Aboriginal employment, jobs & careers

Aboriginal unemployment rates are 3 times the non-Aboriginal rates. Some web-based services exclusively list Aboriginal jobs.

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Selected statistics

Aboriginal employment rate in 2008.
Aboriginal employment rate in 2014.
Number of Aboriginal professionals in 2006; in 1996: 8,000.
Percentage of the Aboriginal workforce who held a professional job in 2006; in 1996: 10%.
Percentage of Aboriginal professionals who held a university degree in 2006.
Percentage of Aboriginal professionals who work in major cities.
Percentage of additional applications an Aboriginal person must submit to get as many interviews as a applicant with an Anglo-sounding name.

High Aboriginal unemployment

From 1994 to 2008 strong economic growth helped Aboriginal employment rise steeply from 31% to 51% while non-Aboriginal employment only rose about 7.5%.

But between 2005 and 2010, the overall Aboriginal unemployment rate remained at around 15% or above. In 2010 it was 18%. The unemployment rate was 16% in major cities, and 23% in regional areas.

A high number of Aboriginal people was not participating in the labour force (44.1%), double the figure for non-Aboriginal people (23.6%).

Aboriginal people have much lower employment rates than other Australians due to factors including education, training and skill levels, poorer health, limited market opportunities, discrimination, and lower levels of job retention.

The tier one [large construction] companies are happy to say they want to work with Indigenous people, but unlikely to hire them.

— Nathan Martin, Yuin man, Founder and CEO, Yalagan Group
Diagram showing Aboriginal unemployment rates for regional and remote areas, cities and all of Australia.
Aboriginal unemployment rates across regions in Australia. Unemployment in remote areas has risen sharply to 15%, while it has dropped in regional areas and cities.

Note: Employment data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) needs to be taken with a grain of salt because, following international guidelines, the ABS considers someone 'employed' if they are "engaged in one or more hours of work", i.e. one hour of work is enough to count as 'employed'.

Poor learning conditions

Some Aboriginal people lack the basics you need in order to go to work. If you hadn't an adequate house for shelter you wouldn't be able to sit down and learn. And without education you wouldn't be able to get a high-paying job.

Aboriginal communities suffer from massive overcrowding in houses, creating an environment where it is hard to learn.

Inadequate training

63% of Aboriginal Australians say that inadequate training and qualifications are a barrier to gaining employment, while 47% say they don't have a good understanding of the rules of the workplace.

To get work-ready, Aboriginal workers from remote communities might need to familiarise themselves with alarm clocks and getting to work without relying on someone from the community. Some of those signing up for jobs may never have worked in an office, answered to a boss or received a salary.

52% agree that not having the right job-specific training contributed to unemployment levels, while 57% named not having someone within the workplace to help them to settle in and feel supported as a key barrier to achieve employment. The same number believed a lack of numeracy and literacy skills prevented them from getting jobs.

Older Aboriginal workers can act as mentors for the young. The power of role models is important, as the young people benefit from talking to their own people who work full-time.

Mentors also help young workers overcome the urge to give up and return to not having a job. Teaching life skills is just as essential as teaching work skills - how to hold on to a job, how to secure a family's future.

"The areas that a mentor might cover range from talking about the person's cultural identity to dealing with life skills such as eating a good diet and maintaining hygiene," says Danny Lester, chief executive of national recruitment service Aboriginal Employment Strategy.

The main barrier to marginalised Indigenous people entering the workforce it not their skill level or their experience, but their level of work-readiness.

— Findings of the Walk in My Shoes 2011 report

Employers need to do better

Employers need to develop genuine relationships with Aboriginal people, communities and organisations, tackle racism in the workplace and focus on young people with proper training .

Companies should also avoid creating short-term unsustainable jobs just to meet Aboriginal employment targets.

Employers need to be careful not to box Aboriginal people into stereotypes. A common stereotype about Aboriginal people is that they are "lazy". People see them getting paid for doing nothing, receiving "sit-down money".

Some employers discriminate in the hiring process. A large-scale study by the Australian National University found that, with all other parameters being equal, an Aboriginal-sounding name on the application lets employers reject the application more often than if it was an Anglo-Saxon name (affinity bias). To get the same number of job interviews, an Aboriginal applicant must submit 35% more applications.

While Aboriginal people are qualified, employers need to overcome their old mindset and employ them.

"[Aboriginal people] were placed in casual positions cleaning a drug and rehabilitation centre two days a week," recounts Koori woman Kelly Briggs. "These were people who had certificate II, III & IV in business administration."

I have walked into at least 5 interviews where as soon as the interviewer saw that I was Aboriginal a kind of shutter comes across their eyes.

— Kelly Briggs, Koori writer at Crikey

Destination NSW, a peak tourism agency, failed to hire any First Nations staff member for nearly a decade despite boasting about the success of its First Nations cultural tourism programs.

Resource companies, in particular, have an "unspoken expectation that no Aboriginal group should become engaged in economic development" because they are expected to live on their own land as "caretakers of wilderness", uneducated and in poverty. There are still employers instructing agencies of "not sending any 'abos' for interviews".

While Aboriginal people like Aboriginal-specific positions, such as traineeships, to provide opportunities for entry into the job market, they need to have a clear career pathway to avoid being "locked-in" roles.

Feedback from Aboriginal people indicates that Aboriginal retention rates can be improved if employers

  • develop mentoring schemes,
  • address racism in the workplace,
  • provide cultural awareness training,
  • keep people employed even after any wage subsidy period ends,
  • provide career development and progression, and
  • enable flexible work practices.

If you are an employer, use the above list to create your Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).

Competition from cheap overseas labour

Young Aboriginal people are very keen to work but cheap overseas labourers push them out of the market.

"There's no reason to say that Aboriginal people don't want to work," says Lorraine Watson, an elder involved with a Remote Area Work Scheme (RAWS). "We get them all psyched up and ready to go and then the abattoirs will decide to pull out at the last minute because they've got overseas workers."

According to Ms Watson abattoirs' applications for overseas workers are usually processed within one month while her applications for Aboriginal youth takes over 16 months.

She blames the turnaround of abattoirs to money. Overseas workers' wages are subsidised whereas wages for young Aboriginal people are not.

But according to a report the total cost of recruiting and bringing in each overseas worker ranged from $17,000 to $30,000 , and once their visa expires they return to their home country. A 12-month program with RAWS costs $17,000 one-off, but the skills stay in the country.

Poor government policies

Poor government policies for education and welfare have made many Aboriginal people unemployable, says Prof Helen Hughes from the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). The lack of education in remote areas contributes most to unemployment there, while welfare dependence does the same in capital cities. With welfare payments often higher than entry-level wages, would you go to work?

A review in 2011 of Aboriginal employment programs in NSW found that 14 job programs were "basically redundant", costing around $17 million.

The reviewers found that there was "not strategy or framework linking programs to the needs of Aboriginal people, and there had been little monitoring or evaluation of money spent and outcomes".

NSW Aboriginal Affairs Minister Victor Dominello said that "what is needed is greater engagement with the Aboriginal community, improving and sustaining career development pathways through connected programs from school through to employment, leveraging opportunities in growth industries and regions, and strengthening relationships with the private and non-government sectors to link Aboriginal people with more employment and business opportunities".

Aboriginal people want careers, not jobs. We want to be paid right for what we're doing.

— Simon Fewings, co-ordinator Dare To Lead Project, Mildura

Aboriginal professionals: Success unreported

Almost all reports about 'Aboriginal employment' draw attention to Aboriginal people who do ?not? have a job, ignoring the growing number of employed Aboriginal professional workers – as many as 14,000 in 2006, or 14% of the Aboriginal workforce, often living in urban areas. This compares to 22% in the non-Aboriginal workforce.

The increase of Aboriginal professionals from 1996 to 2006 (74%) is higher than the increase of the Aboriginal population during that period (29%).

They can be considered part of the emerging Aboriginal middle class, an idea that recognises the diversity of Aboriginal people, their increasing levels of skill and education and work in higher professional roles. These roles were mainly in the areas of education, health, visual arts, environmental science and human resources, for example as teachers, psychologists, rangers or artists.

Success story: Norforce

Norforce is one of the few organisations in Australia dominated by Aboriginal people. Established in 1981, Norforce monitors Australia's northern coast for suspicious activity.

Nearly 70% of the patrolmen are Aboriginal (compared to 0.97% in the Defence Force), and in 2011 Norforce welcomed their first Aboriginal officer, David Isaac, thanks to better education.

Aboriginal elders and traditional owners embrace Norforce, and for those who enlist their job is a source of pride and prestige. Not only are they employed, their work involves protecting country which includes their ancestral lands. To young Aboriginal males the job helps them live and breathe their warrior role.

"In Norforce we look after country and make sure ti's kept good, and no one is in there trying to destroy it," says Ronald Roe.

Norforce values their Aboriginal members' bushcraft and intimate acquaintance with the land. "If something is out of place - a bush, a rock - they'll pick that up. They can see if something has been through," says Warrant Officer Bob Terms. Finding fresh water is still a vital ability too.

In return for teaching such knowledge to their fellow soldiers, Aboriginal recruits learn skills that can help them find civilian jobs--medical know-how, leadership, self-confidence.

Norforce respects Aboriginal ways to learn. They teach map reading outside while sitting on a hill and don't scream at recruits, which would shame them to not returning to the force.

Sandra, mother of Aboriginal soldiers Michael and Eddie, is proud. "I'm really happy that my two boys are in Norforce. It's taught them a lot of things, and they look forward to it so much, even though they have to leave their families behind. They look different - fitter and healthier - and ti's been good for their character as well."

For Warrant Officer Bob Terms Norforce has changed his attitudes towards Aboriginal people profoundly. "Before I joined Norforce, I wouldn't have sat in a fixhole with an Aboriginal person and shared a cup of tea... Now I don't' think twice about sharing a cup of tea with them, or giving them a smoke, and I'm honoured to be godparent to a little Aboriginal girl."

Success factors for Aboriginal employment

There is no one solution that fits all employment situations, but here are factors that have proven to work for some cases :

  • Know about Aboriginal culture. Understand Aboriginal communities' grief and trauma, and the social and emotional issues that resulted from it. Show respect. Understand the affect of colonisation. Be committed to reconciliation. Ideally, have some positive experience with Aboriginal culture.
  • Build community rapport. Try to be non-judgemental, open and honest.
  • Accommodate customs. Accommodate custom and cultural traditions of kinship. Have men and women in the correct customary relationships.
  • Show flexibility for culture. Allow workers to attend ceremonies by starting work early to make up for the time required in the afternoon.
  • Commit to shared social and cultural values. These include family, community, land, culture and ceremony, work ethic and economic drive.
  • Improve worker's skills through formal education and training. Tailor training to prepare job-seekers for a job that exists and not simply train for training's sake. Where training is linked to a guaranteed job, some employers report a 70% retention of new Aboriginal employees to 6 months, compared to the Job Services Australia retention rate of just 24%.
  • Know yourself as an employer. Because professional boundaries are very different in some work environments you need to know yourself and be balanced.
  • Try innovative recruitment strategies that give Aboriginal people who would be screened out during conventional selection processes the opportunity to win jobs.
  • Hire Aboriginal managers. Aboriginal workers prefer workplaces where their boss is also Aboriginal.

To trade the hopelessness for hope, we need effective training that leads to results. We cannot afford to keep training candidates for training's sake, and making them jump through hoops of hope.

— Jeremy Donovan, national ambassador, GenerationOne

Increasingly Aboriginal businesses create Aboriginal jobs.

A report by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University identified the number of self-employed Aboriginal people increased substantially, rising from 4,600 in 1991 to 12,500 in 2011.

Aboriginal employment websites

Indigenous Jobs Australia

On August 31, 2009, the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce launched Australia's first national Aboriginal employment website.

The chamber's chairman, Warren Mundine, said that the site provided a platform for government, businesses and Aboriginal job seekers to work together to minimise Aboriginal unemployment.

"Indigenous people are not as competitive as non-Indigenous people. In interviews they're not promoting themselves. They're not selling themselves. It's not to say they can't do these jobs as well as anyone else—it's just the salesmenship," he said.

Most Australians (59%) would like to work with an Aboriginal person a survey found, while 66% would give an Aboriginal person employment if they had the opportunity, only 5% would not.

There are dozens of employers, some of the biggest in the country knocking on my door saying they want to hire Indigenous people.

— Senator Mark Arbib, federal Minister for Employment Participation

The website is available at

Aboriginal Employment Strategy

Founded in 1997, the national Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES) is a 100% Aboriginal-managed, not-for-profit recruitment company.

It helps Aboriginal people get a foothold in employment by providing school-based training programs, group training, apprenticeships, recruitment services and mentorship.

AES works with corporate partners including Qantas, ANZ, Commonwealth Bank, Telstra and NAB.

It's work saves the government a substantial amount of money which it would otherwise spend on welfare benefits.


View article sources (25)

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[13] [13a] [13b] 'Insights provided in report', Koori Mail 459 p.39
[14] 'Peak body has no Indigenous staff despite diversity claim', SMH 15/11/2021
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[17] 'Inept Govt policy denying Indigenous jobs - report', Koori Mail 471 p.36
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[19] 'Careers, not jobs', Koori Mail 475 p.46
[20] [20a] 'Brothers in arms', SMH Good Weekend 10/12/2011 p.23
[21] 'Repossessing the songlines', SMH 1/12/2012
[22] 'Cultural angle to looking after elders', SMH My Career 4/5/2013
[23] [23a] [23b] [23c] 'Bold target helps to change the outlook', SMH 17/8/2013
[24] 'Hopes for 100,000 jobs on new Indigenous site', SMH 29/8/2009
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Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, Aboriginal employment, jobs & careers, <>, retrieved 29 May 2024

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