Written by Rob Ditessa for the AWISA Magazine Winter 2022

Kyle Mathews was proud and surprised to be standing on the stage at the latest presentation of the Australian Cabinet and Furniture Industry Association National Industry Awards. The annual awards recognise outstanding achievements in the industry. The association, as a Registered Training Organisation operating under its National RTO Code 90432, provides accredited programs for apprentices to complete their training in the workplace, and the annual awards also recognise their outstanding achievements. 

Kyle won the award for Apprentice of the Year - Cabinet Making. He works at Highline Joinery in Port Macquarie (NSW). 

It’s commonly perceived that young people look for an apprenticeship straight from school, as in Kyle’s case. He wanted to do something practical, hands-on work, and he was encouraged by the teachers who saw his potential in woodworking class, to pursue his interest in woodwork which required creative skills. In doing complex installation and cabinetry jobs, Kyle tells AWISA magazine, he pushes the boundaries, always challenging himself, doing work that “requires using your brain”. 

But apprenticeships are available to anyone at any time along their work journey, as in the case of Matthew Smith, who also attracted acclaim, to win the award for Apprentice of the Year – Furniture, but unfortunately was unable to attend personally at the presentations. 

According to the latest statistics from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, in mid-2021 there were 341,385 apprentices and trainees in-training. That was an increase of more 27.5% over the previous year. In 2019–2020, 25% of people commencing apprenticeships or traineeships were aged between 25 and 44, and 48% were aged under 19. 

Both Kyle and Matthew have now completed their apprenticeships and attained their qualifications. 

Matthew works at Thylacine Exhibition Design, headquartered in Canberra. His biographical notes say that since he joined the company in 2019, he has worked on a variety of projects. Amongst them were the Voices and Connections galleries at the National Archives of Australia that won awards. 

Reflecting on the idea he never would have thought someone would enter him into an award such as ACFA’s, let alone that we could win, Matthew tells AWISA magazine he is lucky to have a great support network made up of family, friends, co-workers, and trainers that have supported him. 

“Winning the award was a huge moment for me. I love working with Thylacine. The work is always interesting. I am lucky that our work involves multiple disciplines, such as metal fabrication, working with plastics as well as fabric work, which enables me to learn more skills. I would like to become more involved with museum exhibition design as well as assessing and fabricating museum objects and display joinery.” 

Through his apprenticeship, Matthew finally found something that interests him deeply. “Every day there is something different to focus on. Working with Gavin, my trainer at ACFA, has helped me to gain vital skills in both fabrication and design. The education provided to me has given me invaluable skills in modern and traditional furniture making.” 

The ACFA program provides tailored one-to-one training. Matthew says he was able to get individual attention and advice which both helped with his development and also related to current and future projects at work. 

All the while Matthew’s appreciation of timber was enhanced. 

“Working and appreciating wood is an ongoing experience. There is always a new exotic piece of timber I have managed to hunt down and use, whether it is for larger furniture, or for making some trinkets on the lathe. It’s always fascinating and satisfying to see what different timbers brings to a project.” 

Gavin McCarthy was Matthew’s trainer and assessor. Gavin worked across the industry gaining expertise, especially in kitchen cabinetry before joining ACFA in 2017. “I saw it as a great opportunity to get off the tools full time and give back to the industry that I had worked in for nearly 25 years,” he tells AWISA magazine.

 Matthew was Gavin’s third apprentice to win the award. Modestly, he says the secret to his success is luck. He was lucky to train apprentices who were not only talented but also had the self-motivation to be the best they could be. “They engaged in their training and asked questions when they needed to better themselves. The employers, and the work conducted by the businesses, also pushed the students and expanded their capabilities.” 

As a mature-age apprentice, Matthew had completed some training in other areas. Gavin says starting out later in life is an advantage as you know what you really want to do. “The first time I met Matthew, he showed great enthusiasm and maturity. He was interested in the industry and was already producing his own furniture items. I currently have other mature aged students who also show the same enthusiasm. They want to learn what they can and are not just there because they are an apprentice but they actually want to better themselves and make a career out of the industry.” 

It is useful to note that if someone has the skills but not the qualification, ACFA runs an RPL Program (Recognition of Prior Learning) to help someone receive their certificate based on their experience. 

Kyle remembers being up on stage to receive his award, “I was only there for a couple of seconds.” He felt surprised. He was not used to getting awards, and this was his first. And he felt proud. “It felt good being acknowledged,” he says and adds after a moment’s thought, that it was a very good night. 

He has been with Highline for a year and a half, he says, and intends to stay for a good while. He is not sure what he would be doing now if he had not gone down the path of this apprenticeship. “Definitely, they have taught me heaps with the job and training. I’m more a practical person, and there were some good practical activities.” After his schooling, Kyle completed work placement and got an apprenticeship, but then transferred to the apprenticeship with Highline Joinery. 

He enjoyed the apprenticeship and enjoys the work he undertakes today because the company does a lot of joinery work, as well as a variety of timber work, such as using veneers. Every job is different, he says, you are not just assembling boxes together, you are always being challenged. Highline recently completed one project that he found especially interesting. It was a big high-end job at Sydney International Airport involving curved veneers, countertops, and other woodwork.

Kyle explains that the course tailored after consultation with himself and his employer included a minimum of three hours a week online to learn theory, and then continuous active integrated training on the job. The trainer visited regularly for one-on-one sessions and to answer any questions because sometimes, as Kyle added, you can’t get the answers straight away. 

Apart from working through the workbook, he had to provide some video evidence to show that he could complete certain tasks, such as assembling cabinets. The program worked well for him, he says. There was always enough work to keep him busy, and learning on the job, hands-on. 

According to the information provided for Kyle’s nomination, since joining the team at Highline, Kyle has acquired more self-confidence and gained important skills in interacting with clients. He learned to use his skills acquired on the factory floor, understanding the technical requirements of different hardware needed to successfully complete onsite installations. Highline added that he is a valued employee. The judges in their comments were very complimentary and reflected Kyle’s passion for his work. “Impressive cabinetmaking skills, very creative. Kyle fulfils the cabinetmaking awards entry category requirements by demonstrating exceptional skills in creative cabinet making, pride in his work and inspiration.” 

Dylan Harvey was Kyle’s trainer. “I only worked with Kyle for his later units as I took a few students off a fellow trainer to help out his workload. But in the short time I worked with Kyle, I found him to be a very well mannered, a down-to-earth guy who was always ready to work and do his best on every visit. Kyle has a very bright future ahead of him in the cabinet-making industry and I wish him all the best.” 

The biggest challenge for trainers, says Dylan, is the fact the industry is moving so fast and constantly evolving. Trainers have to constantly keep up to date with the latest machinery, hardware, and techniques, to be relevant and teach the students. 

Dylan looks after students on the north coast of NSW, from Tweed Heads down to Port Macquarie. “There is an enrolment process that is completed with ACFA’s Student Liaison Officer. Then the trainer makes contact and works with the apprentice and employer to identify the best times to conduct the onsite training. I try my best to make studying more of a “fun” activity that they want to be a part of, rather than a tedious task. I feel by doing this the students are more inclined to do the work.” 

Would Kyle recommend this type of apprenticeship to his friends? He ponders a moment, then says, “Yeah, for sure. Especially if you do it with the right company that knows what they are doing,” and he adds, enjoy it.