us, and what they’re telling everybody, is that they want ‘soft skills’,” Gates said.

Leah Gates. Photo: Supplied

“Those are [things like] confidence, communication, body language, and to build somebody’s confidence – often from a place of a lack of confidence and a lack of self-esteem – it’s about recognising somebody’s skills and talents and what’s great about them. 

“Young people, in general, don’t have those conversations and that induction process builds that confidence. Sliding off that is communication norms in a workplace, which will be different to communication norms with family and friends,” she said.

For CadetMax and Career Start participants, tackling inexperience and a lack of exposure to workplace settings is often the biggest hurdle. To be eligible for the CadetMax program, candidates must be aged between 18 and 24, local to South Auckland, and in receipt of a benefit. Career Start participants have to be between 16 and 24 years old, not engaged in work or study and living in Tamaki. Between the programmes, about 400 young people are placed into employment annually. Overall, about 60 per cent of participants are Pasifika, and about 30 per cent are Māori – however a large number also identify with more than one ethnicity.

“What [participants] know is based on who is around them and that is [other] young people and their families, and school teachers and sports,” Gates said. “That relationship that you have with an employer is different to all those – it has a different context and dynamic.”

For example, at the start of the programs many participants are uncomfortable with making direct eye contact with people in senior positions. Often, this is due to cultural and behavioural norms in Pasifika church and family environments where eye contact is often not appropriate when showing deference for elders and senior figures.

However, employers want the exact opposite when you walk into a job interview, Gates said.

The programme was designed so participants developed their own understanding of the importance of things like first impressions, confident body language, appropriate clothing and appearance, she said.

In addition to this, participants also learnt about employment contracts and entitlements like sick leave, as well as budgeting basics and time management.

Both programmes approached employment and employability in a holistic way. Participants were paired with mentors, and followed up by staff even after being placed into jobs. Overall, about 70 percent of participants gained long-term employment, and for most, it took between four and five weeks to be placed into a job, Gates said.

Meanwhile, Nga Tuiti, who will be 20 later this year, is weeks away from celebrating the end of her first year as a parcel officer with Courier Post. The CadetMax programme had made a huge difference to her and her sister’s lives, and the pair still visit the program’s Lambie Drive headquarters to see staff and new cadets when they can. Tamia Tuiti works for New Zealand Post.

“Now we can manage things, especially if things come up unexpectedly,” Nga Tuiti said. “When you’re part-time or on a benefit, it’s hard. Now, I’m full-time, it’s a lot better for costs like food and rent and petrol, and there’s even a bit of money to spend on myself.”

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