The pipeline of Indigenous professionals: Where are you, corporate Australia?

The thing with disadvantage is that once it starts, it accrues like compounding interest on a defaulted sub-prime loan. It accrues like moss on a non-rolling stone. Like – OK, you get the picture.

If you ignore it long enough, compounding disadvantage becomes a hole. A deep one that people can’t get out of. Not by themselves. They need a ladder, passed down from someone outside the hole. The disadvantage of Indigenous Community is one of Australia’s deepest holes. Too often employment programs for Indigenous youth (where they exist) are focused on blue-collar opportunities, and not enough on professional pathways. Yet both are needed in ample supply.

Let me shamelessly promote a ladder-building organisation. Last year I spoke to the Marvel character I think of as Captain Intense, aka Michael Combs of CareerTrackers. Capt Intense appears to run on some kind of pure interstellar caffeine and a rare exothermal isotope, so his super power is that he gets stuff done in a short time. The first time I met him, I gave him Leanaway-Bodylanguage-with-BackTheHellOff-Squint because his intensity invaded my personal space like a bespectacled force field. We found a bigger room to converse in. Some conversations later, Origin Energy built a decent-sized ladder and lowered it down. It wasn’t that hard to do.

This “decent-sized ladder” is a commitment to nurture in holiday work placements a minimum of ten indigenous tertiary students (interns) a year for ten years – investing in education, professional skills, confidence and employment for Indigenous students. They call it the “Ten by Ten” program. It makes for a good partnership. CareerTrackers takes a tough-love hands-on approach to keeping interns focused on study, academic excellence and careers, fighting the clawing forces that conspire to keep them in the hole. And corporates provide the work environment, over a sustained period of time, in which to experience a professional future and exercise those smarts. In the scheme of things, it’s not a huge commitment. Let’s face it, in corporate Australia we make bigger commitments to stationery supplies, the first three seconds of a TV ad campaign and any sport involving a ball and misogyny.

Right now, there are fourteen such ladders in place from corporate Australia. The disadvantage hole is so wide and deep that there is plenty of space for many more ladders. The last time I looked, the smallest company in Australia’s “Investable Index” (the ASX 200) had a market cap of about $250 million – which makes the ladder plenty affordable. Yes, yes, I know, I haven’t analysed cashflow in these companies and mm-hmm I’ve heard the whingeing from the analysts about the bear run in the markets, and yada-yada we all agree corporate Australia could well have a market cap of twelve Pesos by the end of the year – but you know, just saying – shouldn’t there be about two hundred ladders in there?

What a signal that would be in the Australian private sector, in the Australian economy. What a viral spread of Indigenous youth engagement that could instigate. The face of Indigenous professional employment would change in about 4 years. Assuming Captain Intense could keep up, of course.

You’re right. Unattractive glass-half-empty thinking. OK, I’ll move on.

At the CareerTrackers’ annual gala dinner a couple of nights ago, which featured around 1800 guests including over 400 of these interns, their families, CEOs from Macquarie Bank, Goodman Fielder, Qantas, Lend Lease and the like, I spoke with some of Origin’s thirteen interns, and interns from other firms. There were some characteristics common to the ones I met. Like enthusiastic, intelligent and energetic. Committed. Thankful. (The last one had me feeling uncomfortable. I felt apologies the other way were more appropriate. But we already had thatuberpolitikal discussion a decade ago, so I digress.) I was so inspired that I want to support these interns in becoming visible role models in their Communities. They are the new heroes of their generation. Their enthusiasm and commitment is infectious.

I had to chuckle when Alan Joyce noted that if a gay Irishman could be CEO of Qantas, perhaps an Indigenous woman in that role wasn’t such a stretch. A most excellent poke in the ribs, sir.

And he’s right. Some of these interns went from being faced with post-school jobs in abattoirs and roadworks, to marks of 80% and more at our top universities, en route to promising careers with the ASX companies that grow our economy. That’s some serious turnaroud. Opportunity – once denied, now proactively created – is a game changer.

The program is just five years old, and it is growing fast. But it could grow exponentially faster if more of corporate Australia got behind it. If you’re in the corporate world and you’re thinking about committing to your own version of a “Ten by Ten” program, trust me. It doesn’t take much. A bit of willingness, is all.

Have the conversation.

Here’s the link to help you.

Posted in CorporateSpeak, People.

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