“You can’t be what you can’t see”: Business owners should be recruiting young Indigenous Australians straight out of high school

David Mallett

Yanun founder David Mallett. Source: supplied.

Australian businesses need to rethink their recruitment strategies to ensure they allow young Indigenous workers to reach their potential, or risk missing out on this talent pipeline.

The year 12 attainment rate for Indigenous Australians increased to 66 % in 2018-19, according to the Closing the Gap Report. This looks promising until we look at the number who progress into higher education.

While 28.2% of Australians hold a degree at bachelor level or above, only 3% of Aboriginal students complete a university degree.

I know firsthand what a leap it can be to go into the unknown.

Many Indigenous young people don’t have any relatives or friends who have been to uni. It can seem intimidating — a place that isn’t ‘for them’.

There are myriad cultural challenges ranging from a lack of role models to learned assumed routes into specific careers.

Many of Australia’s Indigenous youth are the first of their family to finish school, let alone consider going to university, and completing a degree.

While many of these challenges can seem insurmountable, on top of this, there are the social and economic limitations of access to finance and location. For example, living in rural areas means another roadblock when it comes to travelling to cities for study.  

But these days many employers won’t take a second look at someone without a degree. In an increasingly competitive market, a degree seems to be essential to get ahead, particularly within the corporate world.

I want employers to reconsider this narrow focus, so that they can open doors to Indigenous young people, level the playing field, and ultimately, benefit their own bottom line.

If they only capture university leavers, they are shutting themselves off from a huge pool of talent, and the representation of Indigenous Australians within professional, white-collar roles will continue to be vastly imbalanced. 

I’ve been fortunate in my life that my non-conventional route into the corporate and now startup world has allowed me to consider how I can support others like me, who would never have imagined themselves working in an industry such as defence.

I spent a decade in the Australian Special Forces, joining straight from school with stints including as a Navy Clearance Diver and Special Operations Sniper.

These were great experiences that taught me a lot, particularly resilience and determination. But for me, it wasn’t a career for life. 

Fast forward 10 years, and I followed a path into project management, working for organisations including Iluka Resources and AECOM, while simultaneously attaining a master’s degree in project management and an MBA.

I was fortunate that these companies saw my potential and took me on prior to my having obtained my first degree. Without that foresight, I would not be where I am now, having recently launched my own project management company, Yanun, earlier this year. 

I feel a responsibility as a proud Ngarrindjeri man to ‘give back’ to others in my community who perhaps don’t have others around them who have the knowledge and connections to industry, but who also understands the cultural issues they face, and can bridge the divide.

You can’t be what you can’t see.

This month, I was approached by the SAAB Australia team to support them in their quest to find an Indigenous candidate for a role. Not only was this a forward-thinking approach, but it also helps them to fulfil their reconciliation action plan.

Acting as a pathway between both ‘cultures’, I am able to coach the candidates, and will remain a mentor to the young man who has been placed there.

Many young Indigenous people end up in the same careers purely because it’s what is expected of them by society.

The most common jobs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are community and personal service workers, followed by labourers and technicians and tradespeople.

There is no reason they can’t work within white-collar professions, and businesses have a responsibility to implement programs and policies that can facilitate this.

More companies could be providing cadetships for school leavers, grabbing this talent straight from school and providing them opportunities for a lifetime of professional development and success.

Once they have their feet under the table, they’ll gain confidence, and will feel better equipped to enter higher education, perhaps a few years down the line.

There are numerous jobs in defence and cyber, for example, that don’t need a degree initially, such as junior project managers or assistants, schedulers, and cyber security analysts.

Narrowing the field to graduates only will only continue this lack of diversity and reduce the opportunities for new and fresh voices. 

There are many benefits to having a diverse workplace which goes way beyond box-ticking. It can reduce the impact of unconscious bias, increase employee engagement, and initiate creativity through a reduction in ‘group think’.

The permission for staff to bring their authentic self to work often leads to improved employee retention.

Businesses themselves look more attractive to customers, and future employees.

Many studies note that diverse workforces ultimately increase profits, for all these reasons.   

There is a well-known Chinese proverb: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’

This kind of rethink is not just for the short term. Economic prosperity is the key to creating enduring and sustainable change.

By carving out professional roles for young Indigenous Australians, companies provide the skills, confidence and pathways for a lifetime of success.

This in turn starts to ‘break the cycle’, creating both mentors for the next generation and economic prosperity that benefits not just individuals, but their families and broader communities.

One successful professional pathway can positively affect many people’s lives. 

Rethinking recruitment strategies does not have to be a huge risk.

Many employers know that hiring young people early into their careers is about hiring for ‘attitude’, not ‘experience’, and that the skills for that specific role can be taught on the job.

Not only does this make solid business sense, but it is the right thing to do.

We all have a collective responsibility as Australians to strive for equality and empower the next generation to reach their potential.

By creating legitimate pathways for Indigenous youth to be able to excel and reach financial freedom within rewarding careers, they in turn act as role models for future generations, and ultimately, real change can occur. 


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