He had lost his job due to a lack of hours – last guy in, first guy out – and was doing Work for the Dole as he trudged his way through the Centrelink system and the rejection letters piled up.
After a tip from his case manager about a new program for people stuck in that cycle, without work or the experience necessary to get it, he found himself sitting in a room with about 50 others.
“Just about everyone in that group had one thing in common: we all had really good excuses why we didn’t have a job,” he said.
He had done courses that gave him bits of paper, skills he could list on a resume, but none had got him anywhere.
A lot of people in this town cry about not having jobs, but I can’t see them getting off their butts and doing something about it – they sit at home watching Netflix.
This one was run by Regional Development Australia, outside the Jobactive network at first, and it was different.
“The way Christine (Willersdorf) is with her clients, she wants to see everyone get a job – she’d just about do the interview for them if she could,” he said in soft-spoken, emotional tones.
“She’s one of the nicest people I ever met.
“They call you, text you, make sure you’re alright, ‘how’s your job search going’, they really stick their neck out for you, which is a rare quality.
“They made me feel like I was worth something again.
“To have that level of commitment come from someone else gives you confidence.”
The idea behind Jobs 4 Murraylands came from the Murraylands Food Alliance, major employers who have struggled to find suitable workers in recent years, despite the region’s high unemployment rate.
Skills specific to each employer could be taught, Ms Willersdorf, the project’s coordinator, found; what they needed was people with the right attitude, enthusiasm and resilience for when the going got tough.
“A lot of unemployed people really feel down in confidence, self-esteem, they stop believing in themselves,” she said.
“The people who came in on the first day, we said ‘I believed in every one of you when you walked in the room; my job is to get you to believe in yourself when you walk out’.”
In a series of one-on-one sessions, she built those people up by first looking at what they had achieved in the past.
Each participant was also required to attend at least two fitness sessions per week, not just to make sure they were fit enough for the workplace, but for the benefits a healthy body had on their state of mind.
More than half the participants in the first program intake overcame histories of drug use, injuries or troubled home lives to find employment.
“We were actually able to take people from being unemployable to being employable,” Ms Willersdorf said.
“It’s not about skill, it’s about attitude, being on time, resilience and increased pride in themselves and Murray Bridge, in living here.”
Work is hard
Mr Smith said the job he earned four months ago, on the production line at Thomas Foods International, was not something everyone could handle.
“I’ve seen dozens walk in and out of there, they can’t handle the workload,” he said.
“It’s not what happens here (meat processing) … they come in off the dole and expect money to just fall into their lap.”
He said his own success was the result of a willingness to work hard.
“There’s good days, bad days, long hours and it’s quite physical work,” he said.
“A lot of people don’t understand that until they experience it.
“Even now I have bad days – everybody has bad days – but I’m going forward, not backward.”