The Australian: Firms told to act as Indigenous numbers fall

THE nation’s business leaders need to play the “long game” in education investment and get involved in schools earlier if they want to catalyse the transformation of the indigenous workforce, after new data reveals the number of Aboriginal people employed by some of the biggest firms has fallen.

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott is to release the latest indigenous engagement survey of responses from 89 of the biggest companies in Australia, which shows a drop in employee ­numbers and in the spend on ­contracting or hiring indigenous enterprises.

Last year, companies reported an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce of between 17,000 and 20,000 people but this dropped to 15,000 this year. The procurement spend fell from $2.1 billion to $1.7bn, although more companies than ever have taken an interest in enforcing supplier diversity.

“This year’s findings showed a slowing of indigenous employment growth among companies, despite a majority in 2013 indicating they wanted to build their indigenous workforces this year,” the report says. “Economic conditions and the lack of qualified candidates were both nominated as factors in this slowdown.”

Ms Westacott said despite the dip in numbers, companies were doing what they did best: switching their gaze to the 10-year ­horizon, particularly where education was concerned.

“What we are seeing is a greater level of sophistication and deepening of what companies are doing on economic development. This is now the full suite,” she said.

“We are seeing big investment in education to get a pipeline of skilled people, in indigenous enterprises and the huge increase in the use of certified Supply Nation indigenous bodies.” Ms Westacott said businesses could no longer sit around and wait for the education system to deliver fully formed graduates ready to work. Of even greater concern was moving beyond low-skilled jobs and boosting the professional services workforce, she said.

“There needs to be much deeper engagement with the business community, not just large companies, into the school system much earlier on,” she said.

“We do need to return to the days of cadetships and apprenticeships and para-professional entry points so people can get into firms much earlier. A lot of discriminatory barriers happen well before people have their entry scores to university — we want that sector to be more active in this space.”

First Published on December 18 2014 in the Australian