Indigenous Job Creation: Article by Tony Shepherd in the AFR

This opinion article by Tony Shepherd, President of the Business Council of Australia, was published in The Australian Financial Review on 30 May 2013 under the title ‘Business Stands Behind Indigenous Job Creation’.

National Reconciliation Week is now a significant occasion in corporate Australia. For business, like the broader community, it’s used to take stock of where we’ve come in breaking down barriers between Indigenous peoples and the broader Australian population, and to take stock of what remains to be done.

From where I stand in the corporate sector, the last decade has seen a significant shift.

Very few of our CEO members would see the problems faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as disconnected from the lives of non-Indigenous Australians. Nor do they believe the disparity in life outcomes for Indigenous people is a problem for governments alone to solve.

We were encouraged to think like this for a long time, to put the issues to one side in a way that anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner described in 1968 as the “great Australian silence”.

Today we understand these issues concern all and we all have a role to play.

We know the economic and social disadvantage experienced by so many Indigenous Australians is the product of colonisation, dispossession and discrimination. Poverty is not the natural state of our First Australians – it hasn’t come about as an accident of history but through design.

And it’s only through design that sustained and widespread improvement in the economic and social wellbeing of Indigenous Australians will be achieved.

This involves business, governments and communities working together with Indigenous Australians to devise and implement responsive and effective approaches to education and training, to create sustainable jobs and inclusive and respectful workplaces and communities.

The approach of businesses involved in Indigenous employment and economic development goes beyond rhetoric around job creation rhetoric to the real world imperatives of changing workplace cultures, building relationships with and capacity in Indigenous communities, reaching into the education system, and engaging Indigenous businesses in our supply chains.

Business Council of Australia member companies are learning from their own experiences and those of others. Our most recent Indigenous engagement survey showed that in the year 2011-12, BCA members collectively took on more than 2000 new Indigenous employees and more than 700 new trainees.

Almost a third of survey respondents reported having more than 50 Indigenous employees, 17 companies employed more than 250 Indigenous people and eight employed more than 500. This is not just happening in the resources sector. Indigenous employment is picking up across the economy in retail, financial services, construction, aviation and professional services.

The large-scale impact of these shifts, and the growing investment of government and business, is becoming apparent. Many of the Indigenous life indicators that have, for too long, been a story of failure, are slowly starting to improve. The 2011 census told us there are more Indigenous people employed in the private sector than ever before and that the Indigenous professional class is growing. There are more Indigenous tertiary students and graduates than ever before.

At the coalface, our members tell us they are employing Aboriginal people who are the first in their families to have a job, and of the effect employment is having on individuals, families and communities.

At the individual level, it’s life changing. At the national level, it can be equally transformative and the momentum we have now makes it doubly important for us to take stock of how far we still have to go.

The federal government’s Closing the Gap target requires aims to of halve the differential in employment status, 100,000 Indigenous people to move into work by 2018.

To lift Year 12 attainment to parity, we have to go back to early childhood because by the time Indigenous kids are being tested in Year 3, the gap is significant.

I believe business needs to ramp up its role. We can’t, as a nation, consider ourselves truly prosperous until our First People have every opportunity to contribute to, and benefit from, a strong, growing economy.

There is no longer any excuse for a large company to not have an Indigenous strategy. This week, as we spotlight the national, local and individual dimensions of reconciliation, we should all be acting on what we now know.

There is no industry or sector or company operating in Australia that sits outside this story.