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Singapore ex-pat’s guest post by Penny Graham, CEO of CareerSeekers

Singapore ex-pat’s guest post by Penny Graham, CEO of CareerSeekers

Penny and I met at one of Jane’s Tours trips to the theatre. We were both alone and hit it off immediately, sharing stories of working in law and living in London. Despite frequent trips to Australia to see her boys, we’ve been friends ever since, and I’m delighted that she’s agreed to close my first series of guest posts.

Readers, please meet Penny.

Penny Graham

“I always wanted to study law.

In my youth, I imagined being a Queen’s Council fighting for justice against the tyranny of large organisations. Instead, like so many others, I took a commercial path.

I specialised in construction and infrastructure law and worked on big infrastructure projects in Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. I loved good urban design, cities that worked for us, delivered with appropriate infrastructure. The money came from Singapore and Hong Kong, and that’s when I fell in love with Singapore.

In 1998, I moved to the UK and worked increasingly in the investment and banking side of infrastructure projects. Like many women I juggled work and family. After the children grew up, I ‘reinvented’ myself moving into consulting roles with large pension funds investing in infrastructure, before making the transition to Board roles as an independent director.

I’ve had a lifetime of travelling and working in some of the world’s great melting pots and that’s spurred on my passion to promote and foster cultural diversity in companies.

We know that a diverse population, representing all aspects of our society, is essential. If we don’t have a mixed workforce, at all levels, we don’t get a broad range of thoughts and views. If we don’t seek that diversity, and respond or connect with it, we marginalise whole chunks of the population. Take my native country of Australia, 29.7%* of the current population was born overseas. That increases to 49% when you count first and second generation migrants. Every single country in the world was represented in Australia’s population in 2019. Yet the mix in the boardrooms, the professional firms, the ‘C-suite’, the elected government and their departments certainly don’t mirror our population’s diversity.

My own family is more typically Australian than a born and bred Aussie might assume, yet I’m the only one born in Australia. My husband was born and raised in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Our sons are English and my husband and I mentored a Sudanese refugee boy through school and he’s become an integral part of our family. I now live in Singapore, and a new chapter begins!

Penny with her ‘boys’ in Australia.

I’m currently Chair of CareerSeekers, a not for profit organisation started in 2016 to provide employment opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers settling in Australia.

2019 cohort of CareerSeekers. (image courtesy of CareerSeekers)

We provide work readiness training, CV and interview support and find meaningful and appropriate paid internship commensurate with skill levels.  We have two streams: mid-career professionals for refugees with professional qualifications from their country of origin; and a student stream, for those currently studying at university having arrived on humanitarian visas.  We support both the intern and the company through the process.

Melbourne CareerSeekers working together. (image courtesy of CareerSeekers)

In the last four years, CareerSeekers has partnered with 74 major employers in Australia and provided more than 684 employment outcomes with an 81% conversion rate from intern to full time employee.

Our Seekers are people with aspirations and hopes. Many are highly skilled. All are grateful, resilient, loyal, hardworking and valuable additions to the workforce. They see employment as the catalyst for settling in Australia successfully.

Mid-career CareerSeekers. (image courtsey of CareerSeekers)

Raneen, is one of our student cohort.

Raneen fled from Iraq after losing her home family and education. (image courtesy of CareerSeekers)

When the Iraqi civil war was intensifying, Raneen was in her final year of a mechanical engineering degree. She lost her home, family and education and fled to Turkey before finally resettling in Australia. After several attempts to restart her professional career, Raneen was accepted into a Mechanical Engineering degree at Western Sydney University. She has a distinction average and will graduate in 2020 with honours. Through CareerSeekers Raneen began an internship with Lend Lease on the Westconnex project in Sydney.

Sameer is part of our mid-career programme.

Sameer fled Iraq after receiving death threats from ISIS. (image courtesy of Downer)

Sameer was a successful engineer in Mosul, Iraq until he and his family received death threats from ISIS. They fled and eventually resettled in Australia.

I knew some English, but I struggled with language.” he said. “The other barrier was the first question I was asked at job interviews, ‘Do you have local experience?’ I couldn’t get experience if no one gave me an opportunity. I knocked on many doors, but I was always told I needed local experience. I went to TAFE and studied English to help with the language difference. I also studied a certificate of building construction, so I was familiar with Australian engineering standards.

Through CareerSeekers, he gained a 12-week internship with Downer EDI, which has subsequently turned into a full-time contract.

I will never forget the day I got the internship with Downer. I felt I was born for the second time. It was a new chance.”

Businesses which invest in diversity reap rewards. But the untold story, one we hear repeatedly, is the impact interns have on their workplace.  Mentors and managers tell us the benefit they get from the experience; the sense of pride they feel in being involved in programs like this and our sister organisation, CareerTrackers.

Mid career CareerSeekers with employers. (image courtesy of CareerSeekers)

CareerTrackers started 10 years ago. A non-profit social enterprise with the goal of creating pathways and support systems for Indigenous young adults to attend and graduate from university with high marks, gain industry experience and enjoy bright professional futures. Its success has been recognised by employers, governments and, most importantly, Indigenous communities throughout Australia. CareerTrackers students complete university at higher rates than their non-Indigenous peers and 95% of Alumni are in full-time employment in their field within three months of graduation.

Together CareerTrackers and CareerSeekers are promoting employment opportunities for Australia’s First People and its newest peoples! We should not see racial/ cultural or gender inclusion as charity or an obligation. It’s mutually beneficial.

Unfortunately, Covid 19 has had a significant impact on our business but we’ve adapted. Our courses and practice interviews have gone online, and we’re adjusting and assisting management with how remote working can still work for interns. Lockdown halted our winter internship programme so the pressure is on to make this summer period as productive as possible. But it’s not all bad. Covid 19 has changed how we work and the momentum generated by the US Black Lives Matter movement,  has caused companies globally to question their own systemic inequalities.  These are opportunities to really embrace change and look at the work outcomes and society that we want to create. One, I hope, that fully embraces diversity.”

Thank you Penny for ending this series on such an uplifting and inspiring note. I hope that CareerSeekers and CareerTrackers continues to grow in strength and reach.

Thank you to all my guests, Sophie McDermott, Josephine Chia, Jonathan Hardy, Jane Iyer, Jennifer Lim and Penny Graham for sharing your stories, passions and memories. You have been superb company.

I’ll be back on 6th November to tell you what I’ve been up to. It’s very exciting.

Thanks for dropping by. With love from Singapore.

* latest available statistics from The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2018/2019

4 Responses to Singapore ex-pat’s guest post by Penny Graham, CEO of CareerSeekers

  1. I loved reading about Career Seekers, Penny. This is a wonderful program and as a first born Australian of migrant parents I wholeheartedly applaud any such initiative that welcomes and absorbs diversity into the community. My husband also as new non English speaking arrival in Australia in 1995 also benefitted from a similar organization which facilitated recognition of his qualifications and his employment prospects in the Australian construction industry.

    • Thanks Karin for sharing your personal insight. When you look at the skills you and Lars possess it makes you realise how much talent could be wasted without such schemes.
      Great comment. Thank you.

    • Dear Madeleine,
      Thank you for your comment. It’s great to hear from you and I agree most whole-heartedly. It was a nice one to work on too. Take care Liz

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