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A guiding light

Electricity may be in Wendy Cavanagh’s blood, but her true passion lies in supporting the next generation of tradies. Now, Wendy’s quiet efforts are being recognised across the VET sector.

Wendy Cavanagh has been recognised for her incredible work in the vocational education and training sector, with the dedicated electrical trainer and passionate mental health advocate receiving the Carol Webb Award for the Advancement of Vocational Education Teaching Excellence — a prestigious scholarship that provides the recipient with the opportunity to undertake further accredited study or a post-graduate qualification.

The 49-year-old mother-of-two shed tears of joy upon receiving the award, saying she felt honoured just to have been nominated.

“Once I saw the calibre of all the other nominees, I put it in the back of my mind, so it was one of my ‘holy fudge’ moments,” Wendy said.

“My goal is to sit down next year with the next recipient and say ‘this is everything I have achieved with this honour, now it’s your turn to take the baton.”

For as long as she can remember Wendy has wanted to be a teacher, but after discovering a love of working with her hands during high school, she initially chose to follow her father's footsteps in electrotechnology.

“When I turned about 10 I’d jump in the back of Dad’s ute and he’d take me and my older brother along to jobs, and we would just have to give him a hand. After about an hour we’d get bored and go do something else like the kids we were, but anything he did we were there, and it was something we enjoyed,” she said.

“When it came to trades, I felt like I’d found something I was actually good at. I changed schools halfway through Grade 9, and I can remember walking into the metal workshop and the teacher saying, ‘I think home economics is up in B Block,’ and I was like, ‘No, this is where I need to be’.”

Wendy began her apprenticeship in 1989, undertaking her training at TAFE Queensland’s Nambour campus — the very campus where she now teaches. After completing her apprenticeship, Wendy started a family and began working in electrical wholesale, working her way up from salesperson to manager and eventually running a store of her own.

Then in 2009, she had her first taste of the difference she could make in peoples’ lives through vocational education and training, taking up a job with a group training organisation where she fast became the highest performing field officer nationally for signing up the most apprentices in one year.

“When I first got there we had about 62 apprentices between my boss and I, and by the time I left we managed 105 kids each,” Wendy said.

“I get quite a bit emotionally invested, so seeing the look on their faces when I told them they've got a job was just the best feeling ever.”

Keen to help the next generation begin their journeys into the electrical industry, Wendy became a trainer at TAFE Queensland in 2018, combining her childhood dream of being a teacher with her passion for trades.

Since then Wendy has been a source of inspiration to her students as a female leader in a male-dominated industry and has earned the respect of local industry for her holistic approach to training. From creating individual learning plans with struggling students and personalising her delivery methods to ensure no student gets left behind, to proactively approaching industry offering to mentor their apprentices, Wendy goes above and beyond to instil positive practices in her students and set them up for success.

But it's Wendy’s efforts as a champion for mental health awareness in the trades sector that has made the biggest impact on TAFE Queensland’s students, with the proud advocate completing several mental health support and suicide prevention programs with the goal of supporting students and apprentices in all aspects of their lives, not just their studies.

“The attitude in the past has been to ‘suck it up’ but to that I say no — no one should have to just suck it up,” Wendy said.

“I’ve taught people from all walks of life facing a wide range of concerns — from having nowhere to live or experiencing domestic violence, through to unexpected pregnancies, learning difficulties or workplace disputes. Some things are more common everyday problems, some are heavier, but if they deem it as a problem to them, we need to get it sorted.”

Wendy said her interest in mental health and her desire to provide others with support through their struggles was initially sparked by her own experience as a young apprentice, with her 21-year-old brother killed in a car accident when she was just 18 years old.

It was an incredibly dark and lonely period for Wendy — her parents were away at the time, and having just started her apprenticeship she had minimal connections in the workplace. But the trauma sparked a desire in Wendy to support others through their struggles.

“I don’t want anyone else to feel alone or like they don’t have anyone to talk to, no matter what they're going through,” she said.

“These kids have so many different things they’re experiencing both as apprentices and in their private lives, but the support is available and I’m just doing everything I can to ensure they know how to access it. I want them to know that if they have a problem, come and talk to me and if I can help you I will, and if I can’t I’ll find them someone who can.”

It’s a trait that’s only grown stronger over time, influenced by the prominence of mental illness in the trades sector. According to data published by MensLine Australia, the rate of suicide among young tradesmen is three times higher than for other Australian men — a statistic Wendy hopes to help lower by mentoring and supporting young tradies, and encouraging open conversations about anything that may be confusing or stressful for them early on in their careers, before it becomes an issue.

“I stand up in front of my class and say, ‘Here’s my email address and my phone number. Please, if you’re struggling, call me — no matter what time it is’. And I've had students in the past do just that; we go to a public place and grab a coffee and have a chat,” Wendy said.

“My aim is to teach them to communicate and reach out for help when they need it, no matter how big the issue is.”

Wendy has applied to undertake a Bachelor of Education in 2022 with the goal of becoming an even better teacher for her students, and said she hopes to put her Carol Webb Award scholarship to good use building even more skills she can pass on to her students.

“I want them to know that if they're passionate and willing to listen and learn, they can achieve their goals, regardless of where they’ve come from. I’m just a conduit to help them get to that point,” Wendy said.