Supporting financially capable indigenous youth

with Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon

It’s a stunning day when I meet with Felicia Daisy, an employment consultant with BUSY at Work, on the banks of the river that is so important to her Gubbi Gubbi, also known as Kabi Kabi, tribe.

“I know a lot of Indigenous people here in the community and some families still do the [traditional] dancing to this day, so I love it,” Felicia tells me over a takeaway coffee. “We celebrate Booin Gari here, which is an Indigenous celebration day for everyone to get together.”

But this year Felicia had an agenda beyond showcasing Indigenous dancing, food and culture: helping local youth secure gainful employment and get on their own two feet financially.

Nicole and Felicia sitting on a shaded park bench under a large tree

Getting BUSY at Work

Felicia: Myself and the team leader had a stall right here bringing a lot of people in to register with BUSY at Work.

The not-for-profit organisation provides apprenticeship, employment and community programs for disadvantaged and unemployed youth aged 15 to 21, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Which gives Felicia a unique perspective.

So, I ask: Of the Indigenous youth that you work with, how would you describe their financial and employment position?

Felicia: How would I explain it? Well, it’s not really great. Financially, they just spend their money on whatever they want. You know: ‘I want the new PlayStation game’; ‘I’ve got to get it as soon as my pay goes in’…

Well, a lot of people do that!

Felicia: Exactly. But the employment, that is very low as well. There’s not a lot of people that take on Indigenous people in their workplaces due to the fact that they think that they’re lazy, they don’t do anything.

So stereotypes are a barrier?

Felicia: Barriers have a lot to do with it. They may have learning difficulties and Indigenous people like to do things hands-on – you know, we’re very, very hands-on. We can’t learn online, we’ve got to have things explained to us in a practical way.

Felicia with a concerned expression

So many of the youth you see have disengaged from and then dropped out of school… am I hearing that schools haven’t serving them effectively?

Felicia: Yeah, that’s a lot of the reason why they don’t finish school - they don’t feel like they’re learning anything…

…it’s not relatable.

Felicia: Yeah, exactly. Then they might not have support from their families either.

What’s being done to help

Felicia is really outlining a daunting task to engage many of the young jobless – including her non-Indigenous clients – and equip them with the skills they need to become employable. How do you start persuading them to get out and claim their independence?

Felicia: I tell them a lot about my experience in life because I’ve worked since I was 13. My grandparents have had lot to do with that and with me. That classic work ethic.

Felicia: Yeah – and I say to them: do you want to live on Centrelink benefits your whole life, because I wouldn’t want to. If you are working, you can get whatever you need, and you can get a house, build a house, get a nice car, go away on holidays with your family…

Get ahead; have many options.

Felicia: Exactly, so much better than just living on benefits all the time.

Once the young unemployed person is convinced that life could be improved, BUSY at Work commences a broad-ranging Transition to Work (free-to-the-client) service that is designed to get them ready to enter the workforce.

So, tell me about Transition to Work. It’s certainly not just job placement, is it?

Felicia: No, definitely not. We are the only program that sticks to 15 to 21-years-old; the disadvantaged that have not finished high school - the youngest ones that we have are 15, grade 10. And even if the Indigenous have finished school, they can come straight to us. We help the participants with anything that they need. If they want to study for their further career, we get them into study groups or workshops or even the local stakeholders that we are in contact with for their study. That’s a better way for them if they don’t want to go to school. They can always do say a Cert 3 in hospitality – their practical work can be in a cafe, or a restaurant, or even at a bar to do their Responsible Service of Alcohol.

You must have lots of partnerships in the community, in terms of employers and industry groups, to support that?

Felicia: Yes we do.

Looking at your literature, I see words like ‘motivation’, ‘techniques to build your confidence’ and ‘how to be treated fairly and with respect at all times’. There’s a real mentoring tone.

Felicia: Yeah, because a lot of the youth don’t receive or [therefore] give respect at all. We can set up assistance through our stakeholders. We have counsellors we can refer them too. And we do workshops as well for them – all the way through to resume and budgeting workshops. We can do the job searching. So the barriers that they have, we assist in breaking them down. Life skills mostly: some of them don’t have a bank account so we go with them to a bank and set up a bank account for their money to go into, whether they’re on Centrelink or have a job. The same for a driver’s license. We’ve even supplied interview clothes!

Well, how would you know how to do a lot of that stuff if you’ve never done it before?

Felicia: That’s it – and they don’t teach that in school either.

Once BUSY at Work is, hopefully, successful at getting a client into the workforce, it gives them six months of post placement support as well. Finally, someone they can trust to take them forward.

Felicia talking to Nicole

Support for financial capability

Felicia, could you tell me what do you think needs to be done to help Indigenous school leavers gain their independence financially and through employment?

Felicia: I personally think that it’s just support – because a lot of them finish high school. I went all the way through high school; I’ve studied my whole life and the support I’ve had is great.

From your family?

Felicia: Yeah, from my family and friends. My grandfather told me how to save money, you know, for the things that I need in life. And now being in my early 20s, it’s stuck with me forever and I can teach my kids how to save money for the things that they need in life, instead of: ‘Oh look, there’s a new DVD’, I can say: ‘I don’t need that’.

So you had a really strong inter-generational grounding in financial capability? Is that unusual in your culture?

Felicia: Yes, very much so. My grandfather has always said: “If you want a house, if you want to succeed in life, you have to work for your money, you have to save.”

Useful link: How to save your money for what you really want

But does the Indigenous custom to share money within extended families make it challenging to get ahead financially?

Felicia: Yeah, it does actually.

Felicia and Nicole talking on a town street

So say you’ve just been paid but someone in your broader family group needs new shoes? Is there an expectation that you hand over the money for them?

Felicia: Well, depending how much they are. If they’re not an expensive pair, yeah, I’ll give them $5, $10. But if they’re really expensive, well, then no. I’ll say: ‘no, I can’t afford it’ or ‘I don’t want to give you money’ because I know for a fact I probably won’t get it back. You know, we have one Indigenous family that’s got six or eight kids; the other one has got two. 

Useful link: Dealing with family pressure about money

I can see how that could get unbalanced and I guess any kind of goal setting for bigger things needs to be done on a whole-of-family basis. But are the ‘possessions’ that the non-Indigenous value so much something that would typically motivate an Indigenous family?

Felicia: That’s the thing – not really.

So Felicia, tell me how you arrived here, with a great job that is quite clearly your passion – and talking to me about it on the banks of the river…

Felicia: Oh wow. Okay. I completed high school and had four qualifications by the age of 24. I saw this job advertised on the internet. In my previous job I wasn’t happy and I thought, you know, working with the youth, it would be a fantastic idea. So I applied and I, seriously, applied four times because I wanted the job so much.

They must have sensed you were keen!

Felicia: Yeah, and I got the job within a week.

Felicia and Nicole smiling at the camera with water behind them


Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon

Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon

Money educator and commentator

Photos by Nicola Holland

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