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In mid-November, a rust-colored mountain of barley looks as if it has spilt out from the silos at Moree's southern end. The barley will need to be cleared quickly, says Andrew Dahlstrom, 31, an AES worker who has spent most of his life in the town. "The wheat harvest is about to start and they'll need all the storage space available." As well, cotton has been planted and in coming weeks, under a harsh sun, teams of casual workers, known as "chippers," will flock to the vast fields to remove weeds from the crop. Dahlstrom, like many other indigenous people, has relied on this work for extra pre-Christmas cash. He's traveled the country as a fruit picker, where his blue eyes and fair hair left him indistinguishable from the Scandinavian backpackers he befriended. Until recently, Dahlstrom worked on a cotton gin a few hours away near the Queensland border. The money was terrific, but the 12-hour shifts and living away from his young family were too much to bear. Like so many others, he's found his way back to Moree - whose grains, oil seeds and cotton can be worth $A750 million in abundant years.
Dahlstrom is on trial for a month as one of several AES employment coordinators. The role is the most crucial for the agency, as it combines marketing, local knowledge, and savvy in getting employers to hire Aboriginal people; it then requires poise and wisdom to mentor the new workers and to maintain the relationship with the employer. "The employment coordinators are our lifeblood," says Estens. "They're our strongest and weakest link." Finding people with the necessary experience is difficult; the pressure to perform is high, as is the turnover; and the best ones always seem to end up with a better-paying job in a large company or in government. Dahlstrom is most comfortable away from the office, out in the ute, visiting cockies, tradesmen and factory managers.
On the edge of town, Dahlstrom parks an AES vehicle at Irritek, a company that makes and supplies agricultural irrigation equipment. General manager James von Drehnen is committed to the AES. "Real jobs move a community forward," he says on a break from the busy factory floor. "Getting youngsters through the door, who will give you a four-year commitment for an apprenticeship, is the hard part." Von Drehnen says the AES can be too soft on its placements, delivering their lunch or driving them to work - generally making life too easy for them. He looks to senior men such as Nigel Swan and Lyndon "Charlie" Briggs to act as mentors for the younger "Murris" (the term for the local Kamilaroi people). In terms of racial harmony, on a scale of zero to ten, von Drehnen thinks the town is at about three. "Moree is much better than it used to be," he says. "And a lot better than other places nearby. We've put a lot of issues away here." The next day, passing a building lot as the frame for a new house is going up, Dahlstrom laments there are no Murris on site - even though there are several indigenous carpenters in town. He points out an industrial workshop: "That bloke will never employ Aboriginal people. He's bringing in workers from Asia and the Pacific."
Despite a sizable idle army, indigenous folk aren't equipped to fill all Moree's job vacancies. Even if they turn against peer pressure and the welfare culture, getting the unemployed "job ready" takes time. Students, recent school leavers, those changing industries and mature people who have never worked, all come under the AES's watch. At different times of the day, Moree's AES resembles a cross-generational drop-in center. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Dallas Brown takes a minibus to local schools and collects around a dozen younger teenagers who take part in a program called My Business Rules. The students learn about the world of work and do a team project to design a product and sell it. Craig Jenkins, a public servant who works with indigenous small businesses in northern N.S.W., explains to students the concept of business plans and what is needed to succeed. "The first 12 months is the most difficult for any business," says Jenkins, as the eager group contemplates the likely profits from its coming line of recyclable shopping bags. Motivating the town's indigenous youth requires indefatigable vigilance. Estens says there are 20 or 30 key people driving things forward in the Moree community. "There's a lot of horsepower in that group," he says, "and they're getting things done." Zona Moore, who as a teenager joined the Freedom Riders' bus, runs the Moree AES. She's often out speaking to young people. "There's enormous wealth in this town," says Moore, who grew up in Moree's mission. "I ask young people, Don't you want a part of it? I said to some boys the other day, You can have the flash car and the blonde on your arm. But you've got to work for it." One of Moore's slogans, reproduced on a mobile-phone holder is leave the mob, get a job. Making the initial step into work for a young person from a troubled family is difficult, she says, especially with the peer pressure that comes from being different and taunts of "shame." "Become a role model, I say to them. The only 'shame' about it is if you don't stick with the job."
At Café 2400, on the town's tree-lined main drag, waitress Janice Wager, 16, is convinced she did the right thing in leaving school in August to work as a trainee at the upmarket café. "Some of my friends and cousins, who just hang around doing nothing, said to me, Why do you want to work? Others believed I thought I was now better than them because I had a job and money." Bright-eyed and polite, Wager is contemplating further hospitality training, modeling, obtaining her driver's license and buying a car. At the nearby Moree Panel Works, Joe Tighe, 19, is putting in another day as a spray painter. Winner of an Apprentice of the Year award, Tighe is an AES poster boy and a rare, non-sporting success story in these parts - in spite of a difficult upbringing, dropping out of school in Year 9, and little contact with working people. The AES mentored the quiet tradesman during his transition. "I now try to help other kids whenever I can," says Tighe.