Jobs are key to improving opportunities for all Australians. Boosting employment among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians will allow many more Indigenous Australians to get ahead. Beyond higher levels of income, being employed provides other personal and social benefits (PM&C 2019). On average, Indigenous Australians have lower levels of employment than non-Indigenous Australians. Disparities in employment and income are associated with a wider range of other disadvantages, and they can also have adverse intergenerational effects on children from an early age (Case et al. 2002; Duncan et al. 2014; Marmot 2011).

Halving the gap in employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians between 2008 and 2018 was one of the original Closing the Gap targets set by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). In December 2018, COAG published a draft set of refreshed Closing the Gap targets. The draft economic development targets focus on workforce participation and youth engagement in employment and education.

This page provides an overview of employment for Indigenous Australians, including assessing progress on the original Closing the Gap employment target.

See also Indigenous income and finance for details on the household and personal income levels of Indigenous Australians, which includes wage and salaries from employment.

Closing the Gap target for employment

The most recent data on employment rates of Indigenous Australians are from the 2016 Census of Population and Housing. Based on that data, progress on the target to halve the gap in employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade (compared with the 2008 baseline) is not on track to be met by 2018 (PM&C 2018, 2019).

The trends in Indigenous employment can be assessed with or without adjusting for the effects of changes and eventual closure of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) (see Alternative assessment of trends in Indigenous employment). The convention is not to adjust for these changes (as in data reported in SCRGSP, 2018), and leads to the assessment that:

  • Between the 2006 Census and 2016 Census, Indigenous employment rates for those aged 15–64 decreased slightly, 48% to 46.6%. In comparison, the non-Indigenous employment rate remained stable at around 72%.
  • In 2016, Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 were 1.9 times as likely to be not employed as non-Indigenous Australians.
  • Differences in employment rates between Indigenous males and females narrowed between 2006 and 2016, with an increase for females (43.2% to 44.8%) and a decrease for males (53% to 48.5%) among those aged 15–64.

See the alternative assessment of changes in Indigenous employment that adjusts for the presence of CDEP employment in older data sets.

Alternative assessment of trends in Indigenous employment

Assessment of trends in Indigenous employment is complicated by the many changes in the coverage, and subsequent re-branding and closure of the CDEP in 2013. The CDEP was an employment assistance program designed to help unemployed Indigenous Australians develop work skills and move into employment. In ABS surveys and censuses before July 2009, including the 2006 Census, all identified CDEP participants were classified as being employed, which contributed to an over-statement of Indigenous employment outcomes.

If employment rates are computed by excluding all CDEP participants from the reference population in 2006—with similar adjustments not required for 2016—the employment rate for Indigenous Australians increased from 42.4% in 2006 to 46.6% in 2016. This was an increase of 4.2 percentage points over that decade (PM&C 2018). (The increase in non-CDEP employment over the decade was larger for females than males—5.8 percentage points compared with 2.4 percentage points.)

Indigenous employment rates measured in this way show some increase since 2006. This pace of increase in regular (non-CDEP) employment, however, will not be fast enough to halve the gap when measured against the formal employment target period between 2008 and 2018.

Indigenous employment by location

The proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 who are employed varies considerably by remoteness. In 2016, the:

  • proportion of employed Indigenous Australians declined consistently with increasing remoteness, from 54% in Major cities to 31% in Very remote areas (Figure 1)
  • gap in employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 increased with increasing remoteness, from an 18 percentage point gap in Major cities to 54 percentage points in Very remote areas.

This figure is a paired vertical bar chart, comparing the proportion employed among people aged 15–64 by Indigenous status at the national level and by remoteness areas, in 2016. The remoteness area classification has 5 categories: Major citiesInner regionalOuter regionalRemote and Very remote areas.

At the national level the Indigenous employment rate for those aged 15–64 was 46.6% compared to a non-Indigenous employment rate of around 72%. The percentage of Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 who are employed varies considerably by remoteness areas. This percentage was highest in Major cities at 54% and lowest in Very remote areas at 31%. The non-Indigenous employment rate does not decrease as much with increasing levels of remoteness. Consequently the gap in employment rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians increased with increasing remoteness, from an 18 percentage point gap in Major cities to 54 percentage points in Very remote areas.

Role of educational attainment

The employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians narrows as education levels increase (Figure 2). There was effectively no gap in the 2016 employment rate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians with a Bachelor degree or above (around 83% employed for both). Among those with a Certificate Level III or IV qualification as the highest level of educational attainment, there was a gap of 12 percentage points—employment rates of 69.3% for Indigenous Australians and 81.6% for non-Indigenous Australians. Among those with a Certificate Level I or II qualification, there was a larger gap of 17 percentage points—employment rates of 32% and 49% respectively).

Completion of Year 12 qualification also boosts employment considerably for younger Indigenous Australians compared with early school leavers. The employment rate in 2016 for young Indigenous Australians aged 18–29 who had completed Year 12 was between 1.5 and 3 times the rate for those without Year 12 qualification, depending on gender and remoteness locations (Venn 2018). Young Indigenous Australians with Year 12 qualification who were employed were also more likely than early school leavers to be employed full time, and be in a skilled occupation (Venn 2018).

This figure is a paired vertical bar chart, comparing the proportion employed among people aged 15–64 by Indigenous status and by different levels of highest educational attainment, in 2016. The educational attainment level is classified into 5 categories: Bachelor degree or higher, Advanced diploma or diploma, Certificate Level III or IV, Secondary education level of Year 10 to Year 12, Certificate Level I or II, and Secondary education level of Year 9 or below.

It shows that the employment rate for Indigenous Australians increases considerably with higher levels of education, and consequently the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians narrows as the level of education increases.

There was effectively no gap in the 2016 employment rate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians with a Bachelor degree or above (around 83% of both groups are employed for those with this high level of education). Among those with a Certificate Level III or IV qualification, there was a gap of 12 percentage points (with an Indigenous employment rate of 69% compared to a non- Indigenous employment rate of 82%). The gap was largest among those with only a Certificate Level I or II qualification, with Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment rates of 32% and 49%, respectively, leading to a gap of 17 percentage points.

Main occupations and industry of employment

In 2016, the most common occupations of employed Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 in their main job were (Figure 3):

  • community and personal service workers (18%)
  • general labourers (16%)
  • technicians and trades workers (14%)
  • professionals (14%).

Seven per cent listed their occupation in their main job as managers (ABS 2017).

In the 2011 Census, the most commonly reported occupation for Indigenous workers was labourers (18%) (ABS 2017). In general, only minimal changes occurred in the occupational distribution for employed Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 between 2011 and 2016.

For non-Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 who were employed in 2016, the most common occupations were:

  • professionals (23%)
  • technicians and trades workers (14%)
  • clerical and administrative workers (14%)
  •  managers (13%).

Around 36% of employed non-Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 worked as managers or professionals, compared with 21% of Indigenous Australians (ABS 2018).

This figure presents comparative vertical bars showing the main occupations and sectors of employment by Indigenous status among employed persons aged 15–64. The heights of the vertical bars show the percentage of persons employed in a specific occupation or sector of employment. The list of occupations and sectors noted for Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers varies somewhat because this figure presents only the top 4 occupations or sectors of employment within each group.

In 2016 the four most common occupations of employed Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 in their main job were Community and personal service workers (18%), General labourers (16%), Technicians and trades workers (14%), and Professionals (14%). For non-Indigenous Australians their most common occupations were Professionals (23%), Technicians and trades workers (14%), Clerical and administrative workers (14%), and Managers (13%).

In 2016 the main industries or sectors of employment for Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 were Health care and social assistance (15%), Public administration and safety (12%), Education and training (10%), and Construction (9.5%). For non-Indigenous Australians, the main sectors of employment were Health care and social assistance (13%), Retail trade (10%), Education and training (9%), and Construction (9%).

In 2016, the main industries or sectors of employment for Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 were (Figure 3):

  • health care and social assistance (15%)
  • public administration and safety (12%)
  • education and training (10%)
  • construction (9.5%).

Four per cent of employed Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over worked in the mining sector in 2016 (ABS 2017).

Of the 15% of Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 who reported being employed in the health care and social assistance industry, 78% were female (ABS 2017).

Only minimal changes occurred in the pattern of employment by industry for Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 between 2011 and 2016. Health care and social assistance was also the primary industry of employment of Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 in 2011, with a similar 15% share of total employment (ABS 2017).

For non-Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 who were employed in 2016, the main industries or sectors of employment were:

  • health care and social assistance (13%)
  • retail trade (10%)
  • education and training (9%)
  • construction (9%).

Where do I go for more information?

For additional data on employment among Indigenous Australians and progress on the Closing the Gap employment target see:

For a more general perspective on the patterns and trends in Indigenous employment and comparisons with non-Indigenous Australians see:

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2017. Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia—stories from the Census, 2016: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population 2016 Census Article. ABS cat. no. 2071.0. Canberra: ABS. Viewed 2 April 2019.

ABS 2018. Census 2016, TableBuilder. Findings based on use of ABS TableBuilder data.

Case A, Lubotsky D & Paxson C 2002. Economic status and health in childhood: the origins of the gradient. The American Economic Review 92(5):1308–44.

Duncan G, Magnuson K & Votruba-Drzal E 2014. Boosting family income to promote child development. Future Child, Spring 24(1):99–120.

Marmot, M 2011. Social determinants and the health of Indigenous Australians. Medical Journal of Australia 194(10):512–513.

PM&C (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2018. Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2018. Canberra: PM&C.

PM&C 2019. Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report 2019. Canberra: PM&C.

SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision) 2018. National Indigenous Reform Agreement: National Agreement Performance Information 2017–18. Canberra: Productivity Commission.

Venn, D 2018. Indigenous youth employment and the school-to-work transition. 2016 Census Paper no. 2. Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU.