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A look at top Indigenous employment programs

HRM talks to organisations that have developed standout initiatives in the Indigenous employment space.

This year marks the original deadline for the ‘Closing the Gap’ initiative that, among other objectives, sought to halve the employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Not only was this target not reached, the gap has actually widened in remote parts of Australia since 2011 and the ‘work-for-the-dole’ schemes have lead to worsened poverty in remote Indigenous communities.

Indigenous employment isn’t just a government initiative, and several Australian organisations have achieved stellar results through their own programs. With the 2018 AHRI Awards just around the corner and the Stan Grant Indigenous Employment Award up for grabs, HRM spoke to five businesses about the importance of Indigenous employment programs and what made theirs so successful.

Water Corporation

As a large employer in Western Australia with more than 2700 employees, Water Corporation believes that they have a strong responsibility to address Indigenous employment issues.

“We want to provide Aboriginal people with employment opportunities so they can experience all the benefits that having a steady job brings, as well as have more diversity in our workplace to better reflect the community we serve,” says Capewell.

In 2014, Water Corporation committed to employing a workforce that represented the entire WA community. So they developed an Aboriginal employment strategy, lead by their equity and diversity principal, Collene Castle, which focuses on workplace environment and employee attraction, recruitment and retention.

Since then, they’ve increased the number of Aboriginal employees in the organisation to 3.6 per cent of the workforce, exceeding their target of 3.2 per cent by 2018. The turnover rate for Aboriginal employees has also reduced, dropping from 24.5 per cent in 2013 to 15 per cent in 2018.

Capewell attributes the organisation’s success to a number of factors. These include the organisation’s Aboriginal School Based Traineeship program and the development of an Aboriginal candidate ‘pipeline’, which allows job seekers to be proactively contacted by Water Corporation when job opportunities arise.

“We’ve also been working on a deeper understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history, and responding with respect,” says Capewell. “This led to the introduction of ceremonial leave for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, who are entitled to three days paid leave for ceremonial purposes.”

Commonwealth Bank of Australia

Geraldine O’Connor, general manager of enterprise delivery enablement at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), says that ‘Closing the Gap’ is a shared commitment – and when given the right priority within an organisation, we can make real progress toward achieving it.

CBA hopes that its enterprise services division will have a domestic workforce that is three per cent Indigenous by 2026. In 2017, the bank partnered with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) to hold a design thinking hackathon that would help CBA achieve their target.

“We engaged Elders and representatives of Indigenous businesses and communities, as well as a range of senior managers and team members from across the organisation, to help us think about how we might go about creating pathways into meaningful IT careers within CBA,” says O’Connor.

“One of the key things we learned during these engagements was that, to be successful, we need to ensure we can provide a culturally capable workforce and a culturally safe workplace.”

CBA have partnered with the Black Card to provide cultural capability training and have had 275 people complete the program over the past 18 months. The organisation has also created entry level roles across their IT department which are complemented by job training plans and a formal Certificate III accreditation, giving Indigenous people more pathways into IT careers.

Since 2017, 34 technology trainee and 20 Group Operations permanent roles have been filled, with retention rates sitting at 100 per cent for the 2017 cohort and 80 per cent for the 2018 group.


Having worked with Indigenous communities throughout its 90 year life span, global professional services company GHD knows the importance of engaging with Indigenous Australians when trying to create lasting and beneficial infrastructure for the community.

The company has created several programs to help increase Indigenous employment and retention within its business. Technical services leader and reconciliation action plan sponsor Jill Hannaford says one of their key programs stems from a partnership with CareerTrackers – a not-for-profit organisation which helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students transition into corporate Australia.

“We were one of the first organisations to join the program. At the time, CareerTrackers only had 10 students registered with them, and we welcomed one of the first into our organisation,” she says.

As part of their partnership, GHD agreed to take on a minimum of 10 students every year for a 10 year period. Nine years on and the program has grown significantly – with the company bringing in 35 interns this year alone.

GHD has also fostered an internal Indigenous network. Indigenous engagement leader Elle Davidson says this has helped create a community across their geographic locations and gives employees the opportunity to discuss issues such as Indigenous services within the business, internal employment and development strategies.

Danila Dilba

Danila Dilba is an Aboriginal community-controlled health service committed to recruiting, training and promoting Indigenous staff at all levels – from safety officers to executive leaders.

In 2017, the organisation developed an Indigenous employment and career pathways initiative as part of their HR strategy around talent management, engagement and learning, and career development.

This initiative has helped the organisation achieve 50 per cent Indigenous employment overall. Indigenous staff make up 60 per cent of their executive leadership team, with five management positions being filled by Indigenous staff 2017-18 alone.

Senior executive of workforce strategy and planning Sulal Matthai explains that their initiative involved setting up traineeships, mentoring for emerging leaders and introducing new positions such as safety and community liaison officers – which gives them more opportunities to bring Indigenous staff onboard.

Another key part of their Indigenous employment program is their participation in the Australian Nurse Family Partnership Program (ANFPP).

“The ANFPP is a new home-visiting, social-support service for first time mums who are having an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander baby. All members of our ANFPP team are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and Danila Dilba is the only team in Australia to have an all Indigenous visiting team,” says Matthai.  

Last year Danila Dilba received an Indigenous workforce grant from the Northern Territory Government, something Matthai says is “the first of its kind”. This allowed them to introduce their career pathways project, formal mentoring program for Indigenous future leaders, and an online learning platform for all health professionals.

Defence Force Recruiting

The number of Indigenous Australians in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has increased fourfold over the past five years. Director of recruiting services, Glenn McPhee, says that Indigenous Australians make up eight per cent all new enlistees joining the ADF.

This is an incredible achievement considering the 2016 census reported that Indigenous Australians only make up around three per cent of the population.

To help ‘close the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment, the ADF have implemented the Australian Army Indigenous development program, Navy Indigenous development program and the Indigenous pre-recruit courses.

Director general Sue McGready says that that these programs can help people with everything from fitness, to confidence and education.

“It may be something as simple as helping with their fitness so that they can achieve the entry standard and excel in recruit training. Or, giving them the opportunity to go through TAFE and advance their education,” she says.

While not everyone that goes through the programs will enter the defence force, McGready explains that the ADF is proud to be contributing to ‘Closing the Gap’.

McPhee and McGready both say that one of the most important elements of their program is the role modelling potential of serving members, who are seen in a hugely positive light when they return to their communities.

“In fact, one of our Indigenous recruiters, Sergeant Rhiannon Bush in our Adelaide team, recently went home in uniform. Her grandma – who was one of her very strong mentors and role models in life – was beside herself with excitement to see Rhiannon in uniform and little kids came running from everywhere,” says McGready. “It had an amazing impact on the community and helps encourage others to pursue similar careers.”

Image credit: davidf

Celebrate with the best of Australia’s HR profession at the AHRI Awards Dinner on Thursday 29 November 2018. Award winners will be announced then.

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