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HomeIssue 37Aboriginal job training scheme in the bush: Governments, bureaucrats, contractors, public money...

Aboriginal job training scheme in the bush: Governments, bureaucrats, contractors, public money – who gains what? A case study.

Photos above and below: Construction industry trainees in the APY lands. Photo bottom of page: One of the road trains carrying the workshop, classroom and staff accommodation to remote Central Australia.
UPDATE October 6
The Alice Springs News Online received the following responses to our questions from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations on October 4:-
Q: What were the tender details of the APY program, are they on the public record and if so, where?
A: As per the Indigenous Employment Program Guidelines, the department approached a number of Indigenous Employment Program Panel Members through a Request for Quotation about delivery of services for this activity. [ED – This seems to say there was no tender nor will the price paid by the department be disclosed. See also below.]
Q: How many people have been placed in full-time and part-time (please state hours) jobs as a result of the program?
A: All job seekers undertaking the Certificate II in Civil Construction were employed on a full-time basis by contractors of Housing SA while building work was being undertaken in Amata and Mimili. [ED – This does not disclose the amount of time these people had full-time employment.]
Q: How many of these people were previously on welfare benefits and are now no longer?
A: The Indigenous Employment Program does not keep records of its participants’ welfare status.
Q: How many people with new skills have relocated to obtain full-time work? If so, where to?
A: As the project was delivered through an Indigenous Employment Program Panel Member, the department does not have records of these details. However the Indigenous Employment Program Post Program Monitoring data indicates that 72 per cent of participants are still in employment three months after participants have been assisted in the IEP. [ED – “Are” or “were”  – the program finished in early 2011].
UPDATE October 1
The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations says it “contributed” to the APY program but will not disclose how much.
A spokesman says “no future project in this area is contemplated at this time.
“The initial project aimed to build the long-term capacity of the building industry by addressing barriers such as cross cultural awareness (for both the building and construction companies and the local Indigenous community), as well as increasing the understanding of contractual obligations that construction companies must adhere to.
“The project also aimed to provide employment opportunities for local Anangu in the building and construction industry, beyond the project itself.
“Since the initial project, there is now a greater cultural understanding between mainstream building companies and the community. In addition, labour hire arrangements have been established across the building and construction industry in the APY Lands. This has provided increased opportunities for Anangu who worked on the construction project.”
The Alice Springs News Online has put these follow-up questions to the department:-
• What were the tender details of the APY program, are they on the public record and if so, where?
• How many people have been placed in full-time and part-time (please state hours) jobs as a result of the program?
• How many of these people were previously on welfare benefits and are now no longer?
• How many people with new skills have relocated to obtain full time work?
• If so, where to?
UPDATE Sept 25
When the IS Australia-run Indigenous Employment Program (IEP) came to an end in Mimili and Amata there was nothing to do for the men, says Aileen Shannon, and so she and her partner, Tony Rodgers, in January this year founded Wiltja Constructions Pty Ltd based in Fregon, in the APY lands.
Ms Shannon is an indigenous woman who grew up in Mimili.  She previously worked as a public servant and as an aide to state and federal politicians.
Mr Rodgers, who is not indigenous, is a builder and carpenter.  He was previously engaged by Career Employment Group (CEG) as Project Manager for the extension of the IEP Program.
In response to an enquiry about the recent fate of the trainees, the Alice Springs News Online was told by the SA Department for Communities and Social Inclusion that “12 jobs for Aboriginal people were created on the APY Lands” and “10 workers who went through the training have also gained employment” through Wiltja and “four local Aboriginal workers have travelled beyond their communities for work”.
Ms Shannon says Wiltja’s objective is to employ local workers on a casual basis: “As we develop and grow we hope to provide permanent employment for Anangu who would like to have a career in the local construction industry.
“To date, we have employed 28 Anangu across three communities and anticipate this number will grow with upcoming work scheduled in Amata and Indulkana.”
At Mimili, Wiltja has so far undertaken three contracts;  the restoration of the Uniting Church (six weeks, eight Anangu employees); fencing of the single men’s quarters (two weeks), and refurbishments of the quarters (twelve weeks, four men).
A new house in Mimili  for Housing SA is also on this year’s work’s schedule for the new company, and one in Amata is likely next year.  She says Wiltja are fast approaching a starting date for the construction of a gymnasium in Fregon for which Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has kicked in $35,000.
Wiltja was also contracted to demolish 22 houses across four communities – Ernabella, Fregon, Mimili & Indulkana (10 weeks, 10 men),
Ms Shannon says the men working for Wiltja are welcome to find stand-ins if they are otherwise engaged – such as doing different jobs in the community or attending ceremonial business.
She says Wiltja employs local workers on a basis that allows them to retain their Centrelink payments.
She says the number of trainees in Mimili under the IS Australia project was 13, not 25.
Leaving your home town to learn a trade is a tough call for anyone, even more so if you’re an Aborigine living in a tight-knit remote community: while the bright lights may be alluring, the temptation of booze too often has catastrophic consequences.
Now a Darwin, Adelaide and Cairns based company has developed what may well be the answer: don’t take the people to the training, take the training to the people.
The firm, IS Australia, has developed hardware for the job that fits on a three-trailer road train: a classroom; a workshop equipped to teach skills including welding, concreting, block laying, painting, carpentry, tiling and plastering; and the third trailer fitted out as staff accommodation, all fully self-contained.
And this is the ‘software’: getting the trainees on the job, hands-on, paying them a real wage, and generating pride in the achievement of doing something very tangible for their community, namely helping to build houses.
This program goes further than the long-established Mobile Adult Learning Unit (MALU) offered by Charles Darwin University: Participants are paid workers rather than just trainees, with a full-time working week.
Under  contract with the Federal Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations IS Australia deployed two of their rigs to Amata and Mimili in the APY lands south of Alice Springs.
These are dry communities.
The six months program was spread over nine months in 2010 and 2011, having a break at the height of summer for Christmas and ceremonial business.
By the most significant indicator the programs were a success: attendance by the 50 participants – 25 in each community – was 90%, according to the company’s Joshua Blake.
They were employed full-time, at award rates, by the construction firm building houses in the communities for Housing SA, the South Australian government’s housing authority.
“It was not just training for the training’s sake,” says Mr Blake.
For the trainees, aged 18 to early 50s, the day stated at 7.30am with a “toolbox meeting” mapping out the day’s jobs.
These include making concrete paths, landscaping, fabricating carports and shade structures, pouring slabs.
“We got them doing things, practical activities,” says Mr Blake.
“In the morning they learned a skill and in the afternoon they were applying that on the job.”
The daily theory training may be about using a circular saw, and the trainees would be using that skill in the afternoon on the building site.
“They didn’t learn those skills in isolation.
“There was a lot of pride for these guys to be involved in a project which improved the amenity of the community. We built that! There was a real sense of ownership and pride,” says Mr Blake.
“And the broader community were proud of these guys for doing what they were doing.”
The involvement of the community was key to the program’s success, says Mr Blake: the locals made the decisions, ranging from who takes part in the course to where the trailers were parked.
The participants were mostly blokes, with some women participating in landscaping.
Older men took on a father-role: “The younger guys understood that they were given an opportunity which the older fellows had waited a long time for.”
Earlier this month IS Australia was recognised for this project as the Winner of the Workcover South Australian Collaboration Award.
[The Alice Springs News Online invited Housing SA to comment on the program. We asked what happened to the trainees after the completion of the program, and what are the employment opportunities in the region.
We also asked IS Australia what the cost of the APY contract was. We will update the story when this information is to hand.]


  1. When a training company get a grant of 8.1 million dollars to operate they should be able to go anywhere with this equipment purchased by government money and provide training in these areas. Too bad its not closer to Darwin or in the Territory.

  2. This is not exactly a new theme. Training providers have been providing training in communities for 50 years that I know of. Some community people are the most trained people in the country and have done the same fencing, welding, landscaping courses numerous times. It’s not just training that is at issue, it’s also the availability of jobs and the willingness to move where the jobs are. It’s no good being a rocket scientist if everyone is hiring proctologists. Similarly, it’s no good being a gardner in the desert or a welder where there is no demand for welding.

  3. Robinoz is correct. There is really no connection between training and actual employment. When people are signed up to a training program, they are then counted as “employed”, which enables government to show a reduction in unemployment levels. In a community of, say 1,000 people, there exists as little as 20 real jobs, most being done by outsiders. Community training, except for creating some temporary extra income, usually serves no useful purpose. Community people have no interest in moving away to where jobs are, and employers have no incentive to create jobs in communities.

  4. Norman, could you please explain why you think employers have no incentive to create employment in communities? Why does that necessarily follow?

  5. Russell, for an employer to set up a business, he requires a return on his investment. To get this, he needs to be competitive. Setting up in a community carries the additional costs of transporting parts and materials in and freighting finished goods out. These costs, poor roads, and lack of all weather access make most businesses in communities uncompetitive. Yes I am aware that “one off” ventures such as art centers can and have been successful. Regretfully these are the exception, not the rule.

  6. Russell, as Norman says a return on investment is needed. The concept of “work” is not at all a universal that exists outside of its cultural context. Work on remote communities incorporates many flexibilities to accommodate family, sporting, ceremonial and sorry business obligations etc which are routinely prioritised ahead of work. “Work” on communities is generally only able to fit into training schemes or government supported positions, where considerations of productivity are less important. Jobs in the art industry are viable because artists work at their own pace and are paid for the final product. There are few other jobs like this although tourism offers possibilities, where there is a pool of tour guides, any one of whom may work on a given day.

  7. Norman and Ralph, many thanks for your well-chosen comments. I am really interested in this area for all the reasons you articulated. I think that in the space of a few sentences, you’ve both covered a lot of ground with cultural sensitivity.
    My interest has, for decades, been in the area of remote community employment and all the benefits that go with it, but for the reasons you’ve given, not a lot of progress has been made outside of the arts and tourism.
    For some reason, I was thinking about electronics today and how that would be an amazing area for community employment opportunities. Freight is minimal on the chip or circuitry and even though it’s a giant leap in knowledge base, it doesn’t hurt to think that way.


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