Apprenticeship program helping to boost the number of Indigenous electricians

Shane Button was in his 30s when he realized something had to change.

He had left school early with minimal education, which made life difficult. He found it difficult to stay in Jobs because he couldn’t imagine a bright future.

Then he started a prep program to become an electrician, which changed his life.

“My life has drained so far that I may not even be alive today. This program has helped me save my life,” he said.

Shane Button hopes to one day run his own business. (

ABC News: Niall Lenihan

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The man from Dunghutti and Yuin is now a sophomore apprentice and is well on his way to becoming a qualified electrician.

Thanks to the program that is helping to open doors for industry, a growing number of young Indigenous Australians are rising in the ranks of the electronics trade.

The National Electrical and Communication Association (NECA) emPOWER program is designed to equip Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with the math, reading, and employability skills necessary for successful electrical education.

The program, launched in partnership with TAFE NSW, has provided employment and study avenues for more than 250 Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal people since 2017.

For Shane Button (34), the 10-week course was worth the challenge.

“My school level was basically the start of high school, so I didn’t understand a lot of those math stuff, so it was almost like learning from scratch,” he said.

“When I started doing the program, all I could do was tell you my tables five times … and in the end I do trigonometry and understand Pythagoras.”

He currently works at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, but hopes one day to run his own business so that he can employ other young indigenous people.

“It’s my job as older Aborigines in my community to do this for these younger people. I have children of my own … they need to see [us] Succeed and do something positive. ”

A young woman wearing a warning shirt works on electrical circuits on a board while an older man looks on. Torres Strait Islander Tollie Donnelly hopes to prove that indigenous women can thrive in the industry. (

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Tom Emeleus, general manager of NECA, said the program is helping to fill the gap in youth unemployment and bring more indigenous people into the industry.

“We found that we had a real shortage of indigenous peoples and that we were very poorly represented and, as a result, poorer,” he said.

“One of the things we learned a long time ago [is] If it’s just an exercise program, not really much will be achieved.

“There are a lot of people offering training programs to try and tick their corporate responsibilities, but if that doesn’t result in employment it won’t have much of an impact.”

Tollie Donnelly, 19, is a sophomore student working at the Sydney Opera House.

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience to work there,” said Torres Strait Islander, originally from Darnley Island.

A young dark skinned woman smiles as she holds some electrical wires with pliers. Tollie Donnelly says it is “really special” to work as an apprentice electrician at the Sydney Opera House (

ABC News: Niall Lenihan

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She is just a handful of women in the program and hopes to break old stereotypes in the industry.

“Sometimes I look like you’re supposed to be a traffic controller or something like you just stand there and hold a sign,” she said.

“For indigenous women in particular, there aren’t many different ways we can be successful because that’s how we are seen in society. So it’s a really big deal to have this job in Sydney that I find really special.”

The program offers ongoing support from Mulga Gidgee, an intercultural organization for coaching, training and mentoring.

“A lot of young people come into the program from the Housing Commission, disadvantaged education and social challenges to have truly amazing careers,” said Scott McCall, executive director of Mulga Gidgee.

A man with a beard and a blue shirt is standing in front of a control panel. Scott McCall, general manager of Mulga Gidgee, says his job is to keep trainees healthy. (

ABC News: Niall Lenihan

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He regularly offers trainees social support and support for well-being outside of work.

“Sometimes it’s the money, sometimes it’s the family, sometimes it’s just the logistics. My job is to make sure that our trainees stay alive and healthy and that they are doing well.”

It’s the support, said Tollie, that helped her hold out.

“It also helped me look into my culture, how I can manage to be local. It won’t affect my ability for the future or my ability to have a successful career.”

Shane is now also hopeful for the future.

“Because it helped me save my life, it has the ability to do the same for other young Aboriginal men and women.”

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