By ERWIN CHLANDA
The extraordinary thing about what Marcus Casey-Kirkman (pictured) is doing is that there is nothing extraordinary about it: He works in the fresh produce section of the Coles supermarket, has been there since November last year and is enrolled in an internal course called Am I Ready which is designed to take him to the next level in the store’s hierarchy.
But his story is worth telling because until October last year, Aboriginal people like him made up around one percent of the store’s staff. Now 38 Aboriginal people are working there – almost 25% of the staff, well exceeding the Indigenous ratio of the town’s population which is 18.1%.
With considerable fanfare an employment promotion was staged by the store last October, from a BBQ in the carpark to motivation sessions in the Double Tree by Hilton.
Senior national staff were flown in and supported by Aboriginal Employment specialists from Perth, Leon and Tanya Harris, resulting in 17 new “team members” being hired. 11 of them are still working at Coles and three of them have transitioned into full time roles, says the company.
The Harrises, whose firm is called AIBAG, came back again this year when another employment drive took place.
There was a lot less hoopla because it wasn’t needed: Word had got around that Coles is a pretty cool employer. A further 21 Indigenous people joined.
Critical mass had clearly been reached.
What’s it like working at Coles?
Says Marcus: “Having a good job. Being able to go to work every morning, doing something I like. Fresh produce. Good place to work.
“I did a bit of bakery at the start. Had a bit of trouble coming to work in the mornings, with people on the streets and stuff.
“The bosses put me into fresh produce for a week, I got into it, started getting used to it and I’ve been there ever since.”
Store Support manager James Powlton says prior to the initiative, among 300 applicants five or six would be Indigenous.
Now they respond to mainstream advertising or are readily referred by agencies.
“We’ve never had that before,” says James. “Hey, can I have a job too?” is a frequent question.
“Welcoming place,” Marcus adds.
A few new recruits are from his extended family, including two uncles. He is a Pitjantjatjara man from Mutitjulu.
“My god-brother saw me working here,” he says. Another one “didn’t stick it out too well” but he is still in nightfill. “He’s related to one of my grandmothers.”
James says the jobs are allocated on merit: “It’s not like, hey, I’m your uncle, give me a job. It’s just word of mouth, more people coming through.”
When a job becomes available it goes to the applicant “most suited to it at the time”.
He says the success of the program relies on several factors: “One, we’re offering jobs; two, we’re a suitable employer; three, you can obtain work from us, people realise there is work available.
“They actually come in through the door now, whereas previous to that, it just wasn’t happening.
“I don’t know why not. It might have just been a stigma, they don’t want me because of local issues? I don’t now. It’s possibly just perceptions.”
“Locally developed” staff is better – and cheaper – than fly-in staff.
“Secondments” are for two years. A few extend, but only three are getting close to five years.
The staff turnover is high – another reason why attracting long-time locals is a good idea.
Jenny Standley (right) helping Mary Bayly from Napperby Station load her bush order.
One out of four employees leaves within three months. Of the 13 managers in the store only one is local. Now three of the four in the current Am I Ready program are local Aboriginal people.
Jenny Standley is taking a close look at the program. She’s been selected for it: “I shop here all the time. I thought I wouldn’t mind working here. I always thought it might be good working here. I always wanted to apply.”
It was last year’s program that tipped the scales for her.
She was cleaning holiday cabins in a caravan park: “In summertime, sweat, ah, I used to sweat.”
The air-conditioned supermarket is a welcome change.
“It’s nice work and cool,” she says.
“People are friendly, I just love talking to the customers, it’s great.”
Jenny has a son and a granddaughter in Alice Springs.
Originally from Brisbane, she lived in Katherine, her children were born there.
She says about people in the second intake: “I know a lot of them, we’re probably related through marriage.”
Jenny has is still thinking about doing the Am I Ready program: “I looked at it, I haven’t started it yet. I’m ready to do it but I have to get ready myself to do it. I’ll have to change my lifestyle a bit so I can concentrate on it.”
Across the nation Coles has total of 100,000 plus team members, 3.6% of whom are Indigenous; it has 800 store managers. The Alice store has 150 staff.
By ERWIN CHLANDA