Dr Leigh Robinson, wearing a black PhD cap and blue and red gown, looks at the camera. Photo: Andy Zakeli

Retirement lights spark for volunteering, mentoring, and pursuit of a PhD

Retirement lights spark for volunteering, mentoring, and pursuit of a PhD

PhD graduate Dr Robinson’s research highlights the burnout experienced by volunteers in airports

For Dr Leigh Robinson, the completion of his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) has been a long time coming. It is the culmination of 55 years of career experience and a further 12 years studying at the University of Wollongong (UOW) as a mature age student.  

Today (Wednesday, 1 November) Dr Robinson graduated during the Faculty of the Arts, Social Science and Humanities ceremony at UOW with some of his large family traveling interstate to celebrate with him. 

“When I retired, I was mentoring young sales professionals and having no tertiary qualifications, I thought that I had better get some. I did a Cert IV in Workplace Training and Assessment just to get some credibility.” 

Dr Robinson had an eclectic professional life before starting tertiary study. After many professions, starting out as a cadet engineer, managing a series of pubs, working in real estate, finally it was sales, operations and marketing where he found his niche. 

Running his own small business, Dr Robinson worked with diverse industries selling, among other things, car park access and revenue control systems to high-tech products. His passion for airplanes and airports led him to specialise in airport equipment and technology with solutions across airport car parks, terminals, and the tarmac. He was rolling out innovative products ahead of their time.  

It was the desire to wear a mortarboard that initially sparked the idea of university, the “floppy hat” as his grandchildren and great grandchildren affectionately call it.  

“I was watching TV one night and the graduations were on at UOW Wollongong. This old guy graduated with an MBA (Master of Business Administration), and I said to my wife ‘I can do that’ and she said ‘well, go and do it’.”  

The challenge was set. At the age of 65, the father, grandfather, and now great grandfather started his Master of Business Coaching at UOW.  

“After completing my Master’s degree, I spent the first two years at the Wollongong campus, doing course work to qualify for a Doctoral thesis. It was good as it put my head in the right place, and I learnt a lot about academia,” he said.  

Around the same time, he started to volunteer in the community.  

“My intent was twofold, I wanted to get a floppy hat and I wanted to contribute to the volunteering sector. 

“I had heard about a program in Wollongong to get young people off the street on Saturday nights. I rang them up and asked how I could help.” 

Coordinating Saturday night basketball games to keep youth off the streets, he quickly found himself co-managing a large team of volunteers, including youth workers, students, police, and members of the community, supporting 60 young people, and driving social inclusion programs. 

“At the time I was running a program in Wollongong across various locations where I needed 26 volunteers every Saturday night. Managing volunteers is a bit different from managing employees.” 

Speaking with the local Rotary Clubs, he secured the program’s future.  

“All of a sudden we had the support of 20 Rotarians every Saturday night, which was marvelous.” 

Inspired by their work Dr Robinson joined Wollongong Rotary Club and within six months he was on the board and in leadership roles.  

“I really enjoy it and think I can help a lot of people along the way,” he said. 

“I served two terms as President of Wollongong Rotary consecutively. After two terms I had had enough. Being a president of any community service organisation, if you do it properly, it is a full-time job and it is challenging work, but I just kept going without thinking about it.” 

He progressed to Assistant Governor managing four clubs and later moved to Bowral-Mittagong Rotary Club and became President there too. He continues his Rotary work and is currently an Area Governor, managing 10 clubs from Crookwell to Canberra. 

“I observed many instances of burnout among the volunteers and some of them, like myself, just kept coming back. I wondered why and eventually it led to my research. 

“My niece, who at the time was a senior trauma nurse in the Australian Army, came to talk to the club one night, she could not understand why all these volunteers keep going after they had clearly burnt out. That is when I decided to do a doctorate.” 

Bringing together his two passions, volunteering and the airport industry, as a doctoral student he examined the relationship between contextual infrastructure and volunteers. 

Dr Robinson realised that the setting for the research was not a major concern as the function and management of volunteering remains quite the same in most environments. He was aware that the outcomes of the research could be applied in any volunteering context. 

“I wanted to look at the reasons volunteers continue to volunteer post burnout. Which is something I had experienced and a lot of people I was working with had also experienced.” 

Under the guidance of his supervisors, Associate Professor Thomas Birtchnell and Professor Peter Caputi, Dr Robinson wrote his 86,000-word thesis on the impact of infrastructure on the volunteers, the incidence of burnout among the volunteers serving as Airport Ambassadors, and the retention of those volunteers. 

“The benefit of some 30 years of working with Australia’s airports as a major equipment supplier provided me with a unique insight into the working of an airport and those employed and volunteering within it. 

“I found doctoral research and thesis writing rewarding. Not a lot of research has been done into volunteers in the aviation industry. Of the papers that I have read, it appears that none of them have been written by people who have actually worked in airports.” 

Alongside completing his PhD, Dr Robinson stepped outside of retirement using the skills that he acquired during his business coaching course, returning to consultancy working with a New Zealand engineering business to force a culture change and to restructure it from a family company into a fully corporate entity.  

“Travelling to NZ was good for my study, I would take a lot of articles I needed to read and get through them during the downtime while flying.  

“I ended up with 10 workbooks full of notes of the many hundreds of articles that I read for my research.”  

Dr Robinson wants his thesis to be put to “good use” and is interested in exploring ways he can turn it into a “useable document” that can be utilised by organisations operating in the volunteering sector. 

“I like to think I’ve made a worthwhile contribution to the volunteering industry.” 

Today, his journey has come full circle as the 76-year-old wore his “floppy hat” in the same space at the UOW Sports Hub where he once held youth basketball Twilight Tournaments on Saturday nights.