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Buy Social: Maintaining property, work, and a full life with JobQuest

October 27, 2015

When social enterprise JobQuest first approached big business, their main challenge was how to reassure contractors of their high standards of safety and professionalism. Now, every year, 75-100 JobQuest participants are trained and employed on sites across western Sydney and Newcastle across five major contracts. Here’s how they did it.

JobQuest’s social enterprise arm creates property maintenance jobs for disadvantaged job seekers. Over two large sites, long-term unemployed, people with disabilities, refugees, homeless or at-risk youth maintain the gardens of public housing estates and community housing properties, as well as de-fit floors in large office blocks.

“We initially started this social enterprise because we found it difficult to get some of our clients into flexible employment,” says JobQuest Manager Ka Chan. “It may be due to their own personal situation, maybe they have drug and alcohol problems or family issues, and they may not be able to hold down a job with regular hours.

“A lot of employers find it really difficult to cope with such eccentric hours. However, they (the employees) must develop the ability to cope with the demands of employment.” The jobseekers first enter into casual employment, which then provides a pathway into full employment with flexible hours and support structure. In their social enterprise model, JobQuest’s ultimate aim is to assist people to develop confidence and job skills to become competitive in an open labour market.

Early days with GPT Group

JobQuest’s first partnership arrangement with GPT Group demonstrates how with perseverance and a willingness to experiment, a smaller contract can become successful for all parties.

Finding it very hard to gain industry recognition, JobQuest found the one-to-one, direct connection was the best way for them to proceed, rather than a formal tender or procurement process. “We first met GPT Group through Social Traders,” says Ka. They are very committed to social enterprise projects, and asked Social Traders to recommend three contractors as part of a trial, to help de-fit some floors of the MLC building in Sydney.”

At first, the cultural differences between the building and the community sectors looked huge, and it was not all smooth sailing for this cross-sector partnership. “Their contractors thought we could be a risk to ourselves and other people if we couldn’t follow their safety procedures.”

JobQuest worked hard to ensure all employee liaison went through their own staff, and while the initial relationship was challenging, Ka remembers: “In a short time the head contractor realised we could do the job. Probably as good as, if not better than their own employees – and then they understood why we’re doing it.”

JobQuest’s Corporate Social Responsibility statement suggests ways in which businesses can invest their time and knowledge in social responsibility. Ka sees this as an ongoing process of education, and as with the GPT Group partnership, on other projects JobQuest has successfully turned around the idea of social enterprises as being ‘charity cases’. Ka notes a series of major maintenance projects with Transfield, as well as the Councils of Lake Macquarie and Newcastle that challenged their first impressions. “We are a smaller organisation and are lucky to have those connections.

“I think the private sector is a really valuable partner for us. At first, they don’t recognise us as part of the industry. And they are used to dealing with organisations like ours on a philanthropic basis, as in, giving us money. But we find that they don’t take us seriously as an industry partner until they get to know us and work with us.”

On one side, a smart strategy for survival

Long-term, JobQuest’s strategy to partner with large private sector companies such as GPT Group is paying off. While they receive some government funding for their training services, their commercial operations mean they can thrive. With the income and stability from their social procurement contracts JobQuest was able to launch a new Aged Care division to help pensioners and retirement villages maintain their gardens.

Ka sees their commercial contracts as more than simply money-spinners as well. “They allow us to extend our networks like with the GPT Group contract, and to meet groups like Social Traders. They also open doors for us and demonstrate that there are other innovative approaches than just relying on government funding.”

On the other, a smart business decision

Companies like GPT Group are always under pressure to find reliable sub-contractors. JobQuest’s certification (AS4801, the national OH&S standard), plus their training and rates, means they are on par with their other suppliers and contractors. “Big business find social enterprise a little bit better to deal with because we understand their customers too. They’re happy to use us because we can provide that stability; we may be slightly more expensive but they certainly get their value back.”

Throughout western Sydney and Newcastle, Jobquest helps disadvantaged members of the community to be independent and self-reliant, and to connect with their communities.

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