‘Team’ leader shines with OAM

Manufacturing and community servant Sandra George has been recognised with an OAM. 285183_01 Picture: CAM LUCADOU-WELLS

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

For decades, Sandra George has led by bringing people together.

Ms George has been recognised with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her devoted service to manufacturing and the Greater Dandenong community.

“It brings me to tears,” she says of the award.

“This award is genuinely only possible because of all of the people I’ve worked with and learnt off.

“The recognition belongs to everybody.”

For 20 years, she has been manager of City of Greater Dandenong’s South East Business Networks (SEBN) and secretary of South East Melbourne Manufacturers Alliance (SEMMA).

They’re just the tip of Ms George’s long list of contributions.

Her work is about bringing people together to solve problems like unemployment – and to change lives for the better, she says.

“If you can help someone along the way, that’s what gets me out of bed.”

Little is achieved without a great team, she says.

With her business connections, she’s “seeded” and “shepherded” enduring community projects, such as Dandenong Hand Brake Turn, Visy Cares Centre and the annual Mayor’s Charity Golf Day as well as supporting women in business.

Along the way, she’s had the “enormous privilege” to work with and learn from business leaders like Nirad Shah from KPG Group, Gerry Ryan from Jayco and Ken Grenda from Grenda Group.

Her late husband Trevor and two children’s unstinting support has also been crucial.

A former business-owner and Dandenong Business College teacher, Ms George got on board a ‘Jobs for Dandenong’ Taskforce formed with the region’s big employers in the 1990s.

They were tackling tough times with 30 per cent unemployment for men in their 30s in Dandenong, she says.

“Looking back, it was the most innovative body. It had amazing support from people in government and business.”

Ms George still has a “special passion” for Dandenong’s manufacturing heartland – which she dubs the “essence of our community”.

She’s seen it rebound and innovate after large employers like Heinz left, and the auto industry shut down.

And is determined to refute perceptions that it’s a career with a “sunset clause”.

The notion that the sector was “dirty, dumb and dangerous” was turning around, she says. Now the talk is about it being “clean, clever and critical”.

She was inaugural chair of the Dandenong Hand Brake Turn program, working with local police officers and business, which steered juvenile offenders into fixing cars.

And was part of the setting-up of the VISY Cares Centre in Dandenong with late founder and philanthropist Richard Pratt.

As well as collaborating with business to sponsor the ongoing annual Mayor’s Charity Golf Day, which has raised more than $535,000 for 14 charities.

Her OAM comes on top of listings on the Victorian Honour Roll of Women, and the Hall of Fame in the Dandenong Chamber of Commerce’s Premier Regional Business Awards.

She has also received the Jim Watkins Award from the Association of Manufacturing Excellence.

The Caroline Chisholm Education Foundation named a manufacturing award in honour of Ms George.

Ms George is currently part of a “community revitalisation” project which is finding ways to engage disadvantaged people in work.

There’s a need to bring together employers, job-seekers and service providers to make the system better, she argues.

There’s a lot of jobs, a lot of wraparound support services such as housing and mental health treatment yet there’s still high unemployment.

“We’ve worked on the principle that we all have to shift our mindsets.

“The supply and demand model is not fitting properly. How do we get the system getting people ready to work – but in a way they do work that they like to do and it fits with what’s needed.

“You can’t get a group of workers from manufacturing and tell them to go work in aged care.”

Another challenge is to get a better model for new arrivals to engage in the workforce.

“I’m close to retirement but I’ve still got a bit of unfinished business.”