Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2021) Indigenous employment, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 29 January 2023.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). Indigenous employment. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-employment
Indigenous employment. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 16 September 2021, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-employment
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Indigenous employment [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021 [cited 2023 Jan. 29]. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-employment
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2021, Indigenous employment, viewed 29 January 2023, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-employment
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Employment lies at the heart of socioeconomic opportunity. It provides direct economic benefit to individuals and families, including financial security, increased social mobility and access to higher standards of living. Beyond this, it is well established that working is associated with benefits to physical and mental health, social inclusion and improved developmental outcomes for the children of employed persons (Biddle 2013; Gray et al. 2014; WHO 2012).
This page provides an overview of employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over time.
See Indigenous income and finance for more information on the household and personal income of Indigenous Australians (including wages and salaries from employment).
In 2020, all Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations worked in partnership to develop the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (the National Agreement), committing to 4 key Reform Priorities and 16 socioeconomic Closing the Gap targets. Two of these targets directly relate to employment.
Target 7: By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15–24 years) who are in employment, education or training to 67 per cent.
Target 8: By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25–64 who are employed to 62 per cent.
Note: The baseline values for these targets were derived from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2016 Census of Population and Housing (Census).
Prior to establishment of the National Agreement, there were 7 Closing the Gap targets set by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) under the National Indigenous Reform Agreement; one of which was to halve the gap in employment rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians between 2008 and 2018. The Closing the Gap Report 2020 found that this target expired unmet.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2018–19, conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, provides the most recent data on employment rates of Indigenous Australians. For those aged 25–64 (the age group specified in Target 8 of the National Agreement), it was 52% in 2018–19 (ABS 2019a).
For the rest of this page, employment rate data are presented for Indigenous Australians aged 15–64, for consistency with how this target was previously defined.
Comparing the most recent data for people aged 15–64 with earlier surveys:
Assessing Indigenous employment trends is complicated by the many changes in the coverage – and subsequent re-branding and closure in 2013 – of the CDEP. The CDEP was an employment assistance program established in 1977 to create employment opportunities in remote communities by pooling unemployment benefits.
In ABS surveys and Censuses conducted before July 2009, all identified CDEP participants were classified as being employed. This contributed to an overstatement of Indigenous employment. Before its closure in 2013, the CDEP was already being phased out and progressively replaced by the Community Development Program (CDP). Since then, ABS products such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey consider CDP participants to be employed only if they are engaged in employment unrelated to the CDP.
If the trend in Indigenous employment rates is computed by excluding all participants in the CDEP (in 2002 to 2012–2013 data) and the CDP (in 2018–19 data), then the employment rate for Indigenous Australians increased markedly between 2002 (34%) and 2008 (48%). Since then, it has remained more or less stable, at 46% in 2012–13 and 49% in 2018–19 (SCRGSP 2020).
Excluding CDEP and CDP participants, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians in remote and non-remote areas in 2018–19 was 36% and 52%, respectively. These rates have remained stable since 2008 (SCRGSP 2020).
In 2018–19, the employment rate of Indigenous Australians decreased consistently with increasing remoteness, from 59% in Major cities to 35% in Very remote areas. This pattern is consistent with that of data for 2014–15; however, it was not as pronounced in earlier reference periods (for example, 2004–05 and 2007–08) (Figure 1).
The employment rate of Indigenous Australians in 2018–19 also varied markedly by state and territory. It was highest in the Australian Capital Territory (61%), followed by Tasmania (54%) and New South Wales (54%), and lowest in the Northern Territory (37%). This pattern has remained roughly the same since 2014–15. In previous reference periods, however, the employment rate in New South Wales was considerably lower (for example, 45% in 2012–13) and the rate in the Northern Territory was closer to that for other jurisdictions, peaking at 51% in 2008 (Figure 1). The decline in the Indigenous employment rate in the Northern Territory partly reflects the flow-on effect of closing the CDEP.
This visualisation shows the proportion of persons aged 15-64 years who are employed by remoteness and Indigenous status for the 2017–18 and 2018–19 survey periods. Employment rates for Indigenous Australians are highest in Major cities (59%) and lowest in Very remote areas (35%). The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was largest in Remote areas (41 percentage points). Alternate views are displayed for previous survey periods, up to 2004–05, and other disaggregations are available by sex or by state and territory.
The employment rate of Indigenous Australians has consistently shown an increase with higher levels of education. In 2018–19, the observed employment rate pattern relative to the highest level of education completed was:
This pattern is similar overall to that for 2014–15; however, when comparing the 2 periods, the employment rate of Indigenous Australians fell by 4.2 percentage points for those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher but rose by 12 percentage points for those with an Advanced diploma or Diploma (Figure 2).
The full-time employment rate for Indigenous Australians was 30% in 2018–19, and the pattern of full-time employment by education level was similar to that for the overall employment rate: those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher had the highest full-time employment rate (60%) and those with secondary year 9 and below had the lowest (11%) (Figure 2).
The overall part-time employment rate was 19% in 2018–19 for Indigenous Australians; however, a slightly different pattern emerged when viewed by education level. The part-time rate was highest for those with an Advanced diploma or Diploma (32%), and again lowest for those with secondary year 9 and below (10%) (Figure 2).
In the 2017–18 to 2018–19 period, similar to previous years, the gap in the employment rate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians narrowed with higher levels of education. For those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, the overall gap was 7.4 percentage points. The gap for males was 1.3 percentage points and for females, 8.4 percentage points. In comparison, the overall gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians with a Bachelor’s degree or higher in the 2014–15 reference period was 1.9 percentage points (Figure 2).
Employment rates for Indigenous Australians in 2018–19 differed markedly by sex. Males had a higher overall employment rate (54%) than females (45%), and this difference was consistent across all levels of educational attainment (Figure 2).
For more information on this topic see Indigenous education and skills.
This visualisation shows the proportion of persons aged 15-64 years who are employed by Indigenous status and their highest level of educational attainment for the 2017–18 and 2018–19 survey periods. Employment rates for Indigenous Australians were highest for those with a Bachelor degree or higher (79%), and lowest for those with secondary Year 9 and below (22%). The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was largest for those with secondary Year 10 to Year 12 education (22 percentage points). Alternate views are presented for the previous 2014–15 survey period, and for full-time and part-time employment by sex.
This section provides 2 types of information about employed Indigenous Australians:
For example, a person who works as an accounts clerk for a major clothing store would have ‘clerical and administrative workers‘ as their occupation group and ‘retail trade’ as their industry of employment.
Main occupation groups
The 5 most common occupation groups of working age Indigenous Australians in 2018–19 were:
Seven per cent listed their main occupation as managers (Figure 3) (ABS 2019a).
The proportion of Indigenous Australians working as labourers and clerical and administrative workers has increased slightly since 2014–15, while the proportion working as community and personal service workers, machinery operators and drivers, and technicians and trade workers has slightly decreased (Figure 3) (ABS 2016a, 2019a).
Main industries of employment
The 5 most common industries of employment for working age Indigenous Australians in 2018–19 were:
Eight per cent listed their industry of main employment as education and training, and 3.5% reported it as professional, scientific and technical services (ABS 2019a).
Between 2014–15 and 2018–19, the proportion of Indigenous Australians employed in construction increased by 4.5 percentage points, while the proportion for the remaining 4 most common employment industries remained relatively stable (Figure 3).
In the 2017–18 to 2018–19 period, Indigenous Australians were over-represented in labouring, community and personal service occupations, and under-represented as professionals and managers relative to the working age non-Indigenous population. This was also reflected in industries of main employment, where Indigenous Australians were over-represented in the construction, public administration and safety sectors, and were under-represented in the professional, scientific and technical services sector (Figure 3) (ABS 2019a, 2019b).
This visualisation shows the 5 most common employment sectors of employed persons aged 15-64 years for Indigenous Australians for the 2014–15 and 2018–19 survey periods. The most common employments sectors for Indigenous Australians in 2018–19 were Health Care and Social Assistance (14%), Construction (14%), Public Administration and Safety (11%), Retail trade (10%) and Accommodation and Food Services (9%). Alternate views are presented for the 5 most common occupations, along with data from the previous survey period in 2014–15.
Although the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on employment in Australia has been substantial, no specific data are yet available on its effect on the employment of Indigenous Australians.
For additional data on employment among Indigenous Australians, see:
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2016a. Microdata: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014–15. Findings based on the use of TableBuilder data. cat. no. 4720.0.55.002. Canberra: ABS.
ABS 2016b. Microdata: National Health Survey, 2014–15. Findings based on the use of TableBuilder data. cat. no. 4324.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.
ABS 2019a. Microdata: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey, 2018–19. Findings based on the use of TableBuilder data. cat. no. 4715.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.
ABS 2019b. Microdata: National Health Survey 2017–18. Findings based on the use of TableBuilder data. cat. no. 4324.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.
Biddle N 2013. CAEPR Indigenous Population Project: socioeconomic outcomes. Canberra: Australian National University. Viewed 5 August 2021.
Gray M, Hunter B & Biddle N 2014. The economic and social benefits of increasing Indigenous employment. Canberra: ANU. Viewed 5 August 2021.
SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) 2020. Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: key indicators 2020. Canberra: Productivity Commission. Viewed 5 August 2021.
WHO (World Health Organization) 2012. Health in the post-2015 development agenda: need for a social determinants of health approach. Geneva: WHO. Viewed 5 August 2021.
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