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Amid a labour shortage, here’s how businesses could hire more refugees — and gain a strategic advantage

Australia is in the grip of a labour shortage, as pandemic border closures stem the flow of workers from other countries. At the same time, Australia has an untapped talent pool of workers: refugees who have settled here and are urgently looking for work.

Survey data from the Australian Institute of Family Studies suggests only 6% of refugees find work within six months of arrival. Within two years of arrival, only 25% of refugees are in employment.

Many refugees are victims of a qualifications paradox — the higher their credentials, the more they struggle to find meaningful employment. This is because of the restrictive professional accreditation processes many highly-qualified migrants struggle to overcome, higher language proficiency requirements and limited local professional networks.

Acting immigration minister Alan Tudge last year called for a raft of changes to address this issue but the problem prevails. Even when businesses are keen to hire refugees, there’s very little guidance on how to successfully recruit, train and retain refugee workers.

Our report and study outline some concrete steps businesses can take to boost employment of refugees.

Businesses can start by:

  • knowing they can begin with small steps and commitments. Recruiting refugees even for a short term helps build their professional networks and gain local references.

  • taking advantage of government subsidies and grants aimed at encouraging employers to consider hiring disadvantaged groups.

  • reaching out to industry leaders and learning from peers who have successfully hired refugees. The Employer Network for Refugee Inclusion (ENRI) is a community where businesses share knowledge and expertise in refugee recruitment. All newcomers are welcome.

  • knowing that businesses are not alone. Many not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises with outstanding recruitment programs can support Australian employers in hiring refugees. Other stakeholders, such as education providers and community organisations, also have extensive knowledge about refugees.

Job challenges for refugees

Some of the challenges faced by refugees seeking employment in Australia include:

  • their qualifications and skills not being recognised

  • having limited or no knowledge of the local job market

  • having limited or no networks to connect them with jobs

  • facing discrimination.


Read more: 'Very loyal' productive workers: the same people we fear as refugees


Take, for example, the case of 21-year-old Zeynab. As an Afghan living in Iran, she faced discrimination and didn’t have a right to the same education, health care and employment opportunities as Iranian citizens.

She told us that after resettling in Australia in 2018, she faced many challenges to find work:

For two years I applied for job after job with no success. I felt hopeless. I wanted to work so badly but no one would give me the opportunity to show what I could do.

In March 2021, Zeynab participated in a program run by the furnishing giant IKEA, called the IKEA Australia Skills for Employment program. Today, she works as a Logistics Co-worker at IKEA Adelaide and is undertaking a course to prepare for future university study — an opportunity she could never have had in Iran.

Collaboration is crucial

Some employers might feel daunted by the prospect of hiring refugees. Collaboration with not-for-profit organisations can make the process easier — and cheaper.

Close collaboration with not-for-profit organisations reduces recruitment and training costs. It can also make successful induction and onboarding cheaper, as these organisations are able to shoulder some of the work.

Some not-for-profit organisations also provide ongoing support for refugees and employers. Many offer cross-cultural training for local staff. This training is invaluable for those working with culturally diverse job seekers.

As a successful example, IKEA runs eight-week paid placements for refugees in partnership with Community Corporate, an award-winning social enterprise.

Here, refugee job seekers learn about Australian workplace culture, build confidence in using English and gain professional references.

Many participants have secured ongoing work with IKEA, where vacancies were available.

Harriet Pope, IKEA Skills for Employment Program Project Leader, described the experience so far:

We believe businesses in Australia have an important role to play in supporting refugee inclusion.

The program has been mutually enriching for participants and our business, creating a more diverse work environment and access to new co-workers who are highly motivated, adaptable and loyal.

It’s also opened learning and development opportunities for our co-workers as they mentor program participants and enabled us to better support the needs of our diverse customers.

Many businesses see refugee employment through the lens of corporate social responsibility — a well-meaning act of “good”.

However, it is in fact a strategic move. Hiring refugees can be good for business because it broadens the pool of workforce talent, brings fresh perspectives and insight into teams, allows expansion of client pools to ethnic minority communities, and increases employee morale.

A call to action for governments, volunteers and businesses

Victoria’s social procurement framework is an example of a government initiative that’s helped businesses hire from within vulnerable communities.

In our research, businesses in Victoria told us this initiative helped open their eyes to a previously invisible talent pool.

A woman works on a computer.
Hiring refugees can be good for business because it broadens the pool of workforce talent and allows expansion of client pools to new communities. Shutterstock

Along the way, they sought the help of not-for-profit organisations, which helped to find refugees and asylum seekers for recruitment. These organisations also assisted with onboarding and training. We suggest similar government initiatives could be implemented elsewhere in Australia.

If you are a business owner or HR professional interested in working with not-for-profit organisations to recruit refugees, you can start by looking into available resources, such as this employers’ guides to recruiting refugees. You can also contact not-for-profit organisations that excel in providing employment-related support to businesses and refugees.

Or, feel free to contact the authors of this article. We would be more than happy to support your journey to refugee recruitment.


Read more: Three charts on: job prospects for refugees in Australia


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