The district is Otorohanga and the motorbike mechanic is Dale Williams – only these days he’s also the Mayor.
With a unique apprentice support scheme and 10 other youth initiatives, Otorohanga has maintained zero registered unemployment of people under age 25 since November 2006. And, since the new initiatives began in 2005, the district has seen an 80 per cent reduction in resolved youth crime.
Dale Williams says it all began because Otorohanga businesses had grown so desperate for workers that many were thinking seriously about leaving town.
“Employers were all asking the same thing,” Dale says. “How come our local kids weren’t applying for local jobs and apprenticeships.”
In 2004, just after Dale was elected Mayor, he and Otorohanga businessman Andrew Giltrap knocked on the door of Otorohanga College to ask that question.
“What we found,” says Dale, “was that kids were leaving the district to do apprenticeships and study elsewhere – and these kids were never coming back.”
As a former apprentice himself, and because he relates to young people, Dale put together a small group to work out how to make a difference.
“We decided Otorohanga needed its own polytech. We thought it was a brainwave!”
The group convinced the Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) to open a trade training centre in Otorohanga that would be driven by the district’s employers.
“We wrote our own courses directly to suit the needs of our employers, and got them accredited. And we got guarantees from our employers so we’d have jobs waiting.”
The group then created a job for apprentice support coordinator Ray Haley, known as “camp mum”. He brings about 50 apprentices from around the district into the trade training centre to help them with their workbooks, supports both their practical work and life in general.
Dale says the pastoral care provided by “camp mum” is key to Otorohanga’s 96 per cent apprentice completion rate. National apprentice completion rates are around 35 per cent.
“Ray does whatever it takes to keep them on their course. They might ring him and say my girlfriend is gone, my car is broken, whatever – and he sorts it.”
Another initiative, known as MPowa, has an administrator who contacts school leavers in the district once a fortnight until they are in training, further education or are employed.
Other youth-focussed initiatives have sprouted as the Otorohanga community has been swept up in the momentum. A career expo runs regularly, and trade brochures are published to highlight local opportunities.
Businesses offer scholarships for local kids, and guarantee jobs for training centre graduates.
A church came on board to set up a youth centre with a climbing wall, after-school care and holiday programmes, leadership and mentoring. An arts centre offered music, dance, drama and art lessons.
Young achiever awards and the trade training centre and apprentice graduation ceremony run annually – one of the few occasions that will induce Dale to wear a suit.
Dale, a qualified motorcycle mechanic, remembers being totally under-whelmed at age 21 when after four years of hard work he received a crinkled certificate through the post.
“I got a brown envelope in the mail, all munted, and that was it. Whereas my brother, who’d done a degree, got all dressed up, had a capping ceremony and a party. So our graduation here is a very high brow event.”
Dale Williams is clearly proud of what Otorohanga has achieved.
The district has no unemployed people under the age of 25. Its businesses now have a rich resource of young, trained workers. “We have businesses relocating here because of the support we offer our employers.”
There have been social impacts too.
Six years ago, youth were responsible for nearly half of all resolved crime in Otorohanga. Now less than one in five crimes is perpetrated by young people. The main street is hung with floral baskets that don’t get stolen. Its kiwi sculptures don’t get vandalised. Its kiwiana murals don’t get tagged.
Businesses are finding that their customer base has changed – it’s a younger demographic now. For the first time in 20 years, the local sports club this year fielded an under-19s team.
“We never even thought about these things when we started. We just had one specific goal to find out why we couldn’t get young people to fill jobs.”
Andrew Giltrap, who has remained a key player in the development of the youth initiatives says “I would have laughed my head off if you had said to me in the beginning that one of the outcomes of all this would be zero youth unemployment, because back then it was not even on the agenda.”
Andrew says it has been hard work, but worth it when he hears locals say how proud they have become of Otorohanga’s success.
“The engagement of youth, and people’s pride in the community are just something you can’t put a price on.”
Jan Francis, CEO of the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs which Dale has chaired since 2008, says Dale has gift for motivating people, including the young.
“One time he got this bunch of kids, who’d all left school and had nothing much to do, and he took them to McDonalds. He told them they could eat as much as they wanted as long as they talked to him, because he really wanted to find out was going to work for those kids and he knew he’d never engage them any other way.”
Jan says Dale is both a strategic thinker and a practical man “He actually gets up and does things himself. He will jump through all the hoops – the more there are, the more it drives him.”
Dale says he gets a lot of credit for motivating the transformation that has taken place for Otorohanga and its youth, but “a lot of people do a lot of work, and share this vision.”
His role, he says, is to listen carefully to what people want and need, establish a clear vision, and then take on the bureaucracy. He bangs on doors, kicks over hurdles, finds money and makes things happen so that the community can get on with the real work and “deliver the goods”.
“I believe in local solutions for local people. And once the vision is clear there is no need to hold people’s hands – just step back and let them deliver. It doesn’t seem like rocket science to me.”