A Captive Audience


Fitted for Work
September 3, 2010, 7:29 am
Filed under: Research | Tags: , , ,

Article below about Melbourne organisation Fitted for Work by Cathy Gowdie in Marie Claire 3 September 2008

Looking for a new job is never easy, but imagine what it feels like when you’ve been out of the workplace for months, or even years. Thanks to Fitted for Work, thousands of women are getting back to work in style.

Sitting at her kitchen table as sunlight streamed through the window, Tania Carey circled yet another job ad in the newspaper. It had been several weeks and eight job applications since she’d started looking for work, and the 38-year-old single mother hadn’t had a single interview.

Looking back, Tania knows that after almost 12 years spent juggling casual, part-time and non-office-based jobs with caring for her children, Ebony, 12, and Liam, eight, prospective employers were probably deterred by her lack of recent office experience. “I felt so frustrated,” she reveals. “No-one looks at what you can do and what experience you have. They see those dates and ignore you. I’m not a confident person at the best of times and I just felt awful.”

And then, last May, her luck changed when her Job Network advisor referred her to Fitted for Work, a small volunteer organisation that helps women find employment by providing free clothing, business coaching and interview training. Before she knew it, Tania was employed.

And she’s not the only one to have found a job after visiting the organisation. Since its launch in 2005, Fitted for Work, which operates out of a small office in Melbourne, has helped more than 2000 women referred to it by government agencies, tertiary institutions and other organisations. It was the brainchild of Renata Singer, a Melbourne project manager who knows firsthand how difficult it can be to find a job. When Renata, an ex-schoolteacher, embarked on a new career, she sent off 60 job applications before finally landing work.

Later, when she and her husband, author and academic Professor Peter Singer, moved to New York, Renata volunteered at Bottomless Closet, a charity that supplies clothing to disadvantaged women, and realised the concept would work in Australia. She teamed up with a friend, philanthropic advisor Marion Webster, to start Fitted for Work. “My first client was a statuesque woman who was applying to be a bank teller,” says Renata. “She finished up in this red suit and when she looked in the mirror, it was as if a magical transformation had occurred. She looked at herself and said, ‘I could be the bank manager, couldn’t I?'”

Many of the women referred to Fitted for Work are single mothers, like Tania, while others are young women seeking first jobs, or refugees newly arrived in Australia. They’re united by the fact that they don’t own suitable clothes for a job interview and, after fruitless job searching, their confidence is in tatters. By the time they leave Fitted for Work, these women have been given the confidence to enter the workforce. The agency has been so successful that, after just three years, it’s expanding from its Melbourne site to boutiques around the country.

marie claire visited Fitted for Work’s headquarters to observe the hope and support given to Tania, and other women like her, as they search for work.

THE FITTING

With racks of crisply pressed clothes lining the walls, soft leather handbags dangling from pegs and elegant high heels peeking out from cubbyholes, Fitted for Work’s Melbourne boutique could be any up-market clothing shop. But this is a store with a difference – here, everything on display is free and has been donated by women to help other women.

Stepping into the room, Tania is unsure what to expect until volunteers Margaret Purcell, 47, and Danielle Baillie, 20, welcome her with beaming smiles. For the next 40 minutes, the pair will be Tania’s personal stylists. But for now, their first task is to make her feel comfortable. “Clients can be nervous and shy,” says Margaret. “It’s important to build a rapport as quickly as possible.”

Margaret and Danielle ease Tania into the fitting session by helping her try on jackets. “The ladies were so great,” Tania reflects later. “I have never had so many people make a fuss over me.” Eventually, they settle on Tania’s interview outfit – a chocolate-coloured cotton jacket and skirt with a pale pinstripe, and an elegant cream blouse. The best part is that it’s not a loan – it is hers to keep. When Tania inspects herself in the mirror, a smartly dressed professional looks back. She lifts her chin and smiles. “I feel different. More confident.” Jozi Atomic knows the feeling.

A photographer and painter, Jozi, 35, recently decided to train as a teacher, and came to Fitted for Work to find clothes to wear on teaching placements. “Being a teacher is a professional type of position,” she says. “Going there was really helpful. I was impressed with the volunteers.” She adds that the clothes she received make her feel more confident. “People do judge you on how you present yourself.”

GROOMING TIPS

But the assistance women receive when they arrive at Fitted for Work doesn’t end with a suit. Every woman is also offered everything from new stockings to shoes or a handbag. Others go home with brooches, earrings or necklaces.

Tania is handed a pre-interview checklist that includes tips to help make a positive impression. Volunteers are also trained to incorporate subtle grooming advice into fitting sessions. Fitted for Work’s executive officer, Emily Wild, admits that this can be a sensitive topic. “We need to be direct, but not critical,” she says, explaining that a take-home sheet gives women the necessary information that they can read in private without feeling singled out or criticised.

INTERVIEW TIME

Once grooming and clothing are finished, it’s time to polish up interview techniques with a one-on-one training session. Renata says many women have saleable skills that they’ve acquired as parents or casual workers – such as the ability to multi-task – but often fail to talk them up in interviews. A volunteer guides the client through an interview scenario, pausing to correct common errors.

“Interviewers will often say, ‘Tell me about yourself,'” adds Renata. “We tell women that when they ask that, they’re not interested in your personal life, but rather it’s your opening to sell yourself.”

TRAINING

Building confidence is a major focus for the organisation, since most women arrive with low self-esteem after years of unemployment. “People get very emotional,” says Margaret. “To be waited on is not something a lot of the women who come here are used to. When someone says, ‘I have never been treated like this, I have never had this’, that makes me feel special.” To help build confidence, women are invited to workshops on everything from time management to personal finance. As well as offering valuable advice, the workshops are also an opportunity for women to have ongoing support from Fitted for Work.

THE NEW START

On a rainy Melbourne morning, Tania waited nervously in the reception area of a local printing business. It had been only a few days since she visited Fitted for Work, and this was her first formal job interview, for a position as a typesetter, in a decade. “I was really nervous,” she reflects now, adding that her only source of confidence was her new suit. But all her nerves faded when, just 15 minutes into the interview, she was told the job was hers. “I was so excited! I had been wanting a job for so long,” she beams.

Three months later, the thrill of Tania’s new job hasn’t worn off, and she’s full of praise for the women who helped her find work. “I was very under-confident until I went to Fitted for Work,” she states. “After that I felt much better. Having these ladies looking after me, knowing they were there to help – it made me feel so much better about myself.”

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