From Doing the Dishes to Directing Kitchen Traffic
- Rhys Mathieson's journey to full time employment at the Fish Creek Hotel

As far back as the early 20th century, an American author and social worker by the name of Jane Addams was quoted to say;
“Of all aspects of social misery, nothing is so heartbreaking as unemployment”

For South Gippsland’s Rhys Mathieson, the period of 2007 to 2018 was 11 long years of heartbreak.

Rhys left school mid-way through Year 11, and up until the year he was turning 26, he crisscrossed in quite a few different directions with university and vocational study.

Lacking in self-confidence, he just wasn’t sure where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do, nor could he find any part or full-time work opportunities.

After his 26th birthday, the study path was no longer an option, so he needed to transition onto the NewStart program.

Rhys then spent the following year applying for the required 20 jobs per month, month after month, rarely ever getting a reply to his applications, let alone any interviews or actual offers of employment.

“I was applying for jobs in call centres, warehouses, entry level jobs in IT and traineeships, but I was never able to find a way in anywhere “he said.

Rhys spent one year on the NewStart program, where he said the compulsory two-hour meeting once a fortnight to update your job search progress in a group situation wasn’t always very helpful.

“There wasn’t ever much time for any positive encouragement, and a lot of the meetings were held in an open space, where it always felt like the general public were looking at you and judging you for being unemployed

“The people managing the program are really nice and they’re doing the best they can, but the group meeting approach is really not great for the long term unemployed, especially when there was such a broad range of skills and experience amongst the groups

“If there was someone with lots of experience and they weren’t having any luck getting any interviews, you’d feel even more despondent – I mean if they weren’t getting a look in for jobs with all their skills, where did that leave people like me, who had very little, if any on the job experience – so at the end of some of those fortnightly meeting, I’d just go home feeling terrible "

The turning point for Rhys was when he transitioned from NewStart into the “Job Active” program.

It was at this time that he was introduced to the Manna Gum Community house, located in Foster, just a few kilometres from his home in Fish Creek, a quirky little village known for its iconic art deco hotel and community of eclectic artists amongst its permanent population of around 800 people.

Manna Gum and the Gippsland Regional Agrifood Employment Program (GRAEP) work collaboratively all year round to maximise opportunities to break the cycle of long term unemployment for people of all ages.

Under the nurturing and understanding care of Manna Gum Case Manager, Louisa Vale, the support Rhys received in his job search journey switched to being one on one, and it was at this time that he started to feel like he was treated like an adult.

“Being connected to Manna Gum lifted my confidence and made me see that I was actually on the right path and I could then see some light at the end of the tunnel” said Rhys.

Via Manna Gum, Rhys was enrolled in with the New Horizons, Growing Futures in Food course that has been created and developed by the Paynesville Neighbourhood Centre.

This popular course is shared via the Learn Locals resource site which then allows each of the Learn Local centres to add their own relevant content and site visits depending on employment opportunities and industries in their area.

The course was facilitated by Manna Gum in a small class, so the students got a lot of focused attention, and as per the structure to maximise local relevance, a number of topics explored the local food industries in the South Gippsland area.

The content of the course is carefully planned with a mix of informative theory / classroom style sessions, practical on-site visits and face-to-face conversations with industry professionals.

This included activities like a visit to a dairy farm, where students were able to get a firsthand understanding of what sort of jobs can be available in the dairy industry and what a dairy farmer would be looking for in a potential employee who presented themselves for any of those roles.

The New Horizons course also gave its participants valuable personal development opportunities in important areas like interview technique, and for Rhys, his preparation for an eventual job trial interview with the Fish Creek Hotel could not have been better.

“Well it was literally the day before my real interview at the Hotel that I had gone through the mock interviews at Manna Gum, so I didn’t have any nerves at all, I knew where I had gone wrong and right from my interview practice the day before, so I just focused on that, and it was almost like a casual chat. And the publican told me on the spot that she’d be happy to take me on in a 100-hour job trial”

And so began Rhys’s baptism of fire (in the nicest possible way !) into the hospitality industry.

As one of the gateways to Wilson’s Promontory in South Gippsland, Fish Creek is a busy little spot as the weather gets warmer, and when Rhys began his job trial in the last week of the spring school holidays, the place was alive with people, most of them hungry for meals at the Fish Creek Hotel.

His first shift was day shift; his responsibility was doing the dishes, with the owner’s intention to keep him only on days until he found his way, but as he made such an immediate impact by figuring out a better and quicker way to get through the volume of dishes coming through the kitchen sinks, not only did the chef want him back the next day, but he asked if he could do a split shift, day and night.

Part of Rhys’s introduction to hospitality was also a very quick realization of its seasonality and the transitional personalities that the industry attracts, because after that school holiday rush, it wasn’t long before he was almost the last one left standing in the pub’s kitchen!

“In my second week, all the cooks left; they’d had enough and were moving on to the next gig, so I was kinda thinking what have I got myself in for????

“One day I was working with them, and then the next, they were all just gone - but I soon figured out that this is pretty much the norm in hospitality “he laughed.

Over the last 11 months, Rhys has seen close to 20 chefs come and go, but he puts some of that down to the big swings in patron numbers not necessarily suiting the way some chefs like to work.

“One night you’ll do ten meals, and then the next night, with very little warning or indication, you’ll do 200, it’s really up and down, so you just need to get in and get it done “he said.

Rhys is approaching his one-year anniversary at the Fish Creek Hotel at the end of September 2019 and he credits his first boss, former pub owner Karyn Peavey, for playing an integral role in developing his on the job confidence.

In his first year of full time employment, the pub changed owners, and Rhys is now the most “senior” or experienced person in the team, in terms of knowing his way around the kitchen, and knowing how everything works.

“There’s a bit of pressure when you become the go-to person - so when new chefs first arrive, I’m now usually the one showing them the ropes, and as long as you work hard and work with them, they really respect you “he said.

Being given responsibility and ownership of various daily tasks around the pub has resulted in a new level of engagement, enthusiasm and purpose that had been lacking in Rhys’s life for such a long time.

As is the case with all job placements coordinated via the GRAEP programme, there is a significant level of mentoring and communication involved in making the transition to permanent employment successful. The mentoring aims to give the long term unemployed an understanding support system that helps grow their confidence and familiarity with the routine and responsibility of having a job.

For those who have experienced long term unemployment, this connection is proving to be a winning formula, with over 100 people placed in long term employment in the last two years.

GRAEP Manager Julie Tuhi kept in close contact with Karyn, Rhys’s first boss, and they agreed that with the hotel to soon be taken over by new owners, it would be beneficial to expand Rhys’s job skills with some formal qualifications.

GRAEP was able to sponsor Rhys to complete the Safe Food Handling course, something he was really chuffed to have been given access to.

“To be able to do a course like that was really great – it felt good to know that people believed in me enough to want to give me the chance to do it - a lot of the course content was about stuff I already knew from my time working in the pub, but to now have the official ticket is a big bonus”

Having full time employment for the first time in 11 years has given Rhys a new lease on life, being able to dismiss the stress of looking for a job and happily get accustomed to not having a lot of free time!

He says he’ll take the stress of a busy kitchen and a demanding chef any day over dealing with the stress of having to find a job.

Rhys is now able to meet all his bills on time all the time, and the regular cash flow has certainly opened up more options to be able to take part in social activities with friends.

“I’m now just trying to find a balance between working and down time – I do a lot of night shifts, so I’m at work when my friends are at home, but that’s ok, I really enjoy my job”

And there may be plans to upskill even further, with some initial discussion underway with the new owners about moving Rhys into a role of line cook in the kitchen.

Starting from the very bottom in the base position of doing the dishes for his first two months at the hotel, Rhys seized every opportunity to add more and more tasks to his remit of responsibility in the hotel to the point where he now runs the back half of the busy kitchen.

This involves organizing the larder, prepping dishes like salads, and being in charge of the oven – adding toppings to baked mains like the traditional pub parmies and taking mains out of the oven to chef for final plating up.

When key personnel left during the summer period of 2019, Rhys had little choice but to step into the void, and he jumped at the chance to take on more, learn more, do more and ultimately, be more.

With a chuckle, he says January was a bit of a blur as at that time of the year the pub averages 150+ meals at lunch and over 250+ meals at night – seven days a week. But now with over 2000+ hours kitchen experience clocked up; Rhys has the confidence to take on the world.

“I know I could do a kitchen hand role in just about any kitchen, anywhere in the world – some of the chefs I’ve worked with at Fish Creek have told me that I’m one of the best kitchen hands they’ve ever worked with!” he said.

Rhys gives significant credit to his success over the last 12 months to the support and mentoring that he could rely on from Manna Gum Community House.

“I was able to talk to them about stuff that I really couldn’t talk about with the job provider – which was a real help with anything I was feeling unsure or nervous about”

Rhys believes the empathy and understanding he has been given over the last 12 months has been an integral part of him building confidence on the job, and he has a message for others who are experiencing a cycle of long-term unemployment.

“You will get out of it eventually – be open to just taking every opportunity you can – you’ll never know where it might lead you”

For Rhys, the only way is onwards and upwards and his enthusiasm is infectious!

“I’m looking forward to another big, busy summer at the Fish Creek Hotel, and it’ll be great if I get the chance to develop my skills further, learn more in the kitchen and take on an even bigger role “he said.

“Having got through last summer, I feel really confident about how efficient I’ll be when we are in that crazy busy time again, and how I’ll be able to really help make the kitchen run as efficiently as possible “he said.

“And it’s going to be fun no matter what happens, so I say bring it on!” he laughed.

Time now in full time employment
Approaching one-year anniversary

Outcomes
Cycle of long-term unemployment now broken

Looking Ahead
Further career development opportunities are a possiblity at the Fish Creek Hotel and Rhys now has confidence, experience and a very transferable skill set.

Timeline for Breaking the Long Term Unemployment Cycle for Rhys

NOTE: You may need to scroll the table below left/right for more information

17th of August 2017

New Start claim approved

16th of August 2018

Swap over to Job Active

16th of August 2018

Commence program @ Manna Gum Community House

16th of August 2018

Commence New Horizons Growing Futures in Food - Job readiness course

24th of September 2018

Job Trial at the Fish Creek Hotel

22nd of October 2018

Secures full time employment at the Fish Creek Hotel

Courses Completed

NOTE: You may need to scroll the table below left/right for more information

New Horizons Growing Futures in Food – Job readiness course

Safe Food Handling

The Gippsland Regional Agrifood Employment Programme is supported by Jobs Victoria.