When Judy Palmer-Brown and I first met, we were both working at a higher altitude – in the beautiful Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. There have been many changes for both of us in the 15 or so years since then. It’s been great to have our paths meet again more recently and to have the opportunity to hear her very interesting and inspiring career story.
What’s your current position and what do you do?
Employment Services Project Manager for WSI – TAFE NSW. My role is to engage and work with clients from a range of organisations who work in the field of recruitment and employment services. These organisations place unemployed people into training and sustainable employment to assist them towards achieving independence.
Is this what you expected to be doing when you were at school?
Not at all. I had considered becoming a legal secretary or a nurse. Both were considered traditional occupations for females who had not gone on to university studies. Tertiary education wasn’t considered as a serious option for girls in the Blue Mountains in that era unless they were highly successful students, wishing to become a teacher, or their parents had completed tertiary education and were encouraging them to go.
When I first left school I trained to become a secretary at a well- known private college. It was quite expensive and I was having difficulties paying the fees. I left the course half way through due to the financial pressure, coupled with a flagging interest in secretarial work, in favour of nursing as I could train on the job.
What was your first job?
From the time I was 14 years old, I worked part-time at a local service station that doubled as a general store. I learnt to pump petrol, use a cash register, stack shelves and maintain a mini delicatessen. I worked two afternoons after school and each Sunday. My best friend worked alternate weekdays and the Saturday. We were earning good money although lamented that we never got to see each other. This was my first lesson in the importance of work/life balance.
My first full-time position was as an enrolled nurse. I enjoyed learning and caring for others although had nagging doubts about if it was truly the career for me. I was beginning to wonder if one actually existed.
Can you tell us about a significant turning point in your career/life?
I became a single parent at quite a young age when my first marriage broke down. I wasn’t able to continue working as an enrolled nurse as child care was too difficult to manage as a shift worker.
I worked in a range of different roles including banking, clerical, reception and hospitality accommodation services, as my six months of training had given me enough skills to gain entry level positions.
While my roles were generally junior level, I gained insight into the running of business and I developed an interest and passion in starting a business myself; however I was limited as I didn’t have management experience in any particular field and had no capital funds for a traditional start-up. What I did have though was desire, drive, and a vacuum cleaner. I set up a cleaning business and used my experience in hotels to benchmark a high level of service backed up by a quality improvement and feedback program to ensure my clients received personalised service that exceeded expectations. The business grew quickly and I began to hire staff.
After several years of running my business, I began to feel that I needed a new challenge so made enquiries at my local TAFE college about studying Business Management, although I was open to other avenues as well.
I met a dynamic head teacher in Tourism and Hospitality who encouraged me to gain qualifications in Hospitality Accommodation Services to complement my work history so I could share my work experiences as a teacher. Teaching was an amazing experience. I had discovered a whole new passion. That was in 1996.
I have since gone on to complete a Bachelor of Adult Education and specialised in language, literacy and numeracy teaching in conjunction with labour market programs and workplace training.
Completing a degree also gave me opportunities within the TAFE sector, ultimately leading to managing programs for the Institute and working in the commercial sector. My current position allows me to indulge in my passion for business along with developing training opportunities for people like myself, who have found themselves in a limited capacity to develop a career because of personal circumstances. I firmly believe that education is the greatest investment you can make in yourself.
Who do you admire? Who has inspired you?
I know this is going to sound cliché… however I admire Richard Branson. Richard has boundless enthusiasm and an absolute sense of self that allows him to stretch and grow his business while continuing to challenging himself and inspire his employees. The Virgin group is as diverse and vibrant and the founder.
If there were no limitations, what would be in the future for you?
I want to work for myself again. I want to build an enterprise that I can be immensely proud of; one that inspires others and provides opportunities for employees to feed their ambition and achieve their own personal success.
Finally, what would you tell your younger self about work and careers?
Education, education, education! I can’t stress enough how important it is educate yourself. Education is powerful. Be open to ongoing learning, whether that takes place in the traditional sense or through mentors. Gather people around you who are positive and generous with their time and knowledge and then reciprocate and pay it forward to people who you can assist and influence. Aside from gaining a qualification, studying builds self-confidence and develops a broader understanding of the world and how it works. Share everything you learn.
Do you know someone whose career story should reach a wider audience? Please let us know!