A few years ago in a quiet corner of Sydney’s Redfern Community Centre, I interviewed a young Aboriginal man, Scott, about his life for a research project. Like many of his contemporaries he grew up in a home without a father and with a mother who had struggled to keep him in check.
Scott was a bright kid but left school early – hardly any Koori boys made it past year 10. He spent much of his childhood moving between Redfern, Mt Druitt and “up home”, his people’s traditional country on the north coast of NSW. So when Scott finally settled and tried to get work, he wasn’t really qualified for anything.
Scott’s family had first moved to the city in the 1970s during the great wave of urban Aboriginal settlement that followed the closure of government reserves.
The tragedy was that this demographic shift corresponded with the world economic recession, which killed off many of the city jobs in which Aboriginal men might hope to be employed – manual labour, trades, waterfront work, railway workshops, manufacturing.
For Aboriginal women, the move was less traumatic. Urban housing, even in rundown inner-city terraces, freed them from the struggles of raising families in improvised substandard housing on riverbank camp or reserves. They have been the mainstays of community and family life.
Scott’s father was unable to cope with the move. He was often away chasing bits of farmwork in the bush until he eventually disappeared.
A generation short of mentors
Scott was part of a generation of Aboriginal youth who grew up without fathers around and with few role models for steady wage labour. The lucky ones were shepherded through the turbulence of youth by uncles or older siblings and cousins. Many others suffered addiction, prison or early death.
Those who survived into their mid-to-late 20s would then try to find stability through employment but were handicapped by lack of qualifications and work experience.
The Aboriginal population has low life expectancy, drug and alcohol problems and high levels of exposure to the criminal justice system. This means that the sorts of catastrophe that rarely afflict non-indigenous middle-class families are disturbingly frequent for Aboriginal people.
This creates a level of precariousness that makes commitment to long-term steady work, the hallmark of a respectable conformist citizenship, particularly hard to manage. Young people are often reluctant to communicate the details of these crises, especially to employers, partly because they are often a source of shame.
This does not just affect wage labour, but also other forms of commitment that require time discipline and punctuality: such as study, meeting people in official roles, or participating in government or community organisations.
It is important to understand stories like Scott’s in order to address the chronic failure of governments to “close the gap” between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia, as measured in statistics like unemployment and education attainment rates.
The recognition that many indigenous youth, especially boys, have experienced a “paternity deficit” suggests they might require additional mentoring and support to assist them to enter and remain in the workforce.
Bridging gaps in understanding and expectations
This is the motivation for the WorkingStart! program initiated by the Sydney Alliance, which has provided support to a modest number of Aboriginal youth. The program provides for limited public funding for employment support workers to liaise with employers to ensure they understand the challenges facing their young Aboriginal employees.
A pilot has been established in Sydney’s Glebe. Mirvac (which is redeveloping the Harold Park site) is providing indigenous traineeships in the building trades.
Many Aboriginal youth are not what employers would usually call “dependable”. They are prone to turning up late or not at all, and leaving work early with little warning. Some are called away to meet family obligations. The Working Start program recognises that what is frequently seen as lack of reliability is the product of complex social forces.
Additionally, for those in their late teens or early twenties, the call of the street, and the “trouble” that often comes with this, is hard to resist. Their friends will often evolve subcultural responses to long-term unemployment, prioritising hanging with the crowd over employment or the search for employment (despite feeling the blowtorch of “zero tolerance” policing in deprived neighbourhoods). The process of breaking free of these influences can be long and complicated.
Conventional employment relations do little to enhance the prospects of Aboriginal people. For most, an early exit from formal education means they are only qualified to perform unskilled casual jobs.
As one 30-year-old, who had lived in Redfern Waterloo, said to me:
I’m over all this casual work; give me a steady job and I’ll be there.
But being there and staying there often requires more than commitment; it requires structures of support that most employers are disinclined to provide.
With political will, there’s a way
The WorkingStart! model offers hope to Aboriginal youth. The program is now being extended to other areas of Sydney – Blacktown and Granville – to assist youth from other disadvantaged backgrounds who experience comparable problems.
However, such programs require solid public funding. For every dollar that governments spend, the public purse will be more than compensated by the lower costs associated with policing, health and social welfare services.
With greater funding support from governments, programs like WorkingStart! would be able to move from crisis management to encouraging resilience and self-sufficiency. For people like Scott and his friends, that is life-changing.