Opinion article

Empowering First Nations people through professional employment

CareerTrackers Director, Learning and Innovation, Adam Davids says that underrepresentation of First Nations people in professional roles has a raft of negative consequences that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic.

I’m a keen observer of the parallels between Indigenous Australians and the experience of racial minorities in higher education and employment in America. While completing my Fulbright exchange in the United States in 2019, I studied the ways in which greater rates of professional employment among a minority group can limit the harmful effects of systemic oppression.

Evidence shows that Indigenous Australians and racial minorities in America are underrepresented in professional jobs, and the consequences of this have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. I believe decision makers in both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community have an urgent and important role to play in preparing young First Nations people for professional careers and positions of leadership.

The pandemic is a warning sign

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the Economic Policy Institute in the US found more than 80 per cent of African American and Hispanic people did not have an opportunity to work from home.[1] This is because workers who were permitted to telework typically had jobs with higher incomes and in financial, professional, information and business services – all industries that have low representation of racial minorities.

Indigenous Australians are also underrepresented in these key industries:

Table 1: Industry distribution 2016[2]

IndustryAll Australians (%)Indigenous Australians (%)
Professional, Scientific and Technical Services7.263.11
Financial and Insurance Services3.601.54
Information Media and Telecommunications1.681.04

The underrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in these industries prevents us from benefiting equally in the economy; the annual income of First Nations families is just two-thirds of that of all Australians – that’s 66 cents to every $1.[3]

According to a report by the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, “Indigenous people will be the last to return to work in the eventual economic recovery” because we are underrepresented in professional jobs. Additionally, past recessions highlight that professional workers have greater job security during turbulent economic times than lower-skilled workers.

Professional jobs are a key ingredient to sustainable empowerment

The 2016 census shows us that 35.9 per cent of all Australian workers are in professional or managerial jobs compared with 21 per cent of Indigenous workers. This limits incomes, wealth accumulation and the potential for career growth among Indigenous Australians. This in turn makes it harder for First Nations families to put bread on the table, and therefore, harder to secure the health and education of their children. The ripple effects could take us further away from the Closing the Gap targets.

Table 2: Workforce distribution by job & Indigenous status 2016

IndustryIndigenous Australians (%)Non-Indigenous (%)
Technicians and Trades Workers13.914.1
Community and Personal Service Workers17.110.9
Clerical and Administrative Workers13.513.7
Sales Workers9.29.5
Machinery Operators and Drivers9.36.4
Labourers 15.69.3

A way forward

For the past 11-years, national non-profit organisation CareerTrackers has worked to increase the representation of Indigenous Australians in professional jobs, in partnership with universities and more than 257 employers including Qantas, Westpac, Lendlease and Insurance Australia Group. The program has graduated more than 1,000 Indigenous students at university.

The results are encouraging. Approximately 69 per cent of Australian university graduates secure full-time employment within four months of graduating[4]. But 95 per cent of CareerTrackers alumni enter full-time employment within three months of graduating. In 2018, the starting salary of CareerTrackers alumni was shown to be 15 per cent higher than the salary of other graduates on average.

The CareerTrackers program was derived from the INROADS minority internship program in the US, which has a 50-year track record of developing industry-leading talent in partnership with more than 1000 employers such as JP Morgan & Chase, Bank of America, Lockheed Martin, Procter & Gamble and PwC.

Since its founding in 1970, INROADS has empowered communities of colour by forging pathways to employment and wealth through its innovative internship model. Over 50 years, the program has graduated more than 154,000 university students from African American, Native American and Hispanic communities. Approximately 64 per cent of alumni donate and volunteer their time to not-for-profit and philanthropic organisations and more than 76 per cent are homeowners, compared with 41 per cent of black families in the wider population. Notable INROADS alumni include Thasunda Brown Duckett (CEO, TIAA) and William D. Magwood (Former US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner).

The success of CareerTrackers and INROADS shows how increasing professional employment among First Nations people can help to reduce inequality. Growing the community of First Nations professionals will not only further empower First Nations people, it will also strengthen Australian society more broadly.


About the authors

Adam Davids

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Adam is a proud Aboriginal Australian and descendant of the Wiradjuri people. He completed a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of NSW and in 2019 was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, the flagship foreign exchange program of the U.S. For more than 12 years Adam has worked in the non-profit sector to address the barriers facing Indigenous students in higher education and professional careers. Adam is driven to increase the representation of Indigenous professionals and executives in corporate Australia and as the Director of Learning at CareerTrackers he has helped thousands of students build upward career mobility.

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