The challenge of transitioning Aboriginal youth from school to employment

First Nations, indigenous

Do you remember your first day of primary school? You may not have realised that the child you were then would have an impact on your future career today. If you were an Aboriginal child, there is a 40 per cent chance you would have started primary school classed behind your peers. In Australia four in 10 Aboriginal children start primary school classed as developmentally vulnerable, compared to only two in 10 non-Aboriginal children.

This means many Aboriginal kids start primary school one or two years behind, which continues until secondary school. When you start behind in your education, by the time you’re 13 or 14 school feels too hard and you start to lose motivation. You’re likely to drop out before you’re 16, but you don’t have the skills to compete in a jobs marketplace that is increasingly demanding Year 12 as a minimum expectation.

Today 35 per cent of Aboriginal Year 12 students don’t complete Year 12, compared to only 11 per cent of non-Indigenous Year 12 students. Not surprisingly this gap impacts employment figures, with almost 60 per cent of Aboriginal youth aged 17-24 not engaged in any tertiary education, training or employment, compared to only 26 per cent of non-Aboriginal youth in the same age bracket.

These statistics show that employment and education are intrinsically linked. We can’t have successful employment outcomes for Aboriginal kids, without successful education outcomes first.

The workforce has changed – and Aboriginal kids are falling behind

I’m an Aboriginal man who has worked in recruitment for more than 15 years and now lead Aboriginal school-to-work transition program Jobs4U2. In the last 10 years, I’ve seen a significant shift in the jobs marketplace – Year 12 is now a foundational requirement for most jobs.

If Aboriginal kids are much less likely to obtain Year 12, then they will always be behind the eight-ball. That’s why our charity Ganbina was founded in the late 90s in the Goulburn Murray region in Victoria, where one in 10 people are Indigenous. At this time, a large number of Indigenous people in the region’s major regional city of Shepparton were unemployed and many had dropped out of school at a young age. This meant they didn’t have the skills for the jobs he was trying to give them in the first place.  

When we focus only on workplace placement and don’t understand the importance of workplace readiness, we won’t get the results we want for Aboriginal employment. Workplace readiness comes from education and training prior to employment. Education and employment are hand in glove, one cannot exist without the other.

What businesses can do to be a part of the solution

Businesses can still play an important role in helping Aboriginal kids transition from education to employment, by engaging with Aboriginal-led organisations that support Indigenous youth. Every community will have different needs for their young people and if you approach them with genuine interest, and when there’s no obvious direct benefit to you, then that will be seen as a positive thing by the community.

My advice is to approach an Aboriginal organisation before you need to hire someone. You can start by offering industry tours to young Aboriginal kids so they can see what kind of careers are out there for them, as well as traineeships and work experience – any sort of opportunity. Do this work now – it may be 12 months before you need someone, but if you have a relationship with community and are offering genuine opportunities for Aboriginal youth, there will be somewhere for them to go once school ends.