March 9, 2021

Debbie Kennedy and Phoebe Hillyer-Brandt end their working sessions with some time out.

Debbie Kennedy has done years of work experience in hospitality and customer service with little pay to show for it. She estimates half of the work she has done has been unpaid.

Work experience can be a trap for people with disabilities if it never leads to ‘pay experience’.

IHC recently tried a new approach to see if Debbie Kennedy, a 24-year-old Dunedin woman, could finally break through the job barrier.

Local IHC Volunteer Coordinator Dean Reed worked out a strategy with Choices NZ Facilitator Kaitlyn Brown to not only boost Debbie’s employment skills but help her recognise and promote the many skills she already has.

In September, Debbie was introduced to Phoebe Hillyer-Brandt through the IHC skills-based volunteering programme. Phoebe was finishing a master’s degree in psychology and looking for a short-term volunteering opportunity.

For four weeks they worked through a plan – money handling, going undercover as ‘secret shoppers’ to check customer service in retail stories, job interview skills, and visiting a job expo.

In week five there was a dress rehearsal for the job interview, conducted by Dean and Phoebe, and Debbie passed with flying colours. “I would give her a job for sure,” Phoebe says. “We wrote some notes about what she did well and a few little things to work on.”

Phoebe says Debbie knows her way around customer service, but she says it’s one thing to have the theory, but another to be able to apply it in practice and to find the opportunity to talk about that experience with a prospective employer. “It’s a matter of confidence.”

Debbie says she found the mock interview difficult. “I was nervous on the day. There were hard questions.” She would like a job in retail – “somewhere that is a good environment” – and says she found the skills programme helpful. “It got my confidence back up.”

Phoebe has now left Otago to return home to Wellington, but the pair plan to keep in touch. Debbie will now work with Kaitlyn to find work through Choices NZ and Kaitlyn is optimistic. “She will work well in a team – she is a team player,” she says. “The plan is to keep applying and advocating for Debbie. Hospitality and retail jobs are no longer entry-level jobs in Dunedin, and it seems employers are only looking for people with paid experience and people without employment gaps.”

Kaitlyn says Choices NZ can offer on-the-job support and training to employers who are prepared to invest in Debbie and other Choices NZ clients. It can also advise employers about the funding that is available through the Ministry of Social Development for job support and training.

For more information about how Choices NZ can work with job seekers and partner with employers, see what-we-offer/job-seekers

Caption: Debbie Kennedy and Phoebe Hillyer-Brandt end their working sessions with some time out.

This story was published in Strong Voices. The magazine is posted free to all IHC members.

Read the full issue of Strong Voices online here.