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Rising to the challenge of getting kids back on track


18 January 2021 at 8:12 am
Maggie Coggan
As the social enterprise manager of BackTrack Youth Works, Marcus Watson is on a mission to empower disadvantaged kids and their communities. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 


Maggie Coggan | 18 January 2021 at 8:12 am


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Rising to the challenge of getting kids back on track
18 January 2021 at 8:12 am

As the social enterprise manager of BackTrack Youth Works, Marcus Watson is on a mission to empower disadvantaged kids and their communities. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Founded by Bernie Shakeshaft, BackTrack Youth Work’s purpose is to help young people who are having a hard time, get back on track.   

Working with kids between 12 and 19 years old, the organisation takes a holistic approach to the issues it is trying to solve, providing job opportunities in local industries that help the New England community, accommodation, schooling support, and most importantly, a supportive community that gives the kids a place to belong.  

And this approach seems to be making a difference. BackTrack Youth Works has an 87 per cent success rate when it comes to education, training, and employment.

There is no easy fix to the multiple and complex life challenges the enterprise is trying to solve, but for Watson, seeing and achieving incremental change is what keeps him going and striving for something better. 

In this week’s Changemaker, Watson discusses how he remains grounded, why he loves his job, and why a challenge isn’t always a bad thing. 

How did you first become involved with BackTrack Youth Works? 

I was working with another social enterprise on the Central Coast when I met Bernie on that site. We’d been working on a Kevin Rudd stimulus package project down there where we employed over 100 young people as trainees and apprentices to take an old state government depot and turn it into an alternate youth training site. We realised we had a lot in common and kept in touch after that. 

An opportunity then came up with the New South Wales state government for a project called the Youth Employment Innovation Challenge. We pitched to a shark tank type model with Innovation NSW to establish the social enterprise, which is now BackTrack Youth Works. And so I came in through that process, pitched that model to the state government and never really looked back. 

What are you trying to achieve through your work with BackTrack?

Ours is one of the classic employment social enterprise models. We’re creating training and employment opportunities, but we are trying to take a more holistic approach. The young kids come through our alternate school where they get their literacy and numeracy into a good space, we work on the wellbeing, which includes mental health support and accommodation for a young person. And then obviously the next step is employment. 

The social enterprise is set up specifically to continue that journey of that young person and take them on into traineeships and give them meaningful employment in our local region. We target the largest employment industry in New England, which is the agriculture industry, and relate trades around that. The other thing that we’ve been doing is positioning the enterprise to not only affect our young people, but to give back to the community so that we are an asset. And so over the past 12 months, we’ve been working heavily in the bushfire recovery space and working alongside farmers in rebuilding fences.

How do you personally deal with big challenges in your work?

These are big challenges we are facing, and I just love it. It’s something that really energises me. If someone says that something can’t be done, then it pushes me to do it more. I love trying to solve problems that can’t be solved. And I don’t mind if I take a long time to solve them, because not everything has to be finished by the end of the week. I’m happy to work over a long period of time on a big challenge and just continually make incremental progress towards the big goals.

Every now and then I might find it’s getting a bit tough, but I just look at the outcomes and that’s probably the big one for me. When I see our young boys coming through the gate, and these are young fellows that wouldn’t get a job anywhere else, and they are turning up in their uniforms, with their lunch boxes and they get into utes for a day’s work, that’s kind of all I need when I’m having a low time. Just to see the outcome and the impact, and it picks me right back up.

What does an average day look like for you?

I’m a remote worker, which means I’m on site probably once or twice a month. I work more with our funders, and on the strategy side of things. So my day generally involves opening my laptop wherever I am, and getting on the phone, or a Zoom call with various people and managing things like that.

From time to time, I’ll go out on a fire site where our participants are camping for the week to repair fencing on properties, or I’ll head into Armidale and meet with my team on the ground there and the supervisors and check in how they’re going.

And what’s the best part of your job?

I think it is that everyday is a new challenge and something different. There’s just no two days that are the same, I love the variety. 

I love challenges, and I love the big wins, and that it’s impacting young people’s lives.


Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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