Indigenous employment: quality, not quantity

Closing the gap in Indigenous employment will require businesses to create sustainable opportunities that provide meaningful careers, says Adrian Appo. Only then will the numbers follow.

Adrian Appo believes that once a quality program is set up, the numbers will follow.

Adrian Appo is bullish about his views on Indigenous issues. And right now he is thinking about how businesses can support Indigenous Australians to build meaningful careers. In an interview with SVA Consulting, Appo, the CEO of Ganbina, an employment and training organisation based in Shepparton, shares his belief that businesses today have the opportunity to make a lasting impact; however, they must focus on the end game – on turning lives around. “Organisations need to look beyond the numbers and develop quality programs and opportunities that support Indigenous employees to succeed,” explains Appo. “Once this happens, and Indigenous people are supported to develop meaningful careers, the numbers will follow.”

Setting the scene: it’s about quality, not quantity

Appo’s starting point is quite simple – organisations need to focus on quality, not quantity. “Success is more than simple activity and more than the numbers game, it needs to reflect the impact on both the organisation and employee,” he says. “Organisations should look at their needs and think about the sustainability of opportunities. They have to be underpinned by a real business case.”

There is little point in creating roles if candidates have no understanding or interest in them.

Appo has observed that a lot of Indigenous employment initiatives focus on hitting targets. “What often results is a program with a strong emphasis on the creation of entry level positions, but limited career progression and limited impact,” he says.

However in focusing on quality, quantity will follow, believes Appo. For businesses, valuing the contribution of skilled and capable employees and understanding how to effectively support and develop them should lead to more opportunities. For Indigenous people, being more attracted to working at the business because of the type and availability of opportunities should lead to more talented candidates putting their hands up for jobs.

Significantly, Appo wants more businesses to deliver successful Indigenous employment opportunities. “Some organisations are already on the journey, but more effort and activity is needed across sectors and throughout Australia,” says Appo.

Three insights for driving workplace change

SVA Consulting has recently worked with Generation One and Reconciliation Australia developing case studies on Indigenous employment initiatives. These two organisations have a common mission to engage the business community in creating sustainable opportunities for Indigenous people. The case studies were developed to explore the different activities and approaches adopted. (See Generation One case studies. Also see Generation One’s new step-by-step guide: Everybody’s Business: A handbook for Indigenous employment.)

Three insights from the stories stood out.

  • Lead from the top. Support and commitment from the business’s leaders means that the resources and people needed to drive long-term change are more likely to be available.
  • Set the vision and define the business case which underpins the opportunities within the employment initiative.
  • Work in partnership when implementing these initiatives. Partnerships should complement internal capabilities to ensure that the right support is in place for Indigenous employees to succeed.

These insights highlight different issues that organisations should consider when delivering their own initiatives.

Lead from the top

Backing from the business leadership can be the difference between success and failure. With it, organisations can access the right people and resources to implement ambitious initiatives. Without it, they can labour in vain to even discuss the issue.

Through his work with Ganbina, Appo has observed the impact that leaders can make. “Leaders have to believe in the program and take active steps to ensure that the right resources and people are in place to create change. They need to set an example for how the business supports the attraction and retention of Indigenous staff.” As he puts it, “leaders need to lead!”

Appo also emphasises that executive management support alone is not sufficient; it needs a champion who translates the commitment and support from the top into real change. “Organisations need a champion who is dedicated to moving things forward; someone who has the capacity and influence to drive change.”

Generation One and Reconciliation Australia case studies showed that leaders need to support and commit to the employment program from its inception. They also need to recognise that significant investment and resources are required to make it work, including dedicated teams in some cases. Commitment must be long-term, visible and clearly defined. This creates impetus for the rest of the organisation.

Specific actions can include the development of a formal policy such as a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) or Indigenous employment strategy that outlines how the organisation will create meaningful relationships and opportunities for Indigenous people. They can also include highlighting Indigenous employment initiatives in corporate strategies and regular communications to stakeholders.

At Accor Hotels, Indigenous employment initiatives have a history of being driven from the top. In 2001, Accor’s Honorary Chairman, David Baffsky AO, backed the development of the company’s first Indigenous employment program – allocating funds and resources to support change.

This was reinforced more recently by Accor’s COO Pacific, Simon McGrath, and the current Accor leadership team when, in 2009, they re-launched the company’s Indigenous Employment Strategy and in 2011 launched Accor’s first RAP. Together, these strategies describe how Accor will not only attract and retain an effective Indigenous workforce but also support reconciliation. This includes providing a broad range of employment and training opportunities to job seekers; attracting people with the right skills and interests; and tailoring interviews to ensure job seekers have the opportunity to succeed. The commitment of the company’s leadership has also encouraged Accor’s broader workforce to support the company’s programs.

Since 2001, more than 800 Indigenous people have been employed and more than 250 people – over 3.5% of the workforce – are currently in jobs across the company’s national operations.

In a slightly different vein, efforts to set up an Indigenous employment program at Burswood Entertainment Complex in Perth failed to take hold until James Packer, Crown’s Chair, made a public commitment to employ 2,000 Indigenous Australians by 2021. This high-level support meant that Indigenous employment immediately became a priority with senior management. Packer’s position gave weight and influence to the vision of increasing the diversity of the company’s workforce.

Set the vision and define the business case

Setting the vision and defining the business case are important mechanisms that push organisations’ thinking from good intentions to focused action. This includes the financial implications of proposed programs or activities.

Appo supports this saying that it sets the foundation for ongoing success. “The vision needs to describe success for the organisation and detail the activities’ direction.”

Sustainability is only achieved when both [social and commercial] drivers underpin action.

Within the Generation One case studies, the visions focused on outcomes for the job seeker. Organisations defined success as Indigenous people being equipped to succeed and pursue career aspirations – the realisation of which Appo identifies as a hallmark of a successful employment initiative.

Sitting behind the vision is the business case. This should frame the basis for action, detail the organisation’s commitments and outline how it will deliver change. Appo explains that the business case should outline the social and commercial drivers of the proposed employment initiatives. “Neither driver should stand alone because as soon as the context and environment shift, the program’s future is in jeopardy. When the social and commercial drivers act in concert, an organisation optimises the longevity and support for the program,” says Appo. “Sustainability is only achieved when both drivers underpin action.”

The business case for Indigenous employment programs identified through the case studies was underpinned by:

  • We believe it’s the right thing to do.
  • We need more employees (access to broader talent pool).
  • We recognise that our customers/ workforce care about this issue.
  • Our workforce is not representative of our client base or community and we believe this will improve our relationships and drive additional business.

At Woolworths, defining the business case has been an important step in driving the company’s commitment to Indigenous employment. Woolworths believes that by matching the faces of its store employees to those in local communities, families will be more likely to shop at their local Woolworths store. In addition, the training and support provided to new recruits through the Indigenous employment program supports the company’s ongoing need for high quality employees.

Commercial drivers alone however do not frame the case for change. Woolworths also recognises the importance of supporting a targeted employment program to increase the diversity of its workforce and create good social outcomes.

Woolworths has not tried ot do everything in one go and has taken a staged approach to rolling out its program. This considered approach has enabled Woolworths to expand its Indigenous workforce and set in place a broad range of initiatives and opportunities so that it can support Indigenous employees across its business.

Work in partnership

To implement Indigenous employment initiatives, partnerships should complement internal capabilities to ensure that the right support is in place for employees to succeed. Partnerships might involve Indigenous communities and organisations or non-Indigenous organisations (e.g., accredited training providers). While the focus of partnerships will vary, they typically provide businesses with outside expertise in areas such as community engagement with Indigenous communities, cultural awareness training or strategic advice and support. Appo believes that there is no one solution. “Businesses will do some things well, but should consider working with others where someone else can do it better,” he says.

The more you can work in partnerships… the easier it is because you don’t need to be everything to everyone.

He advises organisations to develop relationships that are tailored to their own capabilities, involvement and interest in Indigenous employment. “Some businesses will be able to deliver their programs in-house – drawing on internal expertise and capabilities. Others will need to identify third party organisations to provide support.” This support needs to align with the focus and nature of the opportunities.

Interestingly, Appo notes that working in partnership can help organisations identify appropriate job seekers, which again, is a hallmark of a successful initiative. To this end, businesses should work closely with communities and Indigenous organisations to develop an understanding about the needs of the community, share the nature of potential employment opportunities and identify appropriate candidates.  “The more you can work in partnerships to deliver Indigenous employment programs, the easier it is because you don’t need to be everything to everyone.”

Partnership has been a key element of the Transfield Services’ approach to Indigenous employment. The company places a strong emphasis on working with communities believing that authentic community engagement is the single most important activity when recruiting, retaining and developing Indigenous people. To this end, it engages with local Indigenous communities before it commences a new project and continues to engage over time.

Transfield Services also works with government and third party organisations to access outside expertise and support.

Transfield Services’ emphasis on partnerships has helped achieve some positive results. In 2007, 2.2% of its Australian workforce identified as Indigenous and only two of these were happy to be identified by their name or location. By 2010, 3.1% of the Australian workforce identified as Indigenous and 31 Indigenous employees were happy to be identified.

Moving forward

As more and more businesses and other organisations develop Indigenous employment initiatives, it is critical that each considers the quality of their program. Once a quality program is established the numbers will follow.

Appo shares the words of a former colleague to explain his own hope for Indigenous employment.  “We will know we are making change when there are Aboriginal people in all the businesses. And…we are not surprised.”  A new focus and direction is now needed to create the lasting impact to achieve this.


Discuss this Article

  • James Alan Oloo responded on March 14, 2013

    A very well written article. I have been debating with myself this issue of quality vs quantity with respect to Aboriginal employment since Dr. Eric Howe, a University of Saskatchewan economist wrote a report that noted that if the employment gap between Aboriginal (First Nations) and non-Aboriginal peoples in Saskatchewan “aren’t addressed, then they will result in social upheaval on a level that has not been seen in Saskatchewan since the Great Depression.” (See article)

    Close employment gaps is the right thing to do. But also important is increased number of Aboriginal people in skilled positions. You are right in calling for skilled versus unskilled entry level positions for Aboriginal peoples. However, Aboriginal peoples, in general, at least in Canada, often face multiple challenges to employment. Therefore entry positions/unskilled positions are sometimes seen as alternative to unemployment/social assistance. I think the key is to see the unskilled positions as a gateway to a career. This is what we do at the Gabriel Dumont Institute Aboriginal Apprenticeship Initiative (http://www.gdins.org ) where we connect Aboriginal youth (sometimes even without experience in trades) with employers in apprenticeship programs. In the process we provide support to both employers (in the form of wage subsidies, employer satisfaction surveys, etc) and apprentices. The partnership with employers may then lead to career success of an Aboriginal person.

    James Alan Oloo
    Saskatchewan, Canada

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