The undiscovered value of Indigenous workers

Griffith University PhD Candidate Lorraine Tulele's research explores employment outcomes for Indigenous workers.

Despite well-intentioned engagement programs, some Australian businesses are underestimating the value of human capital within the Indigenous workforce, according to Griffith University PhD candidate Lorraine Tulele.

Ms Tulele’s research, which explores whether the attitude of private-sector employers towards Indigenous Australians affects skill acquisition and employment experience, has found the mining industry is striking a better balance with Indigenous workers than the banking sector.

The study also found that key cultural traits found in Indigenous workers could benefit the workplace, but only if employers embraced a new approach to engaging its employees. These attributes include teamwork, industrious and keenness to learn.

Ms Tulele’s research mainly focused on Indigenous engagement programs in the banking sector and the more robust engagement programs of the mining industry, which has a higher proportion of Indigenous workers.

The research found that both leadership support and workgroup co-operation and friendliness had positive significant influence on Indigenous skill acquisition in both the banks and the mines.

However, the hypothesis thattested employer attitude towards Indigenous employees’ work experience differed in the two industries.

The findings indicated that for the banks, the ‘regulation, organisation and pressure’ variable and ‘role conflict and ambiguity’ variable had positive significant relationships with ‘likelihood to leave’.

This means that the tendency to leave the bank would be high if there was increase in regulation and pressure in the organisation. Likewise, the propensity to leave the bank would increase if there was an increase in role conflict and ambiguity.

Mine turnover rate normally low

As for the mines, the null hypothesis was accepted. This finding confirms a few facts.

The first, and probably the most important one, is the mines’ turnover rate is normally low due to a number of reasons.

“Indigenous employees are well looked after in terms of leadership support, they have a good work environment and great engagement initiatives,” said Ms Tulele.

“Most mining companies go out of their way to assist the local indigenous people with literacy and numeracy, pre-employment trainings, provision of transportations and meals for workers, provision counselling and advice for workers.

“Most Indigenous workers in the mines are full-time employees and are paid more compared to those in the banks and the majority of them are locals living in communities near or around the mines in remote regions.

Lorraine Tulele in the field on a mine site.
Lorraine Tulele in the field on a mine site.

“Most of these employees depend entirely on the good income from these mines as there are no other jobs to compete with locally. So the likelihood of leaving the mines for Indigenous employees is very slim as they are well looked after by their employers.”

Productivity in a safe environment

Ms Tulele confirmed that Indigenous employees become productive and work harder when the environment is safe and friendly.

“This is where they thrive.Indigenous people come from a communal environment where decisions tend to be collective, and the need to seek others advice when making a decision is crucial. It’s a complete contrast to the individualistic approach of the non-Indigenous world.

“Now that we have an understanding of these differences perhaps we should be engaging Indigenous workers in a collective manner. By that I mean our approach to recruitment and selection, training and development and performance management should be all done collectively with collective measures to support them when it comes to Indigenous employment.

Ms Tulele’s research found that Indigenous workers felt more secure and safe in the mining sector than in the banking industry due to a number of factors including their job status and great team environment that accommodates harmony.

Most workers in the mines were full-time workers, compared to the banks where they were trainees and casuals.

Employment not guaranteed

“The initiatives by some banks that I studied were aimed at building capabilities and offering work experience, although employment was not guaranteed.

“The key issue here is that these initiatives might have good intentions, but do they lead to employment outcomes for indigenous workers?

“I found that Indigenous employees in banks located in larger cities working as personal bankers, underwriting case managers, and branch managers had thrived in their banking careers due to the existence of either one or both parents working and being a strong role model in their lives. In regional and remote areas parents as role models were less evident.”

Research has found lower numeracy and literacy levels among Indigenous employees, predominantly in remote areas and among those working in the resources sector.

However, some mining companies surveyed were undertaking literacy and numeracy initiatives to lift standards among these workers while others were working closely with training providers such as regional training organisations, group training organisations, vocational training and employment centres to improve the situation.

Literacy and numeracy levels were much higher among the samples of banking staff, largely because those who are participating in Indigenous employment initiatives were either school-based trainees and were still in high school (year 10-12) or had completed high school and were now working as casuals or part-time employees.

Hands-on and practical learners

Ms Tulele said that Indigenous employees’ learning process was most efficient through visual, demonstration and face-to-face engagement rather than through written instructions.

“They are hands-on and very practical type of people. They have shown to be splendid with their hands and work just as hard as any non-Indigenous person.”

However, the research has found perceptions remain a barrier to skill development and employment for many which can be addressed with the right approach.

“My research has found there are many good intentions by employers towards Indigenous workers, but the attitude towards Indigenous people by some is still pigeon-holed.

“That creates uncertainty over whether indigenous populations will get the job in the first place or, once they have found employment, whether they will retain the job.”

Ms Tulele identified a strong parallel between employers in the banking and mining sector regarding good intentions.

“The mining sector’s engagement with Indigenous communities starts well before the mine is even opened, from negotiating land agreements through to exploration.

Engaging for the long term

“Both the mining and banking sectors take a long-term view of their engagement, and they also prepare Indigenous people to transition to mainstream employment after the mines have closed and when there is no job opening in the banks.

“Both sectors are seeking diversity in their workforce. Their corporate image and reputation in this regard are paramount, and they would like to be seen as indigenous employment champions by doing the right thing for the First Peoples of this country.

“Maybe, there is a need for organisations, in general, to look again at their motivation for Indigenous employment. They need to review what they are doing, or at least fine-tune their approach for employment outcomes to improve.

“Key stakeholders such as the federal, state and territory governments, and training providers should also assist the private sector by pooling their resources with a focus on real employment outcomes that are meaningful for Indigenous people today.”

Ms Tulele, who has completed a Master of Human Resource Management at Griffith University, said the Indigenous workforce is a significant resource that is being underutilised by the business community.

“My aim is to research ways to create better employment outcomes for Indigenous people,” she said.

“I know they are hard-working and can put in the required effort, but the way we approach this has to be right. Some of the human resource practices need to change in remote and regional areas where mainstream methods are not effective. The work environment has to be right, and so does the type of work they are to be engaged in.

“This research won’t offer all the solutions, but it might be a step to providing solutions for one part of this complex equation.”