Podcast: Starting a successful career. Katrina Palmer discusses the value of an apprenticeship with Viva Energy

Katrina Palmer is an electrical and instrumentation apprentice at the Geelong Refinery, and the subject of Viva Energy’s first podcast. But what inspires people to get into a trade, and what does it take to help apprentices become successful tradies?

Apprenticeships provide opportunities for young people to follow their passion and develop their skills, setting them up for a rewarding career. The apprenticeship model has been around for a long time and Viva Energy is a strong supporter, currently employing nine young apprentices from the Geelong region at the refinery.

Getting a start

Russell McNamara supervises the duel-trade apprentices, most of whom come to Viva Energy via Gforce, an organisation established by the State and local governments in 1983 to help young people in the northern suburbs of Geelong find trade careers.

“We have a great partnership with Gforce,” Russell says. “An apprenticeship is five years. That’s a big commitment for everyone – the apprentice and the refinery – so obviously we want young people who have the passion and dedication to pursue a career in the trades. Gforce helps us find them.”

Rob Birch, CEO at Gforce, confirmed the opportunities an apprenticeship can provide. “In the Geelong region, the current growth in the housing and construction sector is boosting the demand for skilled tradespeople,” Rob explains. “Our problem is finding enough young people willing to take up an apprenticeship to help us meet that demand.” But it’s not just construction providing the opportunities. “We’re involved in many different trades, anything from carpentry to electrical right through to horticulture and engineering. We even have trainees in business and office environments.”

Now in her final year and about to graduate, Katrina found her way to the refinery through the Gforce program. “Katrina is a great example of that passion and dedication for a trade, and how the apprenticeship process works,” says Russell. “She’s incredibly enthusiastic and has a terrific attitude, always willing to have a go and put her hand up to help anybody. She’s going to be a really good trades person.”

Focus on safety

The Geelong Refinery is not your average workplace. In her podcast, Katrina talks about the rigorous online safety induction course she had to complete before she could start her apprenticeship. Safety is the refinery’s top priority, so it’s second nature to Katrina as it is with all the refinery’s apprentices.

“We have a lot of induction packages and ongoing training,” explains Russell. “As soon as apprentices start working in the field we get them to complete tick-sheets, which examine all the possible safety issues, observations they’ve made or hazards that they can find, so they get to develop good safety awareness really early on. We also have pre-start meetings every day, where we talk about safety and how it relates to the day’s work. Safety is drummed into them every single day.”

Safety is always the top priority at the refinery. It’s a mindset that stands Viva Energy’s apprentices in good stead throughout their careers.

Ongoing support

Russell knows that completing an apprenticeship can be a daunting process – he was an apprentice once himself – and makes sure that those under his care have all the support they need.

He talks to each apprentice weekly, providing and receiving feedback, reviewing their work and talking with them as much as possible to make sure they feel supported.

“Apart from providing skills-based support such as training, cross-skilling, safety awareness and getting experience in all aspects of the refinery’s operations, Viva Energy is great at helping apprentices feel empowered,” he explains. “We have a group meeting each month, where they can share ideas or concerns and just get involved on that level, which helps build their confidence.

“We also help them understand what the world is like outside the refinery by giving them broader experience. They spend six months working through a contract company called Gordon McKay, which involves three months off-site working within another business and then another three months working for Gordon McKay directly.”

Support to success

Katrina was recently awarded “Apprentice of the Year” by the Apprenticeship Employment Network, which is Victoria’s largest apprentice and trainee employment network.

In 2017, Katrina was selected to compete in the WorldSkills National Championships in Sydney, against 400 of Australia’s best tradespeople, for the title of National Champion. Just getting through the regional heats was a major accomplishment, as she was competing in the category of Electrical Installation – which is not Katrina’s area of specialisation. It was a great opportunity and Viva Energy supported her when she needed time off to compete.

Rounding out the accolades, Katrina was nominated for the Apprentice of the Year Award at the 2018 Gforce awards. She ended up winning the Apprentice Safety Award, which was unexpected as she didn’t even know she was nominated, but it sums-up her approach and commitment to safety. According to Russell she was a worthy winner: “Katrina keeps on top of her training. When she does a tick sheet, she’s focused on improving the way things are done. She’s also developed the skills to speak up, and the courage to say; ‘we can do better, how about we try it this way?’ They’re just some of the reasons why she won the Apprentice Safety Award.”

On the day of the awards, Russell was there to proudly provide his support. “I was pretty excited to go to her awards night at Gforce. We’re all very proud of her, for what she can do and the way she goes about it. When she can win awards like that and make it through to the finals of the WorldSkills event, it obviously shows that she does have great skills, and she knows how to get out there and have a go and really strive to try and achieve something.”

Equal opportunities

At Viva Energy, we want to encourage more women to become trades people. Russell currently oversees an equal number of women and men, which is proof that we’re even in the apprenticeship program. And as Russell says; “An apprenticeship is a great opportunity and a great pathway for someone who’s interested, regardless of whether you’re male or female.”

Rob agrees. “There’s no question that Viva Energy provides amazing opportunities for young people. They have a strong focus on the northern suburbs of Geelong, and it’s really important that young people in that particular area get those career opportunities.”

Good advice

Russell also has some advice for any women considering a trade career. “I think the biggest thing is not to be afraid. Just jump in and have a go. There’s a lot of support out there along the way. We have a diverse team in our apprenticeship program and we do all we can to help them achieve success.”

Rob from Gforce recommends researching the trade, building your knowledge, and trying to get some hands-on experience to help you decide whether or not your chosen trade is the right career choice for you. “People who have shown initiative in taking some sort of pre-training or prior work experience in their chosen field are usually successful,” he says, “because it confirms their decision.”

Whether you’re male or female, if you’re interested in learning a trade you’ll pick up some valuable insights by listening to Katrina’s podcast (at the top of this page). She discusses her journey, her motivations and what life is like as an apprentice at Viva Energy’s Geelong Refinery.

An apprenticeship can lead to a long and rewarding career. Visit the Gforce website to find out about apprenticeship opportunities, or follow Gforce on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

For more information on careers at Viva Energy, visit our careers page.

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