Nicole * is a single mother on Centrelink. She’s desperate to find work and willing to do what it takes to feed her daughter and keep a roof over their heads. Although she has a range of useful skills, Nicole isn’t focused on pursuing her passion or climbing the corporate ladder. She has been led to believe that working at a fulfilling job is an impossible fantasy.
She joins an agency to help her find work. If they find her a role, the agency receives money from the government, so they send her to interviews for jobs that pay measly rates for gruelling tasks. They never think to ask her what she’s passionate about, or even what she’s good at.
If Nicole doesn’t attend the interviews, or accept the jobs, the agency has the authority to discontinue her Centrelink. It is this inescapable chain of events that results in Nicole accepting a shift at a topless bar. A job the agency has found her and for which she is not being paid. It is, the agency explains, for work experience.
Nicole is Indigenous Australian. Sadly, her story is not unique. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Australia’s colonial history is characterised by brutal land dispossession, violence and racism. Due to such things as overt and implicit prejudice, poor health, limited market opportunities and a lack of access to education, training and childcare, Aboriginal people have much lower employment rates than other Australians.
In 2016, the employment rate for non-Indigenous Australians was 72%. In comparison, it was a startlingly low 46.6% for Indigenous Australians, according to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. This discrepancy was felt most keenly by younger Indigenous Australians, 42 % of whom were not in employment, education or training.
In response to this crisis, Reconciliation Australia was established in 2001 and the Closing the Gap framework on Indigenous disadvantage was developed by the Australian Government in 2008. Although there has been some progress towards national reconciliation, the targets set by these initiatives have, sadly, not been met.
Thankfully, there are guides available to show us the way. Reconciliation Australia offers companies the opportunity to contribute by committing to a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). ‘A RAP provides structure for those who want to drive change. If someone wants to begin the reconciliation process, it helps them get it off the ground and move from talking to taking action,’ says Matt McArthur, Indigenous Specialist Recruiter at Ignite and one of the founders of Ignite’s RAP. Thanks to Matt, Ignite was the first non-Indigenous HR / recruitment agency to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan in Australia.
Remember Nicole? Matt got in touch with her through Seek. He arranged a meeting and chatted to her to learn more about her skills and passions. ‘Because that’s what we do,’ he explains. ‘We try to find the best fit for both the client and the candidate. We try to find roles that candidates actually want to do.’
Matt lined Nicole up with an interview for her dream job, full time. However, her agency wouldn’t let her go to the interview because they’d organised training at a job that offered less than half the salary and fewer than 15 hours of work per week. Matt was able to move a few things around with the client to make the interview work.
Nicole was working at the topless bar when Matt called to tell her she’d got the job. ‘She snuck into the toilets to take my call and she broke down and wept when I told her the good news,’ explains Matt with a glint of both pride and relief in his eyes.
A Reconciliation Action Plan provides a simply framework which guides companies who want to support the reconciliation movement. Ignite’s specialist Indigenous team is focused on recruitment and mentoring programs that will produce positive outcomes for Indigenous Australians and public and private sector organisations. They foster strong relationships with groups throughout Australia, promoting inclusion for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and creating Indigenous talent communities.
Matt tells me about another client, Katrina*. Matt organised for Katrina to be interviewed for a role, also a dream job for the candidate, and she got it. ‘Two weeks later, we received an email from the manager saying that she’s one of the best candidates they’ve ever worked with,’ explains Matt. ‘Ever since then, it’s been a breeze to work with that client who is always contacting me for candidates. They have faith that I can provide what they need. It is very much a mutually beneficial arrangement. Everyone wins!’
Sharon Costigan is another founder of Ignite’s RAP. She is a self-proclaimed ‘activist for things that get up my nose’. Prejudice being a major one of those nasally-intrusive irritants. Years ago Sharon had witnessed an act of explicit racism towards one of her colleagues, she became irate and it had always stayed with her. She felt she had to do something to try to make a difference. Through RAP she hopes to raise awareness both internally and externally and to break down stereotypes. ‘I am gobsmacked by the amount of people who have no idea about Indigenous issues or their culture,’ she says. ‘About their traditions. About what’s acceptable and what’s not.’
Among many activities, Sharon has introduced a quiz for all new staff members at Ignite, the questions of which are taken directly from the Reconciliation Action website. Most people are shocked by how little they know, Sharon tells me. She describes it as an effective device for raising awareness of various issues. ‘Having a RAP has really made me feel like I’m not just sitting around being a witness to injustice,’ says Sharon. ‘I feel like I’m actually doing something to make a difference.’
Matt echoes Sharon’s sentiments. ‘I love what I do because I feel like I’m able to make a difference in people’s lives. That’s the great thing about having a RAP. Usually, when you work in a corporate environment you’re not really given the opportunity to have such a positive impact on the lives of others.’
When asked what his hopes are, Matt says, ‘That our RAP drives Ignite and our clients to be passionate about making a difference for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. At all levels; senior and entry level.’
Matt goes on to explain that there are people out there who want to hire Indigenous people, but only at a senior level. Paradoxically, because there aren’t many entry-level opportunities, there’s a scarcity of qualified candidates to take the available senior roles. Therefore, clients need to invest in entry-level candidates to create the future talent pools. There are opportunities for change in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) backgrounds, Matt explains. And the Ignite Indigenous team have been working with various organisations and are in talks to create an entry-level program through which professionals go out to remote communities to promote STEM education.
In fact, Ignite’s Indigenous team has recently been engaged by a number of national and global companies to assist with a range of exciting recruitment projects. These include Google, Westpac, Commonwealth Bank, Telstra and the NRL.
Matt recommends that anyone who wants to get involved should commit to a RAP, as it is a great way to get guidance. The other important element, is having a passionate RAP working group. ‘At Ignite, executives and the CEO are members of the working group, and they really drive it. Sometimes Julian (Ignite’s CEO) is the one keeping me accountable. He’s driving me. I’m not the Indigenous guy always telling them what to do. It would be tough without their ongoing support.’
Often, there are people who want to help the Indigenous communities but they might not have the contacts to do so. ‘That’s part of our responsibility,’ explains Matt. ‘Being Indigenous and in the corporates space, we open gateways through which grassroots communities and Indigenous organisations can connect with a corporate partner.’
‘For people who want to make a difference in this space, but don’t know where to start or don’t feel they have the connections, or aren’t sure who is reputable. They can contact us and we can make sure they get in contact with the right people.’
‘At the end of the day,’ Matt says. ‘it’s all about supporting people. That’s what you should be aiming for. It’s a good thing for Australia. And that is the definition of reconciliation.’
*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of others.
Author: Cassie Lane
Copywriter / Content Strategist at Ignite