There’s a stark reality that often goes unreported in Australia. Only half of Indigenous Australians aged over 15 have a job. Despite years of well-meaning training schemes, employment rates for Australia’s first people remain far below those of their non-Indigenous counterparts, for whom three out of every four people aged over 15 has work.
At the federal government level, action has been promised. Mining magnate and long-time champion of Aboriginal employment, Andrew Forrest has been appointed chair of the government’s review of Indigenous employment programs. This is part of a promised $45 million package by Tony Abbott to provide training to up to 5000 Indigenous Australians, with a guaranteed job at the end, addressing a common complaint that previous training schemes churned out graduates whose skills didn’t match local employers’ needs.
To their credit, Australian organisations have begun to make marked improvements in the recruitment, training and retention of Aboriginal people.
Take Holden, for example. 1800 people are employed at Holden’s Elizabeth plant. But in the surrounding suburbs, there are generations of families who have never had jobs.
“The data on the level of disadvantage in northern Adelaide is mindboggling,” says Terry Cubley, Holden’s HR manager – organisational capability. “We knew the area was disadvantaged but it was obvious when we looked at our recruitment that unemployed Indigenous people were just not getting there, so we should do something about it.”
To Cubley’s knowledge, Holden did not have one Indigenous person on staff, either on the floor or in the administration building.
Holden initially trialled a three-month preemployment program open to all long-term unemployed people. But few showed interest from the outset.
The next iteration, in 2012, was an apprenticeship program specifically for Indigenous people About 100 people came to the first information session. Of those, 30 began the pre-apprenticeship training, which included a TAFE Certificate I in Engineering, and drug and alcohol counselling where needed.
Twenty applicants got through and applied for roles, and Holden hired a dozen apprentices. A year later, 10 of the 12 employees remain with the business. Half settled in smoothly but half encountered difficulties.
An Indigenous mentor visits the employees at home and at work and spends time talking with the workers’ families about how they can support the apprentices through problems and not place onerous demands on them.
Cubley says Holden is happy with the outcome of its Indigenous program but has learned that it may not serve the employees’ best interests to hire them as a part of an Indigenous-only group. Next time, the business intends to open the apprenticeships to all groups but level the playing field for Indigenous applicants by running an Aboriginal pre-employment program, timed to finish as the company’s recruitment drive begins.
The company will also work to draw more Indigenous applicants into the administration side of its business by encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students to apply for one-year cooperative placements it offers in its Melbourne and Adelaide offices.
As Roy Gibson worked the cane fields near the lush Mossman Gorge in the Daintree National Park, he envisaged that one day the jewel of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area could provide jobs for the troubled community around him.
Gibson’s decades-old dream was realised in June last year when the $20 million Mossman Gorge Centre opened its doors. The centre was developed by the Indigenous Land Corporation, after the local council agreed to restrict daytime access to Mossman Gorge, enabling the centre to charge tourists to visit.
The centre has been a boon for local employment, creating work for about 66 Indigenous employees and eight non- Indigenous staff.
“It’s really changed the community,” says Kim Dorward, HR manager at the Mossman Gorge Centre. “There’s lot of pride and it provides a goal for the kids at school – they can see that there are jobs available.”
The centre also offers training opportunities, primarily in tourism and hospitality. “We only run courses if we can guarantee a job outcome at the end of it,” says Dorward.
As part of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, Mossman Gorge Centre is able to guarantee trainees jobs at Ayres Rock Resort. The centre also works with other employers to place graduates. The centre offers mentoring to all staff and, after noticing the influence of aunties and uncles within Indigenous communities, now taps into this network. “We meet regularly, we talk about any cultural issues and, when necessary, any staff members who might be having trouble transitioning into the workplace, and we discuss solutions we can put in place to help those people through.”