When I was 16, I didn’t get the opportunity to finish school, but I also knew I didn’t want to work on a building site like many of my friends or peers at the time.
Leaving Ireland and moving to London, England would normally be a tale of dreams. But in the circumstances for my family and I, like many families in the late 1980s, moving was more of a necessity to survive and make a living.
In the initial years sleeping on couches, spare beds and in shared houses with family, friends or workmates of my Dad became the norm. Work in Ireland was scarce, but London was daunting. Back in Ireland, my Dad was a painter and decorator and there was just no work. I was the youngest of five and let’s just say times were tough.
Dad was very supportive but for whatever reason, he probably thought I wasn't going to be the next Albert Einstein and finishing my education got in the way of earning an income. So he pulled me out of school to go to London to earn money. Any work would do.
I missed school and my mates. I loved sport but I also enjoyed the engagement I would get from English class. But that was no more. My Mum saw something else in me so she encouraged me to put myself through a youth training scheme. It was one of those courses where you learn office administration and then do work experience.
My first job was as a receptionist at a company called Beeline Business Equipment which sold electronic typewriters and photocopiers. This was the mid-1980s when electronic typewriters were next generation technology. This advanced equipment could store macros and fill in forms faster than the standard electric golf ball typewriters. It was very exciting stuff … Really!
I found it easy understanding the technology and, much to my surprise, when we started selling the new IBM Personal Computer with DOS 3.0, the technology kept making sense. I was logical and a loved solving problems and spotting patterns, even with sport. Very helpful in being a step ahead.
Despite all this I distinctly remember my low confidence during that period. I felt I didn’t fit into a workplace where generally, people had finished school. This was the first time I had met and worked with people who had university degrees let alone being in an office environment – it was a stretch to say I understood the dynamic of how to get by.
My wardrobe was a mixture of third-hand shiny trousers, poorly fitted shirts and cheap shoes. My voice hadn’t broken fully, so when customers phoned in to speak to the “lovely Irish girl” I would immediately redden up to an Irish suntan.
While I was sticking out in the work environment, I also found I was also sticking out in my social environment with family and friends. Hey “office boy” was the term of endearment because I was doing something completely outside expectations.
Whether I could sustain working in an office environment due to my lack of qualifications and progress a career was a question that I’d have consider many times in those early years.
But as I progressed, experienced redundancy and built confidence, I applied for jobs in the city and ended up working in tech support. One of the most important moments for me in building confidence and a sense of self was when I went for a job with a small company called CWB in the 1990s.
CWB was a niche IT consultancy and managed services firm owned and run by Christiane Wuillamie, a recognised entrepreneur and thought leader (recently made an OBE in the UK). When I went for an interview with Christiane – I was only her tenth employee – she asked what I knew about UNIX systems.
And I said, “I know nothing about them”. And then she said what do you know about banking and I was honest with her. “I know nothing about banking”. So, what do you know about trading systems and trading floors? “I know nothing about them.”
But I said, “what I do know is that I work hard, can translate customer needs to technology outcomes and I can spot and solve problems proactively.” After a few more questions delving for examples, she hired me on the spot.
Christiane explained to me later that she didn't hire me due to my limited technical skills (her words), it was my values, my culture, and behaviour that came across and got me over the line. Technology and banking she could teach me.
Culture and values were instinct and more valuable. She really believed in me, my work ethic and honesty. And she pushed me. She put me into situations I would not have put myself in. “Throwing you into the deep end” was Christiane’s favourite phrase and it proved to me I can do anything if I put my mind to it.
I had not thought much of these early memories until two years ago, when ANZ implemented a referral pathway with the Fitted For Work program to support women and help them improve their financial wellbeing and sustainability.
ANZ funds referrals to the program that helps our customers look for work or better-paid employment by developing practical skills, knowledge and confidence to improve their employment prospects.
While I could not walk a mile in the shoes of many of these women - and what they’d had to endure - my own experience informed me just how important this program is.
Many of these women had been out of the workforce for years, didn’t have much money and had been through some harsh experiences. The Fitted For Work team provided an environment (in Melbourne and Sydney) where they are fitted out with work clothes. If they are somewhere else in the country, they can use the service online.
Fitted for Work professionals also coach and support these women with how to write a job application and how to complete a CV. But it also gives them confidence in an interview setting. This is something that really resonated with me.
Like my interview with Christiane Wuillamie, it’s all about learning to be comfortable in our own skin and recognising we have value.
This year our hardship team have made 308 referrals to Fitted for Work and about a quarter of those referrals have secured employment after participating in the program.
In a world in which too many people have limits placed upon them, Fitted for Work is showing how powerful an individual’s potential can be when realised.
Dan O'Neill is Portfolio Lead Customer Service Operations for Australia Retail at ANZ