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Home > Reports > What works: Employment strategies for refugee and humanitarian entrants

What works: Employment strategies for refugee and humanitarian entrants

Getting a decent job is an important factor in the success of the resettlement of refugees and humanitarian entrants. These people are eager to get work and bring many skills and years of experience to Australia. Despite this,  former refugees are too often underemployed, and work in low-paid, low-skilled and insecure jobs.

RCOA received funding through the Sidney Myer Foundation to research sustainable employment pathways and refugee background communities. This report maps, analyses and models solutions to the barriers that refugee entrants face in making the transition to meaningful, sustainable employment in Australia.

Executive summary

Barriers to employment

While the focus of this research was on exploring what works in supporting the employment transitions of refugee and humanitarian entrants, What Works does provide a brief overview of literature exploring the barriers to refugee and humanitarian entrants’ participation in the Australian labour market. The employment barriers identified through consultations and existing research include:

  • Limited English proficiency;
  • Lack of Australian work experience;
  • Limited access to transport and affordable housing close to employment;
  • Lack of knowledge of Australian workplace culture and systems;
  • Pressures of juggling employment and domestic responsibilities;
  • Lack of appropriate services to support employment transitions;
  • The refugee and resettlement experience and its impact on job-seeking;
  • Downward mobility and the pressure to accept insecure employment;
  • Discrimination in employment;
  • Difficulties with recognition of skills, qualifications and experience;
  • Lack of qualifications;
  • The Australian labour market and disadvantage; and
  • Visa restrictions for people seeking asylum.

Policy and program responses

Australia’s refugee and humanitarian entrants are far from a homogenous group; they come from enormously diverse backgrounds and bring with them a range of skills and life experiences. There are, however, some common barriers that people from refugee backgrounds face in entering the Australian labour force which require a range of targeted employment transition initiatives, particularly in the early stages of settlement. Targeted policy and program responses – funded and implemented through a range of different sources – that have found to be effective can be grouped into the following overarching (although not mutually exclusive) service types:

  • Individual case management and referral services;
  • Mentoring programs with an employment focus;
  • Information and training on Australian work culture and systems;
  • Work experience programs;
  • Industry-related training targeting migrant and refugee communities;
  • Services providing career advice, planning and job search support;
  • Social enterprise and initiatives supporting small business development;
  • Services advocating and liaising directly with employers;
  • Services providing support with skills and qualification recognition;
  • English language classes with an employment focus; and
  • Post-employment follow-up and support.

These targeted employment services operate alongside a nationwide network of generalist employment services, primarily Job Services Australia (formerly the Job Network) services funded through the Federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). Job Services Australia (JSA) was established as a one stop shop where jobseekers are referred through the one provider to access a range of employment services.

In the absence of a national employment strategy focusing on refugee and humanitarian entrants, provisions for this sub-group of jobseekers are through generalist JSA providers and a limited number of specialist JSA services targeting people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. However, there are fewer service providers claiming particular expertise in working with people from refugee backgrounds funded under the JSA than the previous Job Network, and these specialist services are required to provide the same suite of services as other JSA providers and with the same resources.

As the JSA model was only rolled out as of 1 July 2009, it has not been possible within this research to comment on the efficacy of this model in terms of employment outcomes for refugee and humanitarian entrants. However, the limitations of the previous Job Network model have been well documented through this and other research. And while the Federal Government has highlighted improvements that JSA will have over the old Job Network model that may have an impact on refugee and humanitarian entrants, there are indications that a generalist one stop shop is unlikely to provide the flexibility or resources that would allow services to provide the kinds of targeted supports outlined in the what works chapter of this report. Indeed, it is hoped that the findings from this research will further inform future directions of JSA by emphasising elements of good practice that have proven effective in supporting the employment transitions of refugee and humanitarian entrants.

Findings: What works

The focus of RCOA’s consultations was on what works in supporting the transition of refugee and humanitarian entrants to employment. Interviews with employees, employers and employment services drew on existing literature documenting employment barriers and good practice models to test and expand on the relative importance of different approaches in creating effective employment pathways for refugee and humanitarian entrants. Some key themes emerged from the interviews that suggest a range of things that need to happen in order for refugee and humanitarian entrants to be able to make use of their skills to find meaningful, sustainable employment in Australia. These elements of success have been broken down into five broad themes:

  1. Specialist employment services targeting refugee and humanitarian entrants;
  2. Employers who value and are committed to workforce diversity;
  3. Coordination and collaboration among refugee entrants and their communities, education and training providers, employment services and employers;
  4. Initiatives tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of former refugees through social enterprise and small business development; and
  5. Building awareness within refugee background communities about career pathways in Australia.

Under each of these themes, a number of strategies or approaches were identified by interviewees as being effective. It should be noted that further research would be required in order to conduct a thorough evaluation of the relative effectiveness of each of the identified approaches. Instead, strategies or approaches that interviewees deemed as effective have been included as a series of case studies to illustrate the diverse, targeted approaches that are needed to meet the needs of such a diverse group of jobseekers.

Specialist employment services targeting refugee and humanitarian entrants

Whether delivered by specialist agencies or through generalist employment services, there was a strong theme that emerged from interviews of the need for targeted approaches to supporting the employment transitions of refugee and humanitarian entrants. In particular, targeted approaches meant service providers recognising the particular barriers that refugee entrants’ face in entering the Australian labour market and that a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be successful in meeting the needs of such a diverse group of jobseekers.
Overall, effective approaches provided by targeted employment services that were identified in interviews included:

  • Individual casework and referral to other services;
  • Work experience placement;
  • Support with applying for work: job search, applications and interview skills;
  • Advocacy and liaison with employers;
  • Orientation to Australian work culture and systems;
  • Career advice, guidance and planning;
  • Mentoring;
  • Post-employment support;
  • Services for people seeking asylum;
  • Employing bicultural/bilingual workers; and
  • Addressing racism and discrimination in employment and the wider community.

Employers who value and are committed to workforce diversity

While specialist services were seen as important in facilitating supported employment transitions for refugee and humanitarian entrants, there was a general consensus among those consulted that employment services can only do so much. In order for refugee entrants to be able to find meaningful, sustainable employment in Australia, employers also need to see the value of workforce diversity and be willing to give someone a chance to apply their strengths, skills and experience in an Australian workplace.

Interviewees identified a number of successful approaches used by employers to tap into the strengths and support a diverse workforce (including workers from refugee backgrounds). These included:

  • Giving people the chance and using alternative recruitment strategies;
  • Providing good orientation and induction to new employees;
  • Creating supportive team environments;
  • Providing diversity training for all staff and supervisors;
  • Seeing advantage in workplace diversity;
  • Operating flexibly; and
  • Treating workers equitably and fairly.

Coordination and collaboration among refugee entrants and their communities, education and training providers, employment services and employers

For recently arrived refugee and humanitarian entrants, navigating complex and unfamiliar service systems can be extraordinarily challenging. A strong theme to emerge from interviews was the benefits of strong coordination and collaboration between service providers, industry and communities. In particular, many interviewees talked about the positive flow-on effects of developing strong links between settlement and employment services, education and training providers, industry or employer groups, and refugee entrants and their communities.

Approaches that were highlighted in interviews as being beneficial to building a collaborative and coordinated service response which enables sustainable employment outcomes for refugee and humanitarian entrants included:

  • Intermediate labour market programs;
  • Partnerships between employers, employment services and communities;
  • Opportunities for refugee entrants to learn sufficient English on arrival to enable long-term, meaningful engagement in the Australian labour market;
  • English courses linked with vocational pathways;
  • Recognition of overseas skills and qualifications;
  • Industry-linked and -recognised training; and
  • Regional or rural settlement driven by employment.

Initiatives tapping into entrepreneurial spirit through social enterprise and small business development

Research suggests that assisting former refugees to establish their own businesses can contribute to creating employment opportunities for refugee and humanitarian entrants who are more recently arrived, although the benefits of such initiatives are only likely to be seen in the longer term. Indeed research suggests that migrants from non-English-speaking-backgrounds are comparatively more successful at establishing small business enterprises when compared to Australian-born entrepreneurs and migrants from English-speaking backgrounds.

Interviews conducted with employment services involved in supporting small business development, as well as employees and supervisors working in social enterprise initiatives, highlighted a number of strategies that were considered influential in enabling entrepreneurs from refugee backgrounds to start and sustain their own businesses. These included:

  • Targeted small business training and support;
  • Enterprise facilitation; and
  • Social enterprise.

Building awareness within refugee backgrounds communities about career pathways in Australia

The final theme that emerged from interviews relating to what works in supporting the employment transitions of refugee and humanitarian entrants was the need to foster realistic expectations and awareness within refugee background communities about career pathways in Australia. While this may be part of the role of specialist employment services, interviewees talked about community awareness-building needing to happen through a variety of different avenues and at different stages of settlement. In particular, strategies for how to build community awareness included:

  • Creating awareness of career pathways through pre-embarkation and on-arrival orientation;
  • Programs that promote possibilities to young people; and
  • Initiatives that build social capital.

Our recommendations

Recommendation 1: Developing a national refugee employment strategy

RCOA recommends that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) develop a national refugee employment strategy to map out settlement pathways and supports that will lead to more sustainable and meaningful employment outcomes for refugee and humanitarian entrants.

Recommendation 2: Ensuring employment services effectively meet the needs of refugee and humanitarian entrants

RCOA recommends that DEEWR, as part of its monitoring and evaluation of the new Job Services Australia (JSA) model, review its effectiveness in meeting the needs of refugee and humanitarian entrants, including evaluating how JSA providers are working with local employment initiatives targeting refugee entrants and how to better utilise the expertise of specialist JSA providers.
RCOA welcomes the re-introduction of the Innovation Fund as part of Job Services Australia model and calls on DEEWR to ensure that the Innovation Fund Panel includes sufficient representation of organisations with specialist expertise in assisting refugee and humanitarian entrants.

Recommendation 3: Investing in intermediate labour market initiatives targeting refugee and humanitarian entrants

RCOA recommends a greater investment by both private and public funding sources of Intermediate Labour Market programs that provide a bridge to refugee and humanitarian entrants into longer term employment.
RCOA recommends greater investment in social enterprise initiatives that bring together refugee and humanitarian entrants and their communities and community services and that have a focus on employment outcomes.
RCOA recommends DEEWR establish an incentive scheme to encourage and support employers to provide traineeships and apprenticeships targeting refugee and humanitarian entrants, including and particularly through the Federal and State public service.

Recommendation 4: Recognising employers who value and are committed to workforce diversity

RCOA recommends a proactive national communications campaign promoting the business benefits of cultural diversity.
RCOA recommends the further promotion of national Diversity Awards that help recognise employers who take initiative.

Read the full report

You can download the report here or read the full report in PDF on the next page.

What Works Employment Report 2010
Size : 1.7 MB Format : PDF

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