Message (and lesson) in a bottle
Honorary degree awarded for a life dedicated to dignity of work and the power of education
From the shop floor to management and back to the shop floor to represent the workers, Peter Robson AO has led a life dedicated to improving Australian manufacturing and the lot of the worker.
He was today (Thursday 19 July) awarded a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) at the graduation celebrations.
As a young man still at high school he knew he wanted to go to university but without the means to pay for tuition, he took up part-time work at what was then a glassworks in Waterloo. There, he worked his way through the plant, learning every aspect of the craft and science of glassmaking.
“I went to the glassworks in Waterloo and a Sergeant-Major type saw me and he said, ‘there's two pairs of size 6 blue overalls and steel-capped boots, you've got locker 407, see you on Monday morning at 7.30am you can start a job as a fitter's mate’,” Mr Robson said.
Though it all led to his end goal, a degree in Chemical Engineering, the lessons of the shop floor left a lasting impression.
“I look back on those six years working part time and a year full time and they were absolutely invaluable.
"I ended up running the main glassworks in Waterloo and I could always walk down any time talk to an operator and say, ‘what are you doing here, mate?’ whereas most of the other managers couldn't.”
Mr Robson would not only run the Australian operations, he and another Australian would be sent to Thailand in the late 1970s to set up a glassworks.
The experience of Thailand further cemented his belief in the need to treat people with decency and fairness, values that would see him change course from the senior corporate management and into the union movement.
“What I've really learned was what I call the dignity of labour. People don't only care about their jobs when they're on the job, they also care about the fact that they are employed and they have an identifiable job.”
This background gave him a strong commitment to Australian manufacturing for its importance to the future prosperity of the country, benefiting both businesses and workers.
After meeting the then-leader of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Bob Hawke, Mr Robson joined the Australian Trade Union movement and in a career turnaround quickly rose to become the National Secretary for the Community and Public Sector Union, Australia's largest union at the time.
Between 1978 and 1995 Peter held many senior positions with the ACTU including being President, Asia-Pacific Executive of the Public Sector Unions.
After leaving the Union, he went back to his roots in Australian manufacturing, served on the Australian Manufacturing Council and Industry Research and Development Board and has been a Director and Chairman of many young Australian high-tech manufacturing companies, some of which have become major national and international players.
Reflecting on his in various leadership roles, Mr Robson said he thought it was a fairly simple formula, based on values he learned from a young age.
“You've got to be prepared to lead from the front, people have got to trust you and you've got to have integrity. When there's a mistake you cop it, you don't just dump it on your subordinates. That’s pretty simple language but I can tell you that it works.
“I had a very hard-working mother who'd been through the Depression in the 1930s and she had a strong set of values that I was taught right from the start.”
Peter Robson AO (left, with Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings CBE) was awarded a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) for a life dedicated to dignity of work and the power of education
In 2003, Mr Robson was appointed Chairman of UOW’s Illawarra Technology Corporation Limited (now UOW Enterprises) and continues to help guide the organisation.
He came to recognise the power of education as a catalyst for changing people’s lives, and he played a pivotal role in shaping the organisation as one of the preeminent Australian tertiary education providers on a global scale.
In the 2018 Australia Day Honours, Mr Robson was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his distinguished service to business and leadership in manufacturing, engineering and industrial relations.
Professor Charles Areni, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Business, wrote in the citation that Mr Robson’s Honorary Doctorate celebrated the “achievements of a man who has essentially devoted himself to bettering people’s lives”.
“Peter’s commitment to providing alternative pathways to university for low socio-economic groups and international students is reflected in his dedication to the mission of UOW College Australia.
“... we honour Peter for his significant contribution to the growth and development of quality Australian higher and vocational education both nationally and internationally, and for his distinguished service to the University of Wollongong.”