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A Smashing Success

29 July 2015 at 11:13 am
Lina Caneva
Young car thieves are being given the opportunity to redirect their passion for motor vehicles into crash repairs, writes Ellie Cooper in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.

Lina Caneva | 29 July 2015 at 11:13 am


A Smashing Success
29 July 2015 at 11:13 am

Young car thieves are being given the opportunity to redirect their passion for motor vehicles into crash repairs, writes Ellie Cooper in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.

Synergy Auto Repairs, based in North Melbourne, is a social enterprise run by Mission Australia, with the support of insurance and government agencies.

The business was established mid-2014 by Mission Australia, in partnership with Suncorp and with $750,000 funding from the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council (NMVTRC).  

Operating as a commercial entity, Synergy offers smash repair services while providing on-the-job training and work experience to marginalised youth, particularly those who have had trouble with the law.

Pro Bono Australia News spoke to Mission Australia Area Manager, Ben Neil, who explained the philosophy behind the idea.

“The target is young people who have been exposed to the criminal justice system through crimes associated with vehicles. Young people who are stealing cars and normally pretty interested in cars,” he said.

“We’ve found those young people are more likely to engage with the industry and are more likely to come to us with some skills. People who were stripping cars have a lot of embedded knowledge.

“Really what we’re after is harnessing their interests in vehicles and cars for good, give them a bit of spark, and a bit of insight into the industry.”  

The program gets participants “job ready” by preparing them for meaningful employment in an area they are more likely to succeed in.   

“If you want to work in a paint and panel shop you’ve got to be interested in cars, you’ve probably got to love them and have that sense of purpose,” Neil said.

“It’s a great industry because the sense of reward is quite immediate, a car comes in broken and two days later it’s shiny and new again.”

The business model of the enterprise relies on corporate engagement with Suncorp, integrating the social element through a TAFE work experience program.

“We currently receive all our work from Suncorp, so they have an assessment centre and we do what’s called ‘runway repairs’, driveable repairs, which normally fit under $5,000. It’s not major repairs, so the vehicles come in after they’re assessed,” Neil said.

“We’ve got a qualified panel beater, a qualified painter, the cars come in get repaired and go back out to the customer without the customer having any real indication of who’s repaired the car unless they look at the signage.

“We effectively have work experience people with us, they’re signed up with Kangan TAFE for a Certificate II in Paint and Panel. We have around eight kids signed up at any one time, and Wednesday is TAFE day and they send a lecturer in to us.”

Synergy also offers additional mentoring services to participants, many of whom are disadvantaged.

“We have an Employment and Training Officer who gives the kind of support you wouldn’t get at a regular panel shop or a regular TAFE,” Neil said.

“That can be anything from assisting with housing, ringing people up and reminding them they need to come in, going to court with them, or talking about drug and alcohol abuse.

“[The NMVTRC’s] main aim for funding is because they want to reduce car crime in Australia in the cohort of young people. We can get them off the streets and stop them from stealing cars and into an industry where there’s a recognised skill shortage, having a flow of young people has been beneficial.”

The NMVTRC approached Mission Australia with the proposal, following their successful work together in a similar diversionary program, U-Turn, in Tasmania.

“U-Turn worked with young people in a way that was more program-based as opposed to a fully commercial shop. They would take cars and do them up and give them to victims of crime,” Neil said.

“It had an impact on repeat offending for people who were involved in car crime, but it also had Tasmanian Government funding, which unfortunately has ended.”

Synergy’s funding from the NMVTRC also ends in January, so Neil is assessing the business model.

“We’re certainly working towards this year being financially sustainable. The difficult thing here is we’re a small commercial operation,” he said.

“We have a productivity gain from our young people where they wash a car for us and we pay them $15 a day and that’s good.”

The cost of implementing the social program is one that has to be absorbed by Synergy, however.  

“There’s a productivity loss when the experienced panel beater is standing and watching young people having a go and learning, and maybe having to redo it, so that’s the real challenge for us,” Neil said.

“From an advocacy basis, we are effectively a youth justice program. We have people who are leaving incarceration to be engaged in a program with us as part of their order, but we receive no dollars attached to that person.

“Even though we provide a significant amount of wrap-around support for young people, we actually have to generate enough money to have to pay for that.

“It’s a challenge, but we’re prepared to take it on.”

Neil hopes building partnerships with entities like Suncorp will allow the program to become financially sustainable.

In this way Synergy operates differently to another social enterprise Neil oversees, Charcoal Lane in Fitzroy, which combines a restaurant with a training program for young people who experience barriers to employment.

“I think the big lesson for me is that there has been amazing engagement with our commercial partners,” he said.

“Suncorp have been a great support to us, the fact that they give us vehicles means we have a flow of work, a guaranteed flow of work.

“If I compare it to Charcoal Lane, where people walk past and decide to come in, it’s a very, very different situation, so that’s been good.

“We’re looking at how we can make the shop more efficient so we can deliver on the enterprise part of it, but still maintain that social outcome.”

Another unexpected positive to come out of the social enterprise is the youth engagement with Synergy’s employees.

“One of the amazing things about this program is the staff are just trades people, they had no experience in youth work,” Neil said.

“But what they provide is a very strong, male, industry-based role model, not touchy-feely. Its ‘this is how it is’. They’ve built really strong relationships with young people.

“When you’re doing a shared activity that’s when true engagement takes place. For the painter, when he’s working with a young person painting a car they build a relationship and quite often they disclose things that are happening for them in their life.

“Rather than a worker behind a desk asking questions about their life, this environment builds what I would say is a more genuine relationship.”

Synergy has taken on 20 participants since its inception. Two participants are currently employed as apprentices in the industry, three have gone on to other trade careers, and four have returned to school, and Neil says “all of those we see as fantastic outcomes”.   

“Three have been incarcerated, but two were related to previous convictions prior to the program.

“Overall we’ve had nine participants placed in panel shops over the past 12 months.”

Mission Australia has altered the approach of the program over time, responding to the needs of those involved.

“We started with a very straight-line program where we said young people would be engaged for a six month period, there was start point and a finish point,” Neil said.

“What we found is that primarily they all have different skill levels, and it’s also hard to find placements for eight participants at once, so now we have a more flexible program.

“If they’re ready to leave after three months that means we can put more participants through and it also means that when people are ready to leave they… can go out and get an apprenticeship.”

Along with transitioning young offenders into the industry, Neil has noticed improved outcomes for participants across the board.

“Working with disadvantaged kids at the pointy end – there’s substance abuse, maybe homelessness, various crimes, challenging family backgrounds,” he said.

“One of the kids, Matt, said before [Synergy] he was involved in drugs, burglary, all sorts, and now he’s an apprentice panel beater.”  

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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