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Employer engagement key to boosting jobs for refugees

20 November 2019
Research looks at employment benefits and barriers

A groundbreaking report on barriers to refugee employment has called on the government to consider measures including employer education programs as ways of encouraging firms to hire and retain humanitarian migrants.

More than 80 percent of asylum seekers and refugees remain unemployed 18 months after arriving in Australia, largely because they lack language skills, local networks and relevant Australian experience.

The report, titled 'Engaging business in refugee employment' (pdf, 2.4MB), was authored by the University of Sydney Business School Associate Professor Betina Szkudlarek in close collaboration with the Centre for Policy Development, and with the assistance of a team of volunteers from Boston Consulting Group.

"Our report is based on a study which looked at the perceptions of employers who have and those who have not employed refugees," said Dr Szkudlarek. "The aim was to gain insight into employers' perceptions, misconceptions and experiences."

The study found employers who had hired refugees felt that the benefits far outweighed the disadvantages.

"These benefits were the ability that refugees have to serve with cultural sensitivity a diverse customer base, their work ethic and commitment, international experience as well as diversity of views and expertise they brought to the workplace," said Dr Szkudlarek.

Many stressed that refugees' productivity was higher than that of the local workforce.
Associate Professor Betina Szkudlarek

The report includes seven broad recommendations aimed at encouraging the employment and retention of refugees.

"There is great opportunity for Australian business and the community as a whole. Building on this report, we are now working together on a more detailed set of policy options to help convert this opportunity into a widespread reality," said Annabel Brown, CPD's Program Director. 

The report indicates that issues such as "visa status, work rights, uncertainty about the duration of stay and absenteeism were rarely a concern among employers who had employed refugees and who had sought to hire refugees."

"Many employers had simply not thought of turning to the refugee community in search of recruits," Dr Szkudlarek said.

Joseph Raheb, who was involved in an intern program for refugees at Telstra, says he found "a greater amount of lateral thinking amongst participants which propelled results in new markets."

"I would definitely recommend employing refugees from the many organisations that offer employment services in this field," said Mr Raheb, who now works with Salesforce. "It was personally rewarding to see our intake of refugees flourish."

Bridging the refugee employment gap

Associate Professor Betina Szkudlarek's research shows employers are eager to work with refugees, but many don't know where to begin. Not-for-profits and social enterprises can help bridge the gap.


CareerSeekers is a not-for-profit employment organisation that has placed more than 650 refugees in meaningful positions since 2016.

"CareerSeekers supports corporate Australia’s focus on cultural diversity while tackling the issue of underemployment of asylum seekers and refugees," said CEO Peter Baynard-Smith. "We provide participants with intensive training and support so they can take up 12-week internships and we create a risk-free opportunity for employers to expand their workforce."

"Employing refugees is good for the head and the heart," said Mr Baynard-Smith. "It's a good business decision. You diversify your office, which makes for a more creative and cohesive environment; you get access to a valuable talent pool; and you deliver on your corporate social responsibility strategy."

While CareerSeekers is largely funded by corporate sponsorship, the 'Engaging business in refugee employment' report recommends that government provides more financial support for social enterprises and NGOs.

It also recommends the identification of refugees in procurement programs as well as the facilitation of industry relevant interaction between Australian employers and refugee jobseekers through on-the-job training, mentoring, networking opportunities and other forms of professional support.

"Ultimately, the successful hiring and retention of refugees requires a long-term, holistic approach, involving management, the government and the community," concluded Dr Szkudlarek.


Seven recommendations to engage business in refugee employment

  • As CSR and top-management's initiative were key motivators of engagement, the business case and other benefits of hiring and retaining refugees need to be communicated to business leadership. Established employer networks such as industry groups, should be used to mobilise wider support.
  • Positive narratives and success stories need to be more widely publicised to reflect the positive experiences of many employers.
  • Parliamentarians and all arms of government should carefully consider their public statements about refugees to prevent unintended negative consequences for refugee jobseekers and employers who may otherwise benefit from hiring them.
  • Employer misconceptions that prevent or hinder successful refugee recruitment should be corrected by the sharing of accurate information and advice.
  • Attempts should be made to further increase the visibility and/or promotion of existing support services for employers (including government and non-government services).
  • Subsidies need to be approached with caution, as few employers saw them as motivating factors and some considered them as possibly encouraging undesirable employer behaviours (e.g. short-term hiring to obtain subsidy). Moreover, wage subsidies do not address job readiness, which was identified as a major challenge for refugee employment.
  • Wage subsidies could possibly be restructured to create a more effective incentive for employers, while avoiding unintended consequences such as stigmatisation of refugee jobseekers. Areas for future investigation include: revisiting the categories of jobseekers that wage subsidies apply to; the delivery method for wage subsidies (currently only through federal employment service providers such as jobactive); how employers recognise subsidies within their own systems and budgets; and introducing more sophisticated objectives/criteria to enhance the impact of wage subsidies (e.g. more attractive subsidies where employers also include workplace language training for employees from a refugee background).
  • Grant funding may offer greater flexibility to employers and could be used to cover employers’ costs (such as onboarding programs) rather than relying on subsidies which are tied to individual recruits. Larger companies are more likely to apply for grants due to the scale at which they engage in employment and their greater capacity to respond to grant opportunities. ‘Red tape’ should be minimised to encourage the engagement of small and mid-sized employers.
  • Grants could serve as a tool to separate funding of refugee hiring and retention efforts from the business cycle of a company, by providing resources to maintain refugee employment if a company is facing financial pressures.
  • ‘Partnership grants’ have potential to encourage further collaboration between service providers and employers. They could be initiated by employers and/or service providers for a wide range of initiatives including hiring practices, onboarding, workplace readiness and training.
  • Specific grants could alleviate the costs associated with using effective service providers.
  • Social procurement frameworks offer a way to rapidly scale-up refugee recruitment but targets for refugee recruitments are reportedly only used in the construction/infrastructure sector. There is potential for expansion into other industries.
  • Policy makers should consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ procurement targets. This could include considering the feasibility of employers reaching certain targets in different locations across Australia and whether a universal approach is reasonable or desirable.
  • ‘Soft’ targets, where hiring targets are suggested as a desirable business practice, could be beneficial in enabling employers to ‘own’ the effort instead of just ‘comply’ with externally imposed hard targets.
  • ‘Hard’ procurement targets, where hiring targets are regulated or included in mandatory procurement requirements, would need to be accompanied by support (e.g., tools for accessing refugee job seekers or support to establish organisational onboarding programs) to make it easier for employers to comply and to avoid creating employer resentment or backlash towards refugee employees.
  • The use of social procurement targets (currently a feature of some Victorian government infrastructure procurement arrangements) could be expanded across government and into the private sector (e.g. local council services, superannuation investments).
  • Create or support the development of a public access job portal to bring service providers, refugees and employers together in one place.
  • Separately, or as part of a jobs portal, establish a public access portal to help capture the skills and knowledge of refugee employment experts and support collaboration between universities, industry groups, service providers and employers.
  • Facilitate industry-specific platforms for knowledge exchange and industry-peer support.
  • Identify and support industry champions to share their knowledge and experience with industry peers.
  • Support the delivery of training to employers on hiring and onboarding refugees (e.g. adjusting hiring practices, implementing creative approaches to overcome qualifications hurdles). Explore opportunities provided by e-learning platforms.
  • Showcase realistic examples of successful employment, including additional resources required, and the importance of holistic perspectives to understand how refugee workplace integration can affect peers and supervisors.
  • Promote early investment in establishing successful hiring practices to improve the chance of success.
  • Train employers on other ways to support refugees (e.g. through supply chains that positively engage refugees).
  • Encourage employers to think laterally about the qualifications and skills that are genuinely needed for a person to perform a particular role, rather than relying on traditional recruitment pathways and practices. Recognition of relevant experience could be more skills-based rather than ‘qualifications-based’ For example, is an engineering qualification required or could a person with the relevant skills be supported by an Australian qualified engineer where required.
  • Achieve short-term impact by providing or supporting training in skills that are in demand in relevant locations and do not require difficult or complex accreditations.
  • Support workplace English language training that is tailored by industry (e.g., language used in bakeries is different from language used in construction or banking).
  • Encourage and support education- and training-focused collaborations between industry and service providers (e.g. through partnership grants).
  • Pursue ongoing efforts to facilitate recognition of international qualifications by lobbying relevant industry bodies.
  • Empower industry associations, employers and other stakeholders to take ownership of increasing refugee employment and ensuring successful recruitment outcomes.
  • Engage employers and industry in the design of pre-employment training programs for refugees.
  • Explore mentoring programs, workplace-funded internships or more holistic approaches such as community sponsorship of refugees (as practiced in Canada and in an increasing number of other countries).
  • Encourage local parties to collaborate and allow tailoring of the way that key federal and state-funded services (including employment, settlement and language services) are delivered and incentivised in places where there are large numbers of refugees. This should be done in close consultation with local employers and/or industry groups. Support for these sorts of measures should be considered in the lead up to the expiry of key federal service contracts, with Adult Migrant English Program service provider contracts due to expire in mid 2020 and employment service contracts and settlement service contracts due to expire in mid 2022.
  • Consider approaches that recognise the potential role of workplaces as communities of local residents and not just sites of employment.

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