Recently named one of Australia’s nine most influential female entrepreneurs*, Melbourne businesswoman and start-up advocate Dominique Fisher has made a career out of developing products to assist university students successfully transition into employment.
That is the core business of CareerLounge, which Fisher co-founded in 2008 with her son John Collins. Launched in March 2016, Paddl is both a CareerLounge subsidiary and the company’s hero product. According to Fisher, the idea for Paddl – a web application that helps students gather employment experiences to prove their job-readiness after graduation – was born out of the frustration Collins had experienced when weighing up his education and employment options.
“Having worked in this space for a while now, John and I realised that while students were acquiring ‘technical’ knowledge undertaking quals, they lacked actual workplace experience to truly be considered ‘job-ready’,” she told Dynamic Business. “Students had told us of a conundrum where they couldn’t get a job without experience and they couldn’t get experience without a job’. Similarly, employers had revealed that employing students was hard work in the absence of employment history. So, John and I set about designing a solution that would give students the ability to create a relevant employment history that employers value.”
“With Paddl, our ambitious vision is to ensure every student has the opportunity to pursue their career dreams. This involves getting them into employment as quickly as possible and ensuring they are building a mix of experience by the time they graduate. Our strategy, in this regard, is to work with educators, employers and industry bodies to drive simple, engaging and fun ways of exploring employment options.”
“No more embarrassing applications”
Fisher said Paddl provides students with a feed of ‘course-relevant’ work opportunities (based on where they are enrolled, what they are studying and the relevant industry sector) so they can confidently apply for any opportunity, knowing a) their qualification is relevant, b) the employer is looking for students and c) the role is not beyond their level of experience. “This means no more keyword searches, no more embarrassing applications and no more not knowing what to look for,” Fisher added.
From an educator’s perspective, Paddl is an opportunity for institutions that pay an annual fee (based on the number of enrolled students at their institution) to integrate the platform into their career services offering. Fisher explained that while educators have a range of services on offer for their students, only 10 – 15% of students engage those services. She said Paddl also allows educators to validate their students and access employment activity data.
Meanwhile, Paddl gives employers the option to post a work opportunity ad for $50 (plus GST). To help them make an informed decision in this regard, Fisher said employers are told the the size of the candidate pool in their industry sector. In addition, she said Paddl is a quick and simple way to identify and shortlist qualified, interview-ready applicants in their industry sector with the aid of optional ‘checks and challenges’, some of which attract a fee.
“Currently, employers can create a set of yes/no questions to filter out unsuitable applicants – for example, ‘can you work weekends?’, ‘do you have an RSA licence?’ or ‘are you in your third year of study?’,” Fisher said. “To gain further insights into a candidate’s suitability, employers can ask additional questions such as “do you have social marketing experience?’, ‘Do you run a blog?’ or ‘Do you like working with animals?’ We will add further optional checks and challenges, such as police checks, psychometric testing and aptitude tests, to enrich the application and shortlisting process.”
“Students can solve real business problems”
Fisher said the platform is being used by more than 340 employers, including hundreds of SMEs plus Myer, Metro Trains, Crown, Urbanise, Canon and Ai Group, with new registrants every day. In addition to being able to tap into a growing pool of students in their relevant industry sector (e.g. 500+ IT students, 250+ engineering students, 300+ health and community services students, 300+ retail and hospitality students), Fisher said employers are working with Paddl to ‘roll out exciting new ways to engage students and graduates this year’.
In addition, she said industry peak bodies, known as ‘Paddl Champions’, play an important role in ‘spreading the word’ to employers and ensuring their labour needs are met. Paddl is currently working with AusBiotech, Restaurant & Catering Association, Australian Hotels Association (Vic), Study Gold Coast, Australian Convenience and Petroleum Marketers Association (ACAPMA), Energy Skills Australia, Australian Industry Standards, Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET), Aviation Aerospace Australia and Startup Victoria. “This ensures we understand the needs of their employer members, which we feed back to our Paddl Educators who then encourage students to activate a Paddl account,” Fisher added.
Paddl’s engagement strategy also includes digital marketing via social media and the company’s latest offering: ‘Paddl Games’.
“Inspired by the popularity of hackathons, these professionally-facilitated, two-day challenges are a new way for businesses to identify, invest in and recruit talent,” Fisher explained. “We connect major companies with students and grads, across various disciplines to solve real business challenges in a competitive environment.
“Paddl Games involve five teams of four students paired with the staff of the participating employer. The events culminate in pitches to the employer judging panel. Employers benefit by seeing talent in action and having commercial problems solved. Meanwhile, students and grads build industry experience, network and win some great prizes. It also helps students at graduation demonstrate industry experience – something many have trouble with.”
“I am disappointed about the 457 Visas changes”
To support the growth of Paddl, CareerLounge, which has raised $2.5m in funding to date, is currently raising capital to onboard new educators, boost marketing and secure key hires. On the topic of recruitment, Fisher admits it has been a huge challenge to find software engineers. With the abolishment of 457 visas, she believes this will continue to be the case.
“I am incredibly disappointed with the 457 visa changes,” she said. “It is a constant struggle to find software engineers, not made any easier by the invitations being extended to offshore companies to set up Australian offices. They are typically large and successful tech businesses who arrive offering salary packages to engineers that local companies cannot compete with. Given that it takes at least 3 to 5 years to train and develop an engineer, the only hope we have of building teams is by hiring international talent. The 457 visa changes are just another example of a populist public policy decision with scant regard for the impact it will have on the growth engine of the Australian economy.”
Asked about her working relationship with her son, Fisher said Collins focused on the product, design and communications aspects of the business while she takes care of the commercial and revenue aspects.
“We talk every night about the day and what we need to address, how our team is faring, and what we need to do the following day,” she said. “We are both passionate about the business so it does get robust at times! We have always been able to leave work at work … I am still Mum on the weekends!
“We need to optimise the innovation ecosystem”
Outside of CareerLounge and Paddl, Fisher is very active in the business world, where she has held numerous board positons including as a non-executive director with both Australia Post and independent start-up body LaunchVic.
“I am definitely very busy but you have to be if you are an Australian entrepreneur,” she said. “Building your networks, constantly exposing yourself to other businesses, sharing successes and failures, and learning every day what trends are emerging in a range of industries – this helps you survive and keeps you on your toes.
“I am passionate about creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and given that all the research indicates a vast percentage of our population will need to be creating their own jobs in the future, we need to optimise the innovation ecosystem as best we can to ensure they have the opportunity to thrive.”