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Smash repairs workshop bent on helping troubled youth

April 29, 2014

The insurance and automotive industries have extended an olive branch to young car thieves by backing them to train at Australia’s first not-for-profit smash repairer.

Synergy Auto Repairs, run by Mission Australia with set-up funding of $750,000 from state governments and insurers, will open its North Melbourne garage with the first eight trainees next month.

Former offenders aged from 16 to their early 20s, some of whom have served jail time, will start a six month TAFE pre-apprenticeship course including panel beating and spray painting cars, supervised by paid staff at Synergy.

The aim is for Synergy to be self-funding as a social enterprise business, inspired by Mission Australia’s Fitzroy restaurant Charcoal Lane, founded in 2008, which trains young Aborigines in hospitality.

Synergy is being bankrolled by the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council – whose members include state governments, automotive and insurance industry bodies and the police. If successful, it will be replicated interstate.

One of the funders, insurance giant Suncorp, owner of insurers including AAMI, GIO and APIA, will provide scratched and dented vehicles. On participants’ graduation from the course, Suncorp will help find apprenticeships for them in its smash repairer network.

Ray Carroll with young former offender Tony (left) and Matt at Synergy Auto. Photo by: Angela Wylie

NMVTRC executive director Ray Carroll said Synergy is the automotive industry’s first social enterprise and is a positive approach to reduce car theft, which costs the community $500 million a year.

He said more than 70 per cent of car theft is committed by young men aged 14 to 24 but the criminal justice system ‘‘leaves a lot to be desired in terms of giving these young guys a chance to break the offending cycle’’.

In focus groups with car thieves and community workers, the council had discovered many offenders had ‘‘a fascination with, a love of cars’’.

‘‘We thought, if you could offer some of these young guys a pathway into an automotive career, they could see a lot of value in that. It’s not like a course in basket weaving, [which, when] you do it then when it’s over it doesn’t mean anything to you.’’

An NMVTRC pilot panel-beating program for young offenders in Hobart has been running for more than 10 years and trained 400 youths, with about two-thirds employed or continuing education after graduation.

Mr Carroll said Synergy will generate its own cash flow and not depend on outside financing. Any profits would be injected into support services, such as housing, counselling and literacy.

‘‘If it works well, hopefully it can be replicated in Sydney, Brisbane or Perth, without having to go with the begging bowl to government.’’

Mr Carroll said it costs $240,000 to keep one person in juvenile justice for one year so a $750,000 investment in Synergy was not excessive. ‘‘That’s the equivalent of keeping three young guys in juvenile justice for 12 months.’’

Matt, 20, said he stole cars and committed burglary and assault after dropping out of school in year 8 and ‘‘hanging out with the wrong people’’. Being jailed for four months was a wake-up call and he jumped at the chance to train at Synergy, which he said was ‘‘an excellent idea’’.

He had given up on getting an apprenticeship with his poor education background but could now work towards his long-term dream of running his own business.


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