How to build career aspirations for First Nations people beyond traditional sectors.
[Editor’s note: HRM‘s analytics show that articles on diversity and inclusion topics are rarely our best performing, despite widespread acknowledgement of the importance of these topics. However, that doesn’t mean we’ll stop promoting these important issues.
As the HR industry is united on the importance of elevating diverse groups within the workforce, it’s important that diverse voices are heard. In this opinion piece, Ngarrindjeri man David Mallett shares his thoughts on creating career pathways for First Nations people across the entire workforce – not just in traditional sectors.]
What do you think are the most popular occupations held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders? According to the last Census (2016), the top three were ‘community and personal service workers’ followed by ‘labourers’ and ‘technicians and trades workers’.
While these are all respectable choices, there’s a huge shortfall when it comes to the number of people from these communities working within other growth industries in Australia. In Adelaide, investment is being placed in industries such as bio-science, space and the defence sector, but there are very few First Nations employees working within these roles.
Why is this? There are many leaders in policy and business who are specialists at bridging the divide and finding constructive pathways to boosting the career and economic prospects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. However, some of these leaders have a narrowed field of vision – considering the ‘traditional’ career paths of Indigenous employees to be within the construction and care worker trades, while others perhaps are encouraged into careers that have little longevity, such as sport.
Breaking the mould
There is no reason why First Nations people can’t thrive in other industries – industries that will provide them with stability and a future of economic prosperity.
There could be a variety of reasons that young Indigenous Australians are limited to specific career paths, but the lack of role models and an understandable fear of the unknown is a recurring issue.
We can approach these obstacles with a little bit of creative thinking. Once these talented young people get their foot in the door, and are given the opportunity to thrive, they’ll be better positioned for the future.
As a proud Ngarrindjeri man who has been fortunate to have a varied career path that now finds me running my own project management company, I know how difficult it can be. I’m also aware that without progressive thinking from others, coupled with my own tenacity and grit, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
This is why I want to use my position to help others. I recently helped place a young Aboriginal man into an entry-level position with SAAB Australia.
The organisation wanted to broaden its employee pool and saw the value of a diverse workforce that represented the population. By not limiting itself to university graduates only – as many recruiters do – it was open to recruiting someone straight from school and in doing so, engaged this talent while he was young, fresh, and eager to learn.
He’s perfectly capable of going on to study at university once he has a better understanding of the roles available to him and has some experience under his belt.
“Without progressive thinking from others, coupled with my own tenacity and grit, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Think ahead for greater wins
There are numerous cultural and practical barriers stopping many young, Indigenous workers from going on to uni straight from school (this will likely increase as some higher education fees increase dramatically), but once they’ve spent a few years within a company, learning skills and gaining confidence it might be a more realistic option to consider.
Forward-thinking, savvy employers know if they give a member of their team the freedom to study at a later date, they’ll be rewarded with increased commitment and loyalty.
We all have a collective responsibility to look at new ways to close the gap and employers must not forget the part they have to play.
Decision makers in business, HR and recruitment need to rethink their policies. Are they comprehensive enough? Many have Reconciliation Action Plans (RAP) in place which provide a framework to support the national reconciliation movement. However, there are still plenty of organisations that have not developed a RAP – it’s important that they do better.
You don’t even have to implement dramatic changes to make progress. Taking a little by little approach is a good place to start. Here are some changes that could help make a positive impact:
- Reconsider your recruitment strategies – does that role really require a university graduate? Many talented school leavers could fulfil entry level positions, and very often have the enthusiasm, drive and potentially more realistic expectations of salary and responsibility than university graduates.
- Explore your capacity to create traineeships – this could be in fields such as business administration or project services. In South Australia, for example, it’s common for some Year 12 school leavers to complete high school with a Certificate 3 in Business as part of their SACE. These qualifications provide a solid set of fundamental skills and, with minimal support, could easily be transferred into an entry level job.
- Find people who can act as a bridge between Indigenous communities and business – there are often Indigenous Engagement Officers and Aboriginal Education Workers (AEW) within the private and public schooling systems, TAFEs and Colleges.
- Reach out to First Nations people in your organisation – see if they may be interested in becoming a mentor. Approach this carefully though, as mentorship is not for everyone. When it works, it can be very valuable – particularly if the program is long term, consistent and carefully considered and measured.
- Look for other resources that are available – The National Indigenous Australians Agency has a specific channel related to employment and provides information and advice, as well as details on any funding available to your organisation.
These certainly are not ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions, and I’m not denying there may be hurdles to overcome. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience additional adversity – socio-economic setbacks, for example – and it’s important to be sensitive to what they may have overcome, directly or historically.
There will also be cultural nuance that needs to be recognised. For example, the necessity to take additional leave for community funerals or to spend additional time connecting with family and the land.
This is not about affirmative action, it’s just understanding that different cultures often have varying needs and a truly diverse workplace requires the understanding and space for staff to respect their personal and cultural idiosyncrasies. On occasion, it might not work out – we’re all human after all – but I would urge decision makers not to abandon plans after one disappointment. Plus, for many businesses, Indigenous participation measures are increasingly becoming a requirement – so why not take steps to be ahead of the pack?
I strongly believe that economic prosperity and professional upskilling is the number one thing we can do as a nation to create positive change. By better equipping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for future prosperity, it will inevitably trigger a ripple effect, and ultimately a positive impact on generations to come.
David Mallett is a proud Ngarrindjeri man from Adelaide and the founder and managing director of Yanun Project Services in Adelaide.
Often cultural exclusion is a result of unconscious bias. Sign up to AHRI’s Managing Unconscious Bias short course to make sure nothing is stopping your organisation from embracing diversity.