Unearthing Indigenous Talent

Friday, April 1, 2011 - 08:28

Companies are increasingly seeking to hire indigenous Australians. MT looks at the challenges and practical initiatives. By Mark Story

With the virtues of workplace diversity well known, corporate Australia is increasingly seeking out an Indigenous presence in its workforce. Having operated under a notably low profile for many years, reconciliation action plans (RAPs) received a significant leg-up following the Rudd Government's apology to the stolen generation in February 2008. Under the auspices of Reconciliation Australia, not only do RAPs imply a collective responsibility to address the disadvantages of Indigenous Australians, they also advocate a place for the first Australians within the business world.

Taking its cue from the historic apology, corporate Australia moved quickly to reposition what were previously boiler-plate aspirations without substance. Since then many RAPs have been redrafted with specific, concrete plans to put Indigenous Australians in jobs. In response, provided their employer is serious about addressing its reconciliation commitments beyond mere tokenism, Indigenous Australians are proving their worth.

In the private sector, the ANZ Banking Group has a quota of Indigenous employees. Meanwhile, the public sector - responsible for funding over 70 per cent of Indigenous jobs - recently rolled out a program to increase its Indigenous representation to 2.6 per cent of all staff by 2015.


Over the past two years, Andrew Forrest, mining magnate and founder of the Indigenous employment organisation the Australian Employment Covenant (AEC), has helped to create an estimated 3500 jobs for Indigenous Australians. However, time has served to validate the initial criticisms that, with too few Indigenous Australians being 'job ready', plans to create for them 50,000 jobs were misguided at best.

A recent AEC survey indicated insufficient education and training as a key cause of high Indigenous unemployment; currently running at 54 per cent nationally. But with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recently reporting an increase of Indigenous Australians completing year 12 from 18 per cent in 2002 to 22 per cent in 2008, while still markedly below the national average, more are now finding their way into tertiary institutions.

Practical initiatives

Having identified a void between organisations pledging to hire Indigenous Australians and actual student placements, expatriate American Michael Combs established the non-profit social enterprise, CareerTrackers in 2005. Designed to work with Indigenous students on campus, CareerTrackers tries to align student career aspirations with private-sector internship programs.

Within these programs, students get to juggle 12 weeks' paid employment annually with study and other commitments. CareerTrackers placed 30 Indigenous students in internship programs last year, and Combs expects these numbers to reach 70 and 100 in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Enabling execution

According to Jan Owen, CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, CareerTrackers and similar initiatives bring to the table a new mechanism through which employers can execute their best intentions to hire young and qualified Indigenous Australians. She says the key to the success of Indigenous employment programs is working with organisations that are serious about engaging Indigenous students full-time rather than to superficially appear politically correct.

While there's no generic set of rules, Owen says it's critical that the expectations and outcomes of Indigenous Australians from these programs are the same as anyone else. "The key is to focus on work readiness. Streaming kids would be the worst kind of racism," says Owen. "Indigenous people want the expectations of them to be high."

Similarly, Combs warns that if Indigenous students don't perceive an organisation to be aligning with their values, they'll disengage. Based on his experience, this is where large organisations tend to struggle when compared to SMEs.

Inherent challenges

What's inherently challenging about managing Indigenous employment programs, advises Combs, is the sheer difficulty identifying and adding the 9529 Indigenous students currently enrolled in Australian universities to the talent pool. Equally problematic, adds Combs, is the difficulty employers have trading-off internal staff expectations with the cultural support and mentorship needed to transition many of these students into their workforce.

Cultural nuance

Indigenous Australians don't want to be treated differently in the employment stakes. But commerce graduate, Sean Armistead - CareerTracker's first student to proceed from a three-year internship with Hewlett-Packard to full-time employment - says employers must recognise myriad cultural nuances.

"When Indigenous students avoid eye contact it needs to be seen as a sign of respect rather than rudeness," says Armistead, who recently joined KPMG's national Indigenous employment team.

"Because they don't perceive their own value, employers need to recognise that Indigenous Australians need help to talk up their capabilities."

Given these cultural idiosyncrasies, Combs says it's sometimes necessary to attract Indigenous Australians by functional areas rather than via generic industries like banking or IT or as branded organisations. "Creating role models for other young Indigenous Australians to aspire to is one of the best outcomes these programs can deliver," he says. "It also helps stop the welfare dependency cycle."

The merits of merit

Microsoft has used CareerTrackers to help put a constant stream of high-calibre Indigenous students on its recruitment radar. Once identified, Staffing Manager Andrew Le Lievre says students are then invited to attend Microsoft's university-based seminars on careers in IT.

Out of the 1000 graduates Microsoft evaluated last year, 1 per cent identified as Indigenous, with a significant 8.3 per cent of last year's total 'hire nodes' coming from this group alone.

Of all the channels Microsoft approached trying to identify Indigenous Australians, Le Lievre says the most successful results came via CareerTrackers and the university visits that they hosted.

"There was no affirmative action-based selection process, it was entirely merit-based," Le Lievre goes on to comment. "Our single biggest challenge since initiating a paid internship program in 2007 was figuring out ways to source decent pools of Indigenous talent that would help us better reflect the broader community."

Workplace diversity

Attempts to widen its cultural diversity also attracted SJB Architects to include Indigenous Australians within its recruitment pool. In addition to hiring an Indigenous architect in 2010, one of SJB's three existing internships in their Sydney office is an Indigenous student currently studying at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

"When considering this student's application, it became quickly apparent that our practice would also benefit from his input as an Indigenous Australian," says partner Adam Haddow. "He's already been instrumental in explaining to our partners what an Aboriginal perspective can contribute to the broader context of design and planning."

While there's an element of social commitment associated with hiring for cultural diversity, Haddow reminds employers that it's more about delivering good merit-based outcomes than mere 'triple bottom-line' compliance.

"Hiring an Indigenous Australian will positively impact the cultural identity of your office," says Haddow. "Significant growth in the student/employer relationship should be measured through increased autonomy and the ability to self-direct."

Path to empowerment

Having spent two years in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's national Indigenous cadetship program, Sean Armistead felt like he achieved little more than fulfil a quota. "In addition to not having a phone, PC or even an induction, there were few criteria through which my contribution could be assessed," he recounts.

Subsequently, while a mature-aged student at Melbourne University, he inaugurated Hewlett-Packard's internship program, created through CareerTrackers. Armistead spent three summers working for HP's business operations unit. He was given a set of specific goals and objectives to help develop the organisation's business plan around new ISO initiatives.

At the end of each 12-week stint, Armistead's performance was reviewed and more responsibilities added each time. He was also charged with teaching HP executives about Aboriginal culture.

"The support HP brought to this program empowered me to embark on a career-track of choice," says Armistead.