AlertForce's Susan Whitla gives on overview on the training market

by Brendan Torazzi

Oct 25, 2018

Brendan: welcome to Episode 5 of the Australian Health and Safety Podcast. I’m Brendan Torazzi, the founder of OHS.com.au. We’re on a mission to build Australia’s first health and safety marketplace. Today, I’m here with Susan Whitla from AlertForce. How are you Sus?

Susan: I’m well. Thanks Brendan.

Brendan: great to have you on the show. I thought today we'll just talk a little bit about what you do and what AlertForce does and how you got into health and safety. Tell us a little bit about your journey, how you arrived here.

Susan: a number of years back I was doing marketing contracting role with another firm. I just basically had a bit of extra time and was looking for a little extra income. I started AlertForce in a very basic marketing role as a sideline to my majoral and things just developed from there. I worked my way around AlertForce for a number of years and now basically run all of the training. My actual role now is basically oversee all of the private training for the company nationally as well as coming up with new ideas for training, management of our trainers and just overseeing all the general day to day aspects of the business.

Brendan: have you had much exposure to health and safety beforehand?

Susan: zero.

Brendan: surely because you were in the food business weren’t you?

Susan: yes but again on the marketing side. Marketing people dont really care about that side of the business so absolutely no contact WHS whatsoever.

Brendan: how have things changed for you over the last few years?

Susan: over the last few years we've sort of changed our business focus. We're really focused on having a business that is a very niche business, a number of just like really solid corporate clients who have continual like a lot of ongoing training requirements in WHS. We want to be that one RTO that can look after all training needs. I think that that has changed. Before I think we trained everywhere like we did a huge amount of training but I dont think we were as focused on client retention and just like repeat business. Now I think we run a much more streamlined business with particular clients as I said who have a lot of training needs. We’re really trying to provide be the one stop shop for training for our clients.

Brendan: tell me about some of the different places that you get to send trainers. What are the more sort of unusual requests that you have?

Susan: with the most interesting ones I think are more in the HSR actually not just HSR training. I think like that remote locations. Definitely last year we sent a trainer, he was in Gove in the Northern Territory and Arnhem Land for 10 days. He trained a group of around 20 indigenous people. They went through about five or six courses. The training actually was like in Arnhem Land and slept on a swag for seven nights of that training. They just find it extremely rewarding to be able to work with indigenous people as such and just like the whole experience. Another was recently we sent a trainer up to Papua New Guinea and he was there again for 10 days. That was interesting. We had to hire security to transport between the various training locations. Again, that was training indigenous people in Papua New Guinea. Many of them had literacy problems so their trainer actually designed his own slides so he could actually show these to the people he was training because they couldn’t understand our normal program which is all written content. Again, that kind of training is really rewarding.

Brendan: it's funny isn’t it? You’re delivering health and safety training and yet you almost have to assess the risk I guess on some of these places.

Susan: you do have to assess the risk, absolutely in that particular training in Papua New Guinea it was really touch and go as to whether we would send the trainer at that time because there was travel warning at that particular time for civil unrest in one of the locations where the trainer was going to.

Brendan: are these local companies or Australian government?

Susan: those particular ones are merely Australian government and also like state governments. We also deal with councils, local businesses as well.

Brendan: say with that PNG stuff is it the client that makes the ultimate call or is it AlertForce that make the call or is it a combination of both?

Susan: with that one it was probably a combined between us and the trainer as to whether that were to go ahead.

Brendan: obviously happy ending on that.

Susan: very happy ending and I tell you they loved that trainer. They just said, like the effort, training in these difficult situations and then also the effort that gets put in there, it's just very rewarding. The feedback from that client is just amazing.

Brendan: why do you think were these remote locations that companies would choose, not local companies just not the viability or what is the story behind that?

Susan: I think what it is it's that we basically have such a broad spectrum of things that we can train in particularly the job in Gove. I mean we put them through, there have to have been seven or eight courses that they did in that 10 day period. It’s easier obviously to have one training company who can come in and train on as many things as possible because it's very difficult to schedule training like a whole week or two, two week block. It’s very difficult for them to get all of their people together. They’ve also got to get them to turn up every day. I think it's just easier for them to do as much training as possible at one time.

Brendan: with a client like that what are they actually trying to achieve? Is it job outcomes?

Susan: in that particular case that is a little bit different that one. They’re a company in the Northern Territory who have a lot of building projects. The Northern Territory government it's all about jobs for indigenous people. It’s just about just getting them up to speed, getting the qualifications and then they go into programs of trainees for this particular company in the Northern Territory.

Brendan: it's kind of to upskill...

Susan: it's the upskilling and employment. Most of those people hadn’t worked at all. This was their opportunity to actually be able to gain employment.

Brendan: you've talked a little bit about the remote locations. Where do you see the bulk of the training taking place and what sort of things does AlertForce offer on a weekly basis I guess?

Susan: the bulk of our training would be Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Weekly we offer all aspects of asbestos training in all of those locations. We also offer HSR training nationally. We have a large contract at the moment with a government department and that training goes on nationally. They’ll be training every week probably for the rest of the year all over Australia there. We also regularly have traffic control training going on. We have a bit of that lined up in the next month or so. Again, that is mainly in Sydney where we're doing the traffic control training.

Brendan: are you saying that clients are being proactive or do you think that it's still more reactive? What are some of the reasons why companies go for health and safety training?

Susan: I think it depends on the particular client. We deal with some clients particularly councils and they have looked at their entire workforce for the next year and they have already allocated for the next year who needs which training. When you're dealing with that they've got their whole year planned for training but then you have done to the other end of the spectrum this small business when they get a job and they quickly need to have everybody trained and it had to have been done yesterday. I think we're pretty flexible in that. 90% of the time we can accommodate last minute training requests like that. We get both ends of the spectrum sort of the reactional but then those who are planning in advance for their training.

Brendan: asbestos removal is kind of a curious one because I think the new course came in around 2013. Is there still much of a demand for it?

Susan: there is. I just think particularly in New South Wales, it is a city under constant construction and I do think that employers are really aware of asbestos related issues in construction industry. I think that employers now are far more proactive in the past. We’ve done a lot of asbestos training this year. It’s not necessarily people who work with asbestos. It just might be people who work in a building or just on a certain project and employers they just want their people to have like at least a basic awareness of what to do if you do come in to contact with asbestos just to have that general awareness because I mean we do see some large issues in the news so I do think from that we have like I said, a lot of employers they're far more responsible now in looking after their staff. I do think that the demand for asbestos training continues.

Brendan: asbestos is one of those silent killers in a way because if someone comes into contact with it it might be 20 to 30 years before they know. I’m thinking that maybe companies are thinking that they've got a duty of care under the WHS Act.

Susan: I do think so and particularly when we do see stories in the news about asbestos I do think it does trigger companies into action. They do have a duty of care as I said, just a minimum to provide that asbestos training for their staff. We’ve seen a lot of that this year.

Brendan: is there much correlation between when news articles come out and the level of work? I know there was a big blow up earlier in the year with one of the councils.

Susan: we did have a roll on effect from that council. I dont think, councils dont tend to do things very quickly. What I have seen from that which I think started at the end of last year we actually did a lot of training from that council and we did have a roll on effect to some others but I’m finding even now as we head towards the end of the year we're still getting a lot of inquiry from councils about asbestos training. I do think it's definitely on council's radar making sure that they have everyone training with the appropriate level of training.

Brendan: the wheel turn slowly but they definitely turn.

Susan: eventually.

Brendan: it's good to see that so many companies out there are doing the right thing and educating their staff. I guess education is key.

Susan: definitely.

Brendan: I’ve got a few more questions here for you Susan. Any sort of big issues or what are the sorts of things that you're getting feedback on the phone from people ringing in?

Susan: with our particular clients I dont think other than the councils I know that issue with the asbestos which has been going on all year I dont think that we have feedback on big issues and such. It’s just more about making sure that as I said they have got all their ducks in a row. They do have all of their staff trained.

Brendan: just keeping on top of it really.

Susan: keeping on top of it. I had one council who approached us like maybe just two months ago. This is in the opposite end of the spectrum. This is not a council who knows everybody’s training requirements for the next couple of years basically contacted and said, okay we think we need to put some people through a traffic course. We’ve organized the traffic course. There was another 20 for another course and then another 20 for another. All of these people were unexpired licenses. Then from there they went on and they realized that we also did asbestos training. Then they started to look at that. That has started to roll on again. That is at the other end of the spectrum where they're just like everyone’s qualifications are expired. Nobody has the right training and they just get into this big mess. We had to do loads of training to get them up to speed.

Brendan: chances are they might have been coming up for some kind of quality accreditation.

Susan: could be. I think maybe in that case they have a number of changes in their human resources department. The lady who had just taken over now just basically sat there and just went through everything to get every single person in the council up to speed. They definitely faced those issues.

Brendan: what would be the general best practice around how often people should get retrained? What are your thoughts on that?

Susan: with asbestos training there is no specific requirement in New South Wales however best practice states every three years. Things change out there and that is the guide is three years as best practice.

Brendan: I think in Victoria it's compulsory.

Susan: it's compulsory every two years in Victoria.

Brendan: it's actually quite confusing if you've got a national company. You really do need to get the right advice.

Susan: it is and I’m actually organizing some training today for a national company who we basically have retrained their guys in one state and then we're going to retrain them. They’ve just made their decision that they're just going to retrain everybody every two years because it is too confusing and it puts them into a risk area if they overlook for example Victoria where it is compulsory. They basically just decided that they will retrain nationally every two years. Again, it is best practice and it is such an issue as an employer they want to make sure that their staff do know.

Brendan: it really doesn’t make sense to have one part of your company upskill to a certain standard and then other sites around the country well we just won’t worry about them.

Susan: exactly, yes.

Brendan: that is good. It sounds like there is plenty of businesses out there being proactive really.

Susan: I think so absolutely and I have also noticed what is great in something that we do specifically back to this asbestos. We recently did some training for a very large company. They said they had a number of people in one state. This is just for the asbestos awareness. They’re building stuff. They look after buildings and properties but then they didn’t really have enough in the other states so then they're able to just purchase that course online. It isn’t quite as good I would say as like having an actual training on site but...

Brendan: at least they've got some level of education.

Susan: some level of education and that is just a fantastic thing for employees to be able to do as well to be able to assess people who can’t get to a course to at least be able to provide an online version.

Brendan: we're going to wrap it up now. We’ve got just a few personal questions for you. I’m not really meant to do this but could I ask how old you are?

Susan: not a day over 40.

Brendan: we'll accept that. What do you do to keep fit?

Susan: I used to be a fitness fanatic but this winter I really struggled and I’ve been very lazy. It’s now September so it will be back to daily walking. I’m lucky to live near the beach on Centennial Park. I’ll be on that coastal walk in Centennial Park every day from now.

Brendan: how many hours sleep do you get on average?

Susan: a lot, maybe 10 hours.

Brendan: 10 hours? That is amazing. That is very good. Do you have a bedtime?

Susan: yes, I do like mid-week, unless I get taken out by my girlfriends which does happen. I go to bed at about 9:30 midweek to keep fresh and weekends well that just all goes out the backdoor.

Brendan: you bank it during the week.

Susan: I bank it.

Brendan: what personal goals do you have in the next 12 months that you're looking to achieve?

Susan: the next 12 months is from work point of view to continue growing the business. I feel that we’re handling our current level of business really well. I sort of like to take that to the next level so that is sort of businesswise. Personally, next year I’m very happy with home arrangements and all that kinds of stuff so I’ve got a couple of good travel things lined up for the next 12 months. I’m pretty excited about that.

Brendan: that sounds like you've got a good balance happening there.

Susan: that is the plan.

Brendan: if the listeners want to learn a little bit more about what AlertForce do where can they find you?

Susan: basically they can call us in the office on 1-800-900-222 or have a look at our website AlertForce.com.au or they can email us training@AlertForce.com.au. That’s it.

Brendan: sounds like a few touch points there. Fantastic. All right Susan, thanks very much for coming in today.

Susan: thanks Brendan.

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