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Joe Ciavarella

NMIT has been a part of Joe’s life for over 47 years. I did my secondary schooling at Collingwood Tech between 1965 and 1968.

In 1965 the subjects offered by the school were English and Social Studies, Science, Art, Bricklaying, Carpentry and Joinery, Electrical, Electroplating, Footwear, Furniture, Instrumental Drawing, Mathematics, Music, Physical Education, Plastering, Plumbing and Sheet metal, Religious Instruction, Silversmithing, and Turning and Fitting.

On Monday afternoons we had something called “club time”. From about 2.00 pm everybody was involved in clubs such as the cadet corps, ham radio, magic, electronics, stamps, cars, engineering, photography, science, fishing and chess, things which were not part of the normal curriculum. The cadet corps ran until about 5:00 pm, but the other activities generally finished by about a quarter to four.

The principal, Joe Barberis, was very keen on the cadets and the brass band, where I played the euphonium. Our cadet uniforms seemed like original-issue from the Australian army. When we joined up, the teachers took us by bus to a store in Fairfield near the paper mill. We were issued with a kit bag with army uniform including boots, greatcoat, battledress, and summer dress called ‘jungle greens’. The greatcoats were very heavy and the older ones had shiny brass buttons; I was fortunate to be given one of those. On my first camp, some of the more senior cadets asked if I wanted to swap greatcoats with them, but I knew the value of the brass buttons and I wouldn’t swap. I hung up my greatcoat, but later, when I returned from a drill, I noticed that the brass buttons were gone.

My sixth grade teacher made the decision as to where I was to go to secondary school; he suggested the tech as the right place for me because I was good with my hands. The ones thought to be better academically went to the local Fitzroy High. Collingwood Tech had a reputation as a very rough school; people told me it would be really bad, with students throwing teachers out of windows and students having their heads flushed in the toilets. Discipline was very strict in the sixties. The strap was a daily thing – there was something wrong if you didn’t get the strap. We didn’t take it too seriously; it was more of a habit than real discipline.

When I had finished Form 4, or Year 10, I started an apprenticeship with a big electrical company that is still operating today, Oliver J Nilsen. I got the job at the end of the school year and worked over the Christmas break, and began my apprenticeship as an electrical fitter in January of the next year. During that time I had applied for a few jobs, including the SEC, the PMG and a TV company called Astor, and I was accepted by all of them, but because I had already started at Nilsen, and they had paid me over the holiday period, I stayed with them. This company was my only commercial employer.

I went back to Collingwood Tech School at the beginning of 1969 to do my training in electrical fitting. An electrical fitter works mainly in the assembly of electrical equipment such as switchboards or in a switch yard; he doesn’t actually install wiring or equipment. I decided that as soon as I finished my training as an electrical fitter I would also become an electrician and I did that. It took me an extra four and a half years after I finished my original apprenticeship before I got my A Grade licence. I remember the old timers telling us that when they did their apprenticeships they had to go to training in their own time at night or on Saturdays, but we were lucky and given day release one day a week for three years, but in our fourth year one day a fortnight.

From my early respect for teachers, and my admiration for what they did, I wanted to teach. My trade qualifications alone were not enough, although the minimum was an apprenticeship plus five years in a trade, a total of ten years. It was still preferred that aspiring teachers did extra study. During my apprenticeship I did Form 5, or Leaving Certificate, at Preston Tech with maths and English, and then I did the Tertiary Orientation Program, TOP, and also did some post-apprenticeship electrical subjects. People from a trades background were sent to Teachers’ College for two years, with two days a week at college and three days in a school.

My teaching experience began with two years training at the old ‘Bonehead’, Hawthorn Institute of Education. In the first year, 1980, I was posted to Footscray Technical College and in the second year of my training, 1981, I was sent to Collingwood Technical College. I have worked at Greensborough, Preston, Heidelberg and of course Collingwood campuses.

In 1997, the Electrotechnology Department was moved to the Preston campus and we have been there ever since.  I have been teaching at NMIT for over 30 years.

NMIT has one of only two electrical licensing assessment facilities in Victoria. In 1988 I planned, designed and  fitted out all the electrical wiring, accessories and assessment aids so that candidates could use this facility to be assessed for their electrician's license; I was released from teaching to carry out this work. Today, NMIT and EPIC, an industry training board representing the electrotechnology, information technology and printing industries, are the only approved electrical licensing assessment bodies in Victoria.

I wouldn’t be the person I am without my tech school education. The skills I learned at Collingwood Tech in engineering, like turning and fitting, sheet metal, and woodwork, I’ve used throughout my life. I can make almost anything; I can weld, solder, build gates, trailers, and verandas, things not part of my trade, but once you learn those skills you can transfer them to anything you want to do. I learned technical drawing but I also did solid geometry, and the things that I learned then, I still use in my own teaching. I teach technical drawing here at NMIT. Back 40-45 years ago the trades had a bit of a stigma to them; they were seen as a fall back option if you didn’t succeed in tertiary studies. Today I think things have changed. If you say you are a tradie now, most people look up to you. A friend who is a plumber goes to a restaurant with his family and they are well-to-do, but the waiter serving them has two degrees and he is still trying to get a job.

I’ve loved teaching since I started at the beginning of 1980. Most people who have been in this game for 33 years are no longer in the classroom, but in administration, but I love the classroom. Students coming through now are a lot older than they were; some are in their mid-twenties. Many parents and teachers had urged them to go to university, but then they hit a brick wall, and needed to return to study to get some vocational skills. As a parent, you know your children and you can only try to guide them into something they are suited to, but my technical education has been magnificent and I would recommend it to anybody.

NMIT has been a large part of my life, and it has been a good employer. I feel for this place, so if anybody puts it down, I have to talk to them. NMIT is doing what it is meant to do. I have spent most of my life at NMIT and I’m really sad because one day I will have to retire.