As the longest living civilisation, Indigenous people have a wealth of experience, skills and knowledge. But are we doing enough to engage this talent in the workforce?
Despite a federal government program aimed at halving the Indigenous employment gap by this year, the most recent data available shows the gap has widened over the past decade. The Indigenous employment rate fell from 48 per cent in 2006 to 46.6 per cent in 2016. The data also shows that younger members of the Indigenous community aren’t receiving enough education, training or employment opportunities.
To mark NAIDOC week, we take a look at what organisations can do to better engage Indigenous talent, especially the up-and-coming generation of new hires.
Pushing through barriers, small and large
Babana Aboriginal was created 14 years ago to empower local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in inner-Sydney. The organisation focuses on health and wellbeing, cultural engagement and employment.
Community leader and Babana’s founder Mark Spinks says Indigenous people continue to suffer discrimination in employment.
While there are many big challenges for Indigenous people to overcome – such as systemic racism and their own historical trauma – there are also smaller barriers, such as not having a driver’s licence or enough money for public transport, he says.
That makes it difficult to get to an interview or to get to work every day.
Clothes are also important. “We’ve had clothes donated to us from Tarocash for several years now. The guys can then go into a job interview with a suit on; they feel so good about themselves. It’s so simple that a shirt, a tie and a suit can make you want to do something with your life. But no one acknowledges that closing the gap is all these things. If you don’t put all the small pieces together to make a strong foundation, how can you build on that?”
Mentoring: the domino effect
What can organisations do to start bridging the employment gap? Spinks says mentoring is key.
Having notched up 20 years’ experience at Centrelink, Spinks is no stranger to finding work for vulnerable people.
He recalls a time when he placed two Aboriginal boys into jobs. They quit after a week and the employers complained to Spinks. However, he could see the fundamental flaw that they couldn’t, “there was no mentoring in place and they encountered severe discrimination”.
“They didn’t even have enough money for the bus fares. I’m a big believer that all these things can be fixed through good mentoring.”
Since Babana’s inception, the organisation has helped to get 350 people into work. The positive effects of this are a crucial part of the program’s success.
“When you employ an Aboriginal person, it has a domino effect on their family. If everyone in your family is on welfare, what do you think you’re going to do?”
“An example of that is a young girl who I placed in a job with Jetstar a while back. About three months ago, I got onto a plane and I heard this voice singing out “Uncle Mark!” and it was her, she was still there.”
Spinks invited her to speak at an employment expo in Redfern and she was a hit with those attending. “All the young school girls were following her around asking how they can do that job too,” says Spinks.
Spinks also placed importance on the need for more cultural competency programs, stating that non-Indigenous staff should remember that it’s not a blame game.
“We acknowledge what happened 200 years ago, but if we don’t look into the future then we’re just going to be stuck there in the past. I choose to move on, while also never forgetting what happened.
“Since my years working in the government, I’ve heard so much about closing the gap. It’s about more than just Indigenous health, it’s about education, self-esteem and treating your family well. I believe that closing the gap is about putting Indigenous people back in the game.”
The Indigenous perspective
Worimi woman, Michelle Perry, says employers need to do more than write a policy about Indigenous employment.
There’s a lack of implementation of Indigenous employment policies “across the board”, she says. If an organisation is serious about wanting to employ more Indigenous talent, they’ve got to walk the talk.
Perry shared some more tips to help organisations close the employment gap:
- Invite Indigenous people to sit on committees and boards, to include them in the organisation’s conversation.
- Provide a supportive and respectful mentor for Indigenous employees. “Finding a great mentor is so important.”
- Set-up monthly networking events for Indigenous staff and ask one person to put their ideas forward, “because not everyone feels comfortable doing that”.
- Consider having smaller interview panels and make sure there is Indigenous representation.
- If you’re unsure about the best way to go about something, ask the community. Find someone in the community who works at a grassroots level that you can contact for a different perspective. “They can help to keep your service a little more grounded and down to earth when you’re looking to have one of our mob come on board.”
- Don’t treat an Indigenous employee as the spokesperson for their entire culture. “Some services will take on an Aboriginal person and then just assume that person knows everything about being black and they’ll pass all Indigenous stuff onto them. That’s not right because different communities have different ways. We can’t be expected to know everything about each other.”
What strategies does your organisation have in place to support Indigenous staff? Share your comments below.
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