While working in business, IT and retail jobs, Damien Carrod had a dream to one day open his own nursery and cafe.
But he knew he needed more horticultural knowledge to take the leap from his current job in to the garden and landscaping world.
When Mr Carrod saw the state government was offering free TAFE courses, it was all the impetus he needed to follow his dream, and less than a year after starting a Certificate III in Horticulture at Federation TAFE even he is surprised how much his life has changed.
He's decided to put his nursery/cafe dream on hold to become a retirement project, and instead plans to open his own garden maintenance services and landscaping business. And he now has a job two days a week with National Trust Victoria as gardener and groundskeeper at historic Mooramong Homestead near Skipton.
Mr Carrod has also enrolled in a Diploma of Horticulture, which he hopes to complete by the end of the year.
"I don't come from a background in horticulture but ... I was the one who always bought too many plants at market stalls ... so I needed to get more knowledge," he said.
The horticulture course Mr Carrod will complete next month is one of the most popular offered at Federation TAFE, with the Diploma of Nursing and Certificate IV in Accounting and Bookkeeping rounding out the top three in Ballarat. Across the state the Diploma of Community Services, Certificate III in Individual Support and Certificate IV in Education Support were also popular. .
Almost 40,000 students across Victoria have taken on Free TAFE courses, an 88 per cent increase in commencements compared to the same courses at the end of 2018.
The free TAFE program has also helped bolster the number of healthcare workers such as nurses during the coronavirus crisis, and will help retrain those who have lost jobs during the pandemic.
In 2019, commencements in Free TAFE courses almost doubled for mature-aged students and unemployed Victorians, along with people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and those with a disability doubling.
Women accounted for 56 per cent of all Free TAFE students across Victoria, an increase of 118 per cent, with female participation surging in traditionally male-dominated courses such as building surveying, construction and cyber security.
Mr Carrod said seeing the free TAFE course in horticulture was the push he needed.
"I just thought it was time. I was still working in retail at the time when I saw it advertised as a free course I thought I might as well take it if I was eligible.
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"I went from that to reducing my employment to casual so I could study ... but I never thought all this would happen so quickly," he said.
The Victorian Government is leading a rapid, coordinated response to ensure the TAFE and training sector continues to provide the skills the state needs to respond to the coronavirus crisis and prepare for recovery.
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