We can’t afford to leave Indigenous students behind

5 Jul 2019

If Australia is serious about jobs for Indigenous youth we must invest in specialist career roles in schools.

If Australia is serious about jobs for Indigenous youth we must invest in specialist career roles in schools.

Over the past 20-plus years I’ve moved around the education system in a range of roles. One of my first jobs ever was working at an Indigenous Homework Centre here in Rockhampton in the mid-90s. Over the past decade I’ve become increasingly concerned with the ways Indigenous students access (or don’t) appropriate career advice and education. So I did a PhD that investigated this and similar issues.

In 2019 the federal government released its plan to improve career education with the intention to lead the preparation of the nation’s future workforce. The plan is called A Student Focused National Career Education Strategy. The goal is to create a workforce that can navigate a “not yet imagined” world of work. It details a vision for leadership on career education for the country with the following six focus areas:

  1. Building transferrable skills
  2. Career education for all students
  3. Partnership with all the usual key stakeholders – schools, parents, community
  4. Flexible pathways
  5. Informed collaboration
  6. Using evidence

The final section of the strategy advises parents, carers and the youth sector how to prepare our kids for life after school. There are some useful ideas on the list such as starting career conversations early, identifying passions and strengths and showing kids different types of careers to expand their imaginations. The strategy is ambitious and nowhere more so than the recommendations to do with parents seeking out support, resources and opportunities to collaborate with schools.

We all know that public schools, especially, are not resourced enough for providing basic career advice let alone able to take on this extent of parent engagement consistently and effectively. Back in 2015 an article titled Careers education must be for all, not just those going to university in The Conversation by Kiara Clarke, described how school-based career advisers (normally located in large high schools or across multiple smaller ones) have an average budget of about $3 per student.

That is, schools with more than 1,000 students having $3 per individual (meanwhile, other schools have less or no dollars) to prepare the nation’s future workforce for unknown careers in rapidly evolving industries. That’s frightening. Now think about what that means for Indigenous school students everywhere, regardless of their location because “urban” does not equal access. The reality is that many of our Indigenous school students don’t engage in career conversations with a school specialist unless there is careful and intentional positioning of key people in place to nurture students through the process.

When I put the issue of accessing career advice to participants in my research most of them indicated that they either didn’t know if there was such a person at their school or, if they had made contact with one, the discussion had been so uncomfortable they avoided any further contact with that staff member.

Now, this isn’t to say that there is no one in our schools having discussions and providing advice to Indigenous students about their futures. There are, and they’ve been doing this work since the mid-70s. In Queensland they’re known as community education counsellors (CECs). More often than not, it is up to the CECs (Indigenous education workers and Indigenous school liaisons) to provide the majority of support to Indigenous students to transition out of school. In Queensland, the role of CECs has existed for four decades and was first established to assist guidance officers to prepare Indigenous students for the workforce.

The 2019 National Career Strategy requires us to revisit the relationship between school-based career specialists and CECs (or similar roles) to ensure Indigenous students are not forgotten in the preparation of the future workforce. But we’ve got to do better than expecting Indigenous students to attend appointments with the career adviser. Crabb and Vicenti (2016) made a number of useful recommendations for career advice for First Nations’ societies. Focus must be on developing meaningful and trusting relationships with Indigenous students for advice to be effective.

The temptation to hand an Indigenous student a flyer or prospectus with a few encouraging words isn’t helpful. Career advisers need a deeper understanding about Indigenous family and community expectations, connections and dynamics so their advice is relevant and useful. Advice needs to be appropriate to the societies and contexts of Indigenous students and not vice versa. Finally, models of career advice need to be “holistic” and not merely rely on socio-economic factors to determine or predict Indigenous students’ career pathways. For example, narrative career construction models allows students to explore possible futures by first understanding how their own story has been and is being constructed.

If we are serious about our commitment to jobs for Indigenous youth and opportunities for them to participate in the future economy then there must be investment in the permanent recruitment and ongoing development of CEC and equivalent roles and this should never be at the expense of investing in Indigenous teachers. CEC and equivalent roles are critical to Indigenous students’ successful transitions out of school and they must be skilled in career education. Likewise, there must be benchmarks for career advisers to ensure a standardised approach to appropriate and effective advice for Indigenous students. The nation cannot afford to leave behind Indigenous students as we approach the new world of work.

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