Local Revolution: How a Simple Idea Will Transform Lives Across Victoria

25 May 2019

Four years after its creation, David Finlayson traces the journey of a pioneering public-private partnership that could soon be injecting $1 billion annually into Geelong’s regional economy.

By the time she turned 18, Danelle Vanos was a stay-at-home mum, with no job, a sick mother to care for, and an almost complete absence of hope.

Growing up in Norlane, a working-class suburb of northern Geelong, Danelle was on track to becoming another statistic in an area where the ‘Australian dream’ passes too many young people by.

But that was several years ago, before Danelle landed a traineeship which led to a full-time job at the government-owned water corporation, Barwon Water.

Barwon Water employee Danelle Vanos (left), recruited under the GROW project, with G21 CEO Elaine Carbines.

Barwon Water employee Danelle Vanos (left), recruited under the GROW project, with G21 CEO Elaine Carbines.

Today, this bubbly 26-year old is part of an altogether different story – a story of new jobs and opportunities that are transforming hundreds of lives across some of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities.

Danelle was one of the first participants in a ground-breaking program known as GROW (‘G21 Region Opportunities for Work’), formed in 2014 by the G21 - Geelong Region Alliance, a not-for-profit company owned by five municipal councils, and a farsighted philanthropic organisation, the Give Where You Live Foundation.

Today, this powerful partnership has enlisted 110 business and organisation members in a ‘social compact’ to promote local employment and procure more of their goods and services in the Geelong region.

It’s a simple idea, but one that is now attracting broader attention across Victoria – with the State Government’s recent commitment of $750,000 to each of four new GROW initiatives in Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton and the Latrobe Valley. The latter offers a particularly potent testing-ground in a region where the closure of the Hazelwood Power Station has left a community desperately looking for alternatives ‘beyond coal’.

Escape from disadvantage

Danelle Vanos has lived all of her life in Norlane, a blue-collar, working-class suburb of Geelong. Together with neighbouring Corio, Norlane has double-digit levels of unemployment – higher than both the state and national averages.

With high youth unemployment, relatively low schooling attainment levels, low incomes and significant housing stress, Norlane and Corio are among the most socially and economically disadvantaged communities in Australia.

In decades past, both suburbs were home to factory workers from the Ford Geelong plant and other heavy manufacturing companies such as Alcoa and International Harvester, which have now all closed their doors in Geelong.

Today, the city’s economy is evolving in new directions, creating opportunities in information technology, advanced fibres, research and education. But fundamental structural change to the economy inevitably brings social challenges and personal stresses. The people of Norlane, Corio and a handful of other locations are at the epicentre of those changes.

“Before I was working, I had depression and anxiety,” says Danelle. “But working at Barwon Water has kind of opened me up… given me the courage to get out of my comfort zone.

“Barwon Water have been great to work for. They’re flexible with me, knowing I have a son and a sick mother, and they’re really good mentors.

“I now know what it takes to work. I know how to… connect with people.”

Since joining Barwon Water in 2015 in a placement organised by GROW and community support agency Northern Futures, Danelle has flourished.  After completing her traineeship and working for a period with Barwon Water, she now has a job with another local company and says she wants to “push my boundaries” – including potential further education.

G21 - Geelong Region Alliance CEO Elaine Carbines says the “wake-up call” that led to the creation of GROW was when local leaders were first shown data confirming that Geelong had pockets that were among the most disadvantaged in Australia.

“It was 2014 and the metrics across the two prior census periods starkly revealed that the level of disadvantage in a handful of our communities was worsening – despite considerable public and philanthropic investment,” recalls Elaine.

“Pockets within the region were ‘decile 1’ on the ABS’s Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas of Socio-Economic Disadvantage. They were therefore within the most disadvantaged 10% in the nation.”

In response, G21 formed an Addressing Disadvantage Taskforce and, in conjunction with Give Where You Live (GWYL), commissioned Dr Ingrid Burkitt, then of the Centre for Social Impact, to analyse the depth of disadvantage in the region.

GWYL CEO Bill Mithen says that most international and Australian research suggests that gaining employment is the biggest single determinant of moving out of disadvantage. “Research also shows that growing the number of jobs in a region does not improve access to those jobs where there are already high rates of joblessness,” Bill says.

Ingrid Burkitt’s “sobering” research recommended using a ‘collective impact’ model and an economic, rather than welfare, approach to address disadvantage in the region. These recommendations became the foundation for the GROW initiative when it officially launched in mid-2015.

“While GROW will create work across the G21 region, the initiative’s very specific purpose is to create jobs in and around those areas where high rates of joblessness have resulted in persistent place-based disadvantage,” Bill says.

Dr Burkitt was subsequently commissioned to develop a business case for GROW, and the Victorian Government assisted by matching the funding already provided by GWYL, G21 and the five local government councils.

The business case was launched in May 2015 – built on a set of three interlocking principles.

Under GROW, job creation happens through local and social procurement, which is businesses and organisations choosing to buy goods and services that contribute to the local community,” explains Bill.

“In practice, this means buying and hiring locally, wherever practical, so the social value of every dollar is multiplied up to three or four times as it circulates around the local economy.

“Equally important is job creation through impact investment. That’s about encouraging opportunities for small- and medium-sized businesses, and entrepreneurial spirit, within target disadvantaged communities.

“The aim is to help businesses to establish, thrive and grow jobs in those communities.”

The third principle is demand-led employment, which is about linking employers and job seekers. “It starts by identifying the specific needs of employers, then ensuring that job-seekers are appropriately assessed, trained and supported to fill those needs,” says Bill.

“We are capturing and recording data about the changes that the collective actions of GROW participants are making towards reducing unemployment and place-based disadvantage.”

A compact for change

The GWYL Foundation committed $2 million over 10 years to the implementation of GROW, which allowed the innovative policy initiative to commence. Alcoa Australia also provided a $300,000 le gacy grant for the program.

“Together we approached businesses across the G21 region inviting them to become ‘compact signatories’,” says Elaine. “By November 2015 we had 20 companies signing compacts committing to embed the principles of GROW into their procurement practices.

“In March 2016 the state government committed $1 million towards the implementation of GROW in our region, with a further $750,000 last year. We now have 110 local businesses, enterprises and agencies who are GROW compact signatories.”

They include government agencies and institutions such as Barwon Water, TAC, WorkSafe, University Hospital Geelong and Deakin University.

To develop the policy initiative further, in 2016 GROW commissioned an economic analysis of procurement in the G21 region. GROW was financially assisted with matching government funding through the Barwon South West Regional Development Australia Committee.

Consultant Arc Blue was appointed. It found that more than $17 billion of goods and services were procured annually in the Geelong region, but over $9 billion of this was being bought from outside the region – meaning that local suppliers and people were missing out.

“Economic modelling through Arc Blue showed that if we could secure a 7% shift towards greater local procurement across our region, we would create 2,500 jobs by 2020 and add $1 billion to our economy annually,” says Elaine.

“Our goal is to ensure that at least 500 of those jobs go to people from our target disadvantaged communities.”

Arc Blue found that maximum benefit would flow from within the ‘white collar’, construction, facility management, manufacturing, waste services, healthcare and social assistance sectors.

Measuring the impact of the local procurement initiative in its first year, GROW found the average shift towards local procurement actually exceeded the 7% target – with most compact signatories recording a 9% shift.

“Pleasingly, through data from REMPLAN, we determined that this had resulted in the creation of 145 local jobs,” says Bill. “More specifically, however, our GROW compact signatories created 72 jobs for people from within our target disadvantaged communities.”

“By the end of 2018, data showed a shift in excess of $44 million of non-local procurement to local suppliers,” adds Elaine.

“Importantly, the signatories had created 154 specific, identifiable jobs and pathways for people from the region’s most disadvantaged communities.”

The region’s desire to increase local procurement also led to the creation of a new digital platform in the G21 region – Localised – which links businesses to local suppliers.

“Companies and government agencies may also list their tender documents on Localised to ensure local businesses have the opportunity to bid for contracts,” explains Elaine.

“GROW’s philosophy is that addressing disadvantage is everyone’s business. As a group, ultimately, GROW aims to make sure that it reduces the levels of disadvantage across the G21 region.”

Practical examples of actions taken by GROW compact signatories include the City of Greater Geelong integrating GROW principles into its procurement policy, Barwon Water expanding its traineeship program from five trainees to 13, and Air Radiators working with a community-based organisation to develop a paid-work-experience model leading to ongoing employment for young people.

Broad-based benefits

Corio Waste Management CEO Mat Dickens says his company has actively supported GROW since its formation.

Corio Waste Management employs about 70 people with more than 40 collection vehicles servicing 6,000 businesses and government sites in the Geelong region and further afield.

“I became involved in GROW from the outset because I believe in the program and what it’s trying to achieve,” says Mat.

Corio Waste CEO Mat Dickens (left) with an employee sourced through the GROW project.

Corio Waste CEO Mat Dickens (left) with an employee sourced through the GROW project.

“At first I was more focused on the local procurement side, with the business-to-business links, but I’m now totally across the benefits more broadly.

“Helping disadvantaged people is important. My particular passion is helping people with a disability – no matter whether it’s a mental or physical disability.

“Over the years we’ve taken on about five people through GROW. It has its difficulties on the one hand, but it is extremely rewarding on the other hand.”

Corio Waste has employed people under GROW in clerical, cleaning, truck and equipment washing roles.

“Involvement in GROW has also had benefits for my management and supervisory teams,” says Mat. “Everyone has become more empathetic to peoples’ needs, and more flexible and resilient in the workplace. And one-on-one negotiation skills have improved.”

Bill Mithen says the flexible nature of the GROW model gives it great potential to be applied in other regional settings.

“With the Victorian Government committing funding to four other regions to develop their own GROW initiatives, Give Where You Live will be supporting the rollout of GROW by coordinating and chairing a state-wide network of the initiatives,” says Bill.

“Nothing like GROW had ever been implemented on this scale anywhere in Australia. Geelong, and now other areas of Victoria, are leading the way.

“The Geelong region’s GROW strategy has an initial 10-year outlook, with the ability to extend to future years. The other regions are in the early stages of setting similar outlooks and performance targets.”

Although both of GROW’s founders have small staffing profiles, they have worked together to create a big new way of doing business that is already changing hundreds of people’s lives.

Elaine Carbines says GROW is firmly based on the belief that a prosperous community cares for the wellbeing of all of its members. “I believe that in the long term, GROW will strengthen the social and economic fabric of this region far more effectively than welfare payments ever could,” she says.

Find out more about GROW at: grow.g21.com.au

GROW was named ‘policy development’ category winner in the IPAA Victoria 2017 Leadership in the Public Sector Awards.

GROW was named ‘policy development’ category winner in the IPAA Victoria 2017 Leadership in the Public Sector Awards.


Stepping Stones

How GROW membership has transformed the corporate culture at Barwon Water.

For Victoria’s largest regional urban water corporation, being a signatory of GROW means so much more than employing locally.

Since Barwon Water joined GROW in 2015, the organisation has reviewed its procurement processes to ensure more local purchasing, provided traineeship opportunities to people from disadvantaged communities, and helped several of its suppliers become more socially responsible.

Trainees from genU cleaning Barwon Water vehicles, recruited as part of the GROW project.

Trainees from genU cleaning Barwon Water vehicles, recruited as part of the GROW project.

When the corporation refurbished its Geelong headquarters in 2016, it made sure that it applied GROW’s employment and procurement principles to the $32 million project.

“The development generated some 100 regional jobs, including nine local apprentices employed on the project,” says Barwon Water’s General Manager Customers and Community, Jo Murdoch.

“Part of our tender process is to ask companies to consider signing up to the GROW compact. We’ve received a great response to this; companies are generally genuinely interested in helping the region and want to make a difference.”

Barwon Water also takes on trainees from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds, who transition into full-time employment. In 2016 the company had five trainees, which has increased to 13 this year. Many have been introduced through community support agencies in disadvantaged communities.

“With all our employees, and certainly with our trainees, we want to understand their needs and how we can work with them,” says Jo. “Hopefully we make their time at Barwon Water something special and rewarding towards building a career and their professional lives.”

Barwon Water’s GROW trainees have gone on to work in the corporation’s business administration, procurement and network operations teams, and with its maintenance services arm.

“Our first Aboriginal trainee was based in Colac. He was keen to stay there, which we supported. He has completed his traineeship and is now a permanent network operator with Barwon Water, still in Colac.”

Others have used their experience with Barwon Water as a stepping stone to further employment or education [see Danelle’s story in the main article]. Barwon Water works with Geelong-based Deakin University, which is also a GROW supporter, to build employment and education pathways.

Barwon Water trainees from genU working on vehicle fleet maintenance, recruited under the GROW project.

Barwon Water trainees from genU working on vehicle fleet maintenance, recruited under the GROW project.

Early in its involvement with GROW, Barwon Water established a project with genU, a Geelong-based community and disability support provider, to clean its fleet vehicles on-site – a ‘win-win’ for both organisations. “We believe that everyone has the right to come to work and feel as though they belong,” says Jo.

Jo says she is proud to work for an organisation that genuinely cares about making its community a better place. “It’s been wonderful to see GROW positively impacting lives by giving people who may have been unemployed for some time the opportunity to work in an organisation like this.

“As a major organisation in our region, Barwon Water has the ability to make a difference. GROW is now embedded at Barwon Water – and it’s here to stay.”