Celebrating Five Years In (Indigenous) Business – Not Such an Easy Task

Key points:  

  • 5 years in Indigenous labour hire business 
  • 4 key tips on surviving in business as an entrepreneur 

In April 2010, I decided (quite naively) that I was going to change the world by starting the first Indigenous labour hire business in Australia, servicing the mining industry. It was at the right stage of the mining boom, I knew there was a gap in the market and I knew I wanted to fill it. The only problem was that I didn’t have any money, or people to put out to work, or clients to hire the people to; and I had no idea what labour hire was, how it worked or even how to make money from it. I wrote a very comprehensive 53-page business plan, thinking of every possible detail I could, and then I started to believe I could make it work. I devoted every waking minute to building the foundations and trying to find the all-important clients, whilst the influx of interested Indigenous people started to flow through. It was a very exciting period.  

I have loved every minute of the roller coaster ride over the past five years. From the constant wave of challenges that have pushed me to the limits of my coping mechanisms; to the feelings of euphoria when I have gotten a perceived ‘unemployable’ bloke a job, that turns his life in a positive direction; and to the amazing opportunities to work with the high end of the corporate world.   

Over time, Ochre has grown from a labour hire company servicing the mining industry, to meeting many needs in a wide range of industries.  I have added training services through a Registered Training Organisation (the only RTO privately owned by an Indigenous woman in WA).  In addition we offer Indigenous pre-employment training and consulting services, which help organisations employ more indigenous people.  

My four key tips on how to survive as an entrepreneur: 

  1. Be resilient and don’t take things personally – not everything is going to go your way, accept that as part of business and move onto the next opportunity. 
  1. Keep learning all the time – make it your business to learn as much about your industry and other relevant industries as possible. A lot of sacrifice goes into running a business and being willing to be a ‘specialist’ in your field. If you don’t like reading, researching, and learning while the rest of the world is having fun, then business may not be for you. 
  1. Strongly believe in what you are doing – if you don’t believe in your business then why would you expect other people (your clients) to believe in your business? 
  1. Don’t ever give up. 

I’m so happy I took the leap in the beginning:  The journey, the people I’ve met, the networks I’ve developed, the knowledge I’ve learnt, the successes along the way have all been amazing. Now for the next five years…. 

Early School Leavers Left out to Dry

Key points: 

  • Compulsory services are not being provided to early school leavers  
  • Literacy and numeracy issues still prevalent 
  • Disengagement in the process is rampant 
  • Appropriate skills not being taught 
  • Without support of JSAs, we are unable to help 

After speaking with many young people looking for work, working in tandem with many Job Services Australia (JSA) agents and Centrelink officers over the past few years, it is clear that compulsory services that are meant to be provided to Early School Leavers are not being provided.  This failure has had and will continue to have a significant long term impact on the individual, society and the economy. 

Under current requirements, any young person who has not completed Year 12 is termed an ‘Early School Leaver’ (ESL). As an ESL, it is accepted that they have not graduated from Year 12 and therefore have little likelihood of obtaining employment once they sign up for Centrelink benefits.  In addition, they may have literacy/numeracy issues, been disengaged from learning for some time and have other barriers to learning and employment opportunities.  

According to their contracts with Centrelink, JSA’s are supposed to refer all ESLs into accredited training courses of the ESL’s choice in addition to a Registered Training Organisation of their choice. This makes sense, given it would be ideal for the individual to undertake a commitment in an area they actually have an interest in.  This will enable the ESL to build up their skills set and improve the content of their resume, as it increases their chances of obtaining employment upon the completion of their training course.  It’s a simple concept really. 

The ESL is usually required to be enrolled in at least a Cert II course to qualify for their Youth Allowance or Newstart payments. This makes perfect sense for several reasons: 

  • The ESL is gaining accredited training of their choice in order to gain employment in that area or gain further qualification in that line of study. 
  • The ESL is enhancing the content of their resumes, which increases their chances of gaining employment, as employers are increasingly looking for qualifications in their particular industry. 
  • The ESL has identified a career path they wish to pursue, making it easier and more cost effective, in the long term, for the potential employer to offer employment. If an employer can be confident that the job seeker has an interest in that particular industry (eg: an employer will wonder what a job seeker with only a Bakery course is doing applying for a role in construction).,that jobseeker is highly unlikely to be employed by that employer…makes sense doesn’t it? 
  • The ESL is engaged in an activity of their choice; this keeps them interested and engaged rather than putting a square peg in a round hole. 
  • The ESL is not roaming the streets idly, which increases the chances of offending, engaging in antisocial behaviour, starting substance abuse, earlier parenthood etc. 
  • The ESL has a purpose to get out of bed each day, which helps with self-esteem, direction and believing they are contributing to their families and communities. 
  • The ESL is becoming accustomed to being somewhere by a certain time each day, this builds work readiness. 
  • The ESL will undoubtedly become an unsuspecting role model to other disengaged or disenfranchised youth around him/her, the positive flow-on effects are obvious. 


But instead of all of these great things happening, we currently have a system that has ill-advised or mismanaged these ESL’s down a path of failure and further disengagement and disadvantage. 

It is evident, most ESL’s are being categorised very wrongly as ‘Jobseekers’ instead of ‘ESL’s’. This sounds quite innocuous, but in fact it has most likely damaged a whole generation of people, regardless of ethnic background.  It can only be described as completely irresponsible on a national level and most likely driven more for commercial gain by the JSA’s than focussing on the needs of the ESL. Even more alarmingly, it could simply be that the case managers do not have the competency to assess those many thousands of young people who have been classified under the wrong category. 

  • Under the Centrelink guidelines, a Jobseeker has the requirement to apply for 10 jobs each fortnight to qualify for their Youth Allowance or Newstart. If the jobseeker has no previous work experience or qualifications on their resume, this is a wasted effort and just means hundreds of thousands of employers are receiving ridiculous amounts of unsolicited phone calls and emails, which puts a drain on their business resources and productivity.  
  • The jobseeker is receiving a constant stream of rejections, which does nothing for one’s self esteem. 
  • The cumulative effect on the economy this form of mismanagement has had over the past 12 years (since jobs services were privatised) can only be considered insurmountable. 
  • The JSA’s benefit financially by keeping the ‘Jobseeker’ on their books and charging the Government for each contact they have with the job-seeker, while the jobseeker remains in disadvantage and despair and not to mention living in poverty on Centrelink benefits.  
  • The benefits to the national economy if all past, present and future ESL’s were in accredited training, with the expectation of gaining employment or continuing with further studies upon completion, would be massive. Several hundred thousand individuals off the welfare cycle, making an income and paying taxes back into the coffers.  

As final testament  to how bad this problem is, it is well-known that not many of our Indigenous kids have completed Year 12 over the past five years. The Noongar population alone is approximately 40,000 and of those, around 50% are under the age of 18.  Based on those numbers, if we took a conservative approach and said 10,000 of those people are ESL’s, you have to wonder why Ochre Training has NEVER received a referral from a JSA to enrol any of their Indigenous or other ESL’s into any of our Certificate II courses.  

What we have seen are hundreds of ESL’s,  disengaged youth, youth at risk that have approached Ochre to undertake our Cert II courses. But, as we are not a funded RTO or on the preferred RTO list with the Department of Training, we are unable to assist these young people with their choice of course or with their choice of RTO, without the support of their JSA. As an Indigenous owned RTO with specialised literacy and numeracy programs on offer, as well as tutoring programs and mentors available, we can only wonder why.  It seems clear that the JSA’s are not meeting their contractual obligations to Centrelink in this regard. 

How Many Indigenous Engagement Tools Needed Before Action

Key points: 

  • Many federal and state government initiatives are on the table 
  • These initiatives are disconnected from the reality on the ground 
  • Staff in the organisations involved have a lack of understanding and compassion 
  • Indigenous employment gap is still rising 

There are RAP (Recognition Action Plans), IOP (Indigenous Opportunity Policy), Indigenous Business procurement exemptions, Indigenous Employment Program (IEP) funding, Supply Nation, VTECs, AEC job pledges, JSAs and the list goes on. All the best intentions are behind these federal and state government initiatives that then roll into the corporate world. Why then, with all of these initiatives and good intentions in place is the data on everything Indigenous actually getting worse, not better? 

The answer is: They are largely disconnected from the realities that face Indigenous people on the ground; they have been drawn up without consultation with knowledgeable Indigenous people who have expertise in those areas; in most cases they are unenforced and they are mostly managed by Non-Indigenous people who are usually out of touch with the issues that affect the Indigenous people. Then there is the issue of ignorant staff who work within the organisations, sometimes in roles that actually manage the RAP plans. As I’ve experienced, they often act with a lack of compassion, understanding or commitment to the task of Indigenous business engagement or Indigenous employment, regardless of what the document says – which could lead to significant Closing the Gap outcomes. 

Let’s look at RAPs as an example. These are usually glossy, Aboriginal art-filled, warm and fuzzy beautifully presented coffee table books. The RAPs are usually launched at exclusive shindigs attended by the obligatory politicians, business leaders, high profile Indigenous people and the like. The content of these RAPs would make any Indigenous reader feel so encouraged that the government department or corporate company is finally recognising the importance of Indigenous engagement and how they intend to implement their plan; mostly through Indigenous employment and Indigenous business procurement opportunities. Wonderful stuff to read for an Indigenous businesswoman whose job it is to secure employment contracts for the thousands of Indigenous people who want to work. These RAP plans should be making my life a whole lot easier, instead they are better used as coffee table books. 

RAPs are registered with Reconciliation Australia, an independent organisation that promotes reconciliation. A great concept and one that has done a great job of raising awareness of the important social issue of reconciliation, which is crucial to the future of our country. 

“What is reconciliation? Reconciliation is about building better relationships between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for the benefit of all Australians. To create positive change, we need more people talking about the issues and coming up with innovative ideas and ACTIONS that make a difference.” (quote from who?) 

Therefore, when the goodwill that is attached to such an initiative, Indigenous people put trust into the idea that it is a tool to create that positive change through ACTIONS, not just words.  

This article, published in The Australian just yesterday, it talks about how RAPs have created 5,000 Indigenous jobs in the last year. These are great figures that are somewhat contradicting the recent 7th year edition of the Closing the Gap report, which quoted evidence of Indigenous unemployment rates rising. It would be a breach of trust to Indigenous people generally, if the data being reported to Reconciliation Australia has been embellished to meet the corporation’s agendas. I can only conclude that maybe the organisations I have had bad experiences with are not those who are reporting their data.