Why businesses should play a role in ‘closing the gap’ in Indigenous employment

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

February 2018 marked both the tenth anniversary of the Closing the Gap program, a government initiative to improve the standards of living for Indigenous Australians, and the deadline to meet its key targets in areas such as education, health, and employment.

In 2008, the target was set to halve the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 2018, but as this month’s report shows, the gap has actually widened.

While there certainly are challenges in addressing Indigenous unemployment, I believe if more businesses can see the benefits in working closely with Indigenous people and communities, we can reach this target, and achieve significant outcomes at an individual, community and economic level.

Unemployment impacts us all

Living and working in regional Australia, we see the impacts of long-term unemployment, from financial insecurity and homelessness to depression and mental health issues. And it’s not just the individual who feels the effects – long term unemployment impacts us all.

The economic costs of unemployment are substantial, across health and welfare in particular. Working with our Indigenous communities to reach equality in health and employment outcomes alone, would generate an estimated $11.9 billion gain for the Australian economy. However, at our current rate of progress, we won’t even halve the gap until 2051.

The tyranny of distance

One of the most significant challenges, in my opinion, is related to the rural location of most Indigenous communities. It’s no secret that there are less jobs in regional Australia, with economic forces driving people to metropolitan areas in search of work. But the added challenge for Indigenous Australians is that the culture is much more community orientated and relocating for work can result in isolation.

However, with both rising unemployment in Indigenous communities and significant skills shortages in industries such as healthcare, it seems there is an opportunity to help Indigenous Australians better access the education requirements for these jobs.

Another trend I think we can expand further is businesses engaging with Indigenous communities on a deeper level, bringing work to the areas where it is needed. We have seen some good news stories on this lately, with the Arnhem Land bottled water project bringing much needed jobs to the Top End, and Essential Energy offering Indigenous apprenticeships in Central West New South Wales.

Businesses can benefit from engagement

I’ve talked before about how businesses can benefit from increasing diversity, with research showing significant uplift in productivity across the entire workforce, and this is certainly true when it comes to employing Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians bring a richness and depth of culture and experience that adds so much to a business, if the leadership is prepared to understand and embrace cultural differences.

The Indigenous community in Australia is growing faster than the non-Indigenous one, and in a time of skill shortages and an ageing workforce, Indigenous communities are an excellent source of young talented people.

Indigenous employment benefits individuals and businesses on so many levels and there are numerous good news stories out there that showcase this, such as that of Anne Graham. Anne completed her Certificate III in Aged Care and Certificate III in Health Support Services through VERTO’s partnership with Job Find Taree. An Indigenous mother of ten children, who was long-term unemployed, Anne did a job placement with The Mayo Private Hospital as part of her studies. Her employer was so impressed with her work ethic, reliability and commitment that she was offered ongoing employment, which she says has given her a new circle of friends, and a sense of pride that her children see her working. Another example is Gerry Metcalf, who re-entered the workforce successfully at the age of 61, after 315 weeks of unemployment, and has proven to be an asset to his employer.  

Collaborative solutions are the most successful

When I talk to Indigenous Australians, I often hear that their communities feel program-fatigue. As the election cycle turns, programs are chopped and changed to meet the sentiments of the electorate rather than make positive, sustainable change.

Programs need to have long-term outlooks and be strategically driven by Indigenous community leaders. The rise in Indigenous enterprise is a great example of this. The Indigenous-owned business sector is growing faster than any other sector and is bringing employment opportunities to the areas where they are needed most. There are around nine thousand Indigenous-owned businesses across the country, across a wide range of industries, from winemaking to construction.

Indigenous enterprise is playing a key role in increasing the economic participation of some of our remotest communities, and one the government is backing too – with the recent announcement of the Indigenous Business Sector Strategy set to provide further incentives and support for entrepreneurs.

Kickstarting Indigenous employment in your business

Intergenerational unemployment creates a poverty cycle, and it’s important that the government, Indigenous communities and Australian businesses collaborate to break it, if we are to close the gap.

Indigenous Business Australia offers a checklist to get your business started. Working with an employment organisation that is experienced in facilitating Indigenous employment, like VERTO, is also important to make sure your strategy is successful, you find the right people and you make the most of all the available support to achieve successful outcomes.