When he arrived in Australia from the US in 2005, Michael Combs, founder and CEO of CareerTrackers, saw a gap in indigenous representation at the executive level.
“After attending my first management meeting [in Australia] and realising there weren’t any indigenous members of the executive team, I wanted to leverage my experience and create avenues for indigenous Australians to become executives within large corporations,” he says.
Combs participated in the INROADS program in the US, which has been assisting African- and Native-Americans with professional private sector employment for more than 40 years.
“CareerTrackers leverages the INROADS model, which has developed some of the most successful minority executives in America.”
CareerTrackers has seen spectacular growth since its inception. In 2009, it comprised 17 students undertaking internship across nine employers. Today, 48 employers have engaged 287 students. The goal, Combs says, is to support 500 students in 2013.
Combs attributes the growth of the program to the success of the students and: “Their ability to enter the workplace and, in some cases, outperform their non-indigneous peers.
“Our growth has also been supported by committed employers – their willingness to create these opportunities and transform processes making them culturally relevant to indigenous employees.”
Some large property organisations have offered support to the program. Lend Lease, for example, is implementing CareerTrackers in each of its offices throughout Australia, says Combs, who points to a spike in the number of indigenous students enrolling in university courses within the built environment.
“This has come off the back of communities obtaining Native Title and looking to the youth to help them transform communities to better meet the needs of the local people. We are now seeing more students studying architecture, town planning, civil engineering and construction management,” he says.
“Students are also enrolling in commerce degrees to help create businesses and become entrepreneurs. The property industry plays a key part in the development of communities and creating places that foster indigenous development.”
University of Melbourne, Bachelor of Commerce
|Morgan Coleman was the recipient of the Student of the Year Award at this year’s CareerTrackers 2nd Annual Gala Dinner. In recognition of his all-round excellence in employment, education and community development, Coleman, who is placed at Lend Lease, was recognised not only for outstanding performance during his internship, but also his dedication to give back to the community.
As part of his award, Coleman is attending the INROADS leadership conference in Dallas, Texas. It’s a great start for Coleman, who became involved in CareerTrackers by attending a presentation held by Michael Combs at the University of Melbourne.
“I had the privilege to live in a remote Aboriginal community when I was younger,” says Coleman. “Witnessing the disadvantage and lack of hope and aspiration within the youth, and feeling powerless to help them, inspired me to take every opportunity that came my way.
“I wanted to develop myself into a role model for my people and to help my people out of this cycle of despair.”
Coleman offers a glowing endorsement of the program, which he says is always challenging and rewarding.
“In the time I have been in the program my confidence has grown dramatically and I feel as though I am much more capable at contributing in the corporate world.”
And very importantly for Coleman, he sees unity of purpose amongst his peers.
“The most rewarding thing for me so far has been to sit in a room of like-minded indigenous people who share similar aspirations and who I feel will be significant contributors to the solution to indigenous issues in this country – which was the entire reason I joined the program.
Coleman says he has been challenged in numerous ways during his internship. “I find public speaking to be quite difficult and presenting to people such as the CEO of the company quite daunting. I have also found being interviewed very nerve-wracking.
“Regardless of what I have been worried or nervous about, I have always ensured that I am prepared. CareerTrackers has taught me the skills and frameworks to ensure that I am prepared for such situations. The program has instilled such a sense of self-confidence that I believe in myself regardless of how nervous or overwhelmed I may feel.”
And what are the lessons Coleman has learnt through the experience? “That it is never over. There is always something to do or that you could be doing. That the fire that fuels aspiration never stops burning. To believe in yourself and to remember that we are extremely privileged to be in the position we are and that we have a responsibility to our people to give back and ensure more indigenous people have access to the opportunities we have been blessed with.”
Queensland University of Technology, Bachelor of Urban Development (Urban and Regional Planning)
||CareerTrackers contacted Kristie Miller and introduced her to the program in late 2010, and a February 2011 Leadership conference pushed her one step further.|
“After meeting other students who were not only enjoying their experience, but also learning so much, I knew that I wanted to make the most of this opportunity,” she says.
“I think the program is really good. It’s a learning experience for everyone in my opinion (student/private sector/CT) and I know that I have learnt a lot about myself and about my industry.
“I can also see a great improvement in my confidence, and my understanding and knowledge of town planning.”
Miller admits to nerves about the interview process, but gives CareerTrackers a nod for supporting her in preparation for the interview through training sessions.
She also feels the knowledge and experience she’s obtaining through the internship has helped her at university, as well as being a key source of motivation.
“I also believe that meeting and working with other planners has helped me understand the role of planners in society and how important town planning is.
“I think this internship has given me valuable experience in the workplace and has therefore allowed me to become more prepared for what to expect after graduation. I also feel that, even if I am not able to work with Urbis after university, I have made some great contacts and relationships in the profession, which will help immensely in the future.”
Miller believes CareerTrackers has filled a gap in assisting indigenous students. “I think many people have turned their backs on this issue and I think it’s really important to support and encourage those who want to achieve their goals and dreams and show those who feel that they can’t, that they can do anything if they work hard for it and that there is support out there.”
University of New South Wales, Masters of Architecture
|Remy Crick thought CareerTrackers sounded too good to be true when she first heard about it at a university seminar. But she started preparing her portfolio before she even commenced her university course.
Gaining valuable experience in the private sector, while studying full-time at university, was a major drawcard.
“Also the fact that I would be provided the opportunity to network with highly regarded professionals within the industry on a day-to-day basis,” she adds.
Crick says the program is extremely beneficial, praising the respect she receives from co-workers as a professional. Meeting other similarly-motivated indigenous students is a further bonus.
“The program is personalised to suit your individual needs and career goals, with a member of the CareerTrackers team guiding you through the interview process right up to when the internship actually begins. They are extremely helpful and arrange meetings every couple of weeks with you, so that the process is made as easy as possible.”
Crick has already completed a 12-week internship with SJB Architects in Surry Hills, Sydney, and has since been offered a position two days a week. She hopes to continue the internship over the five years of her course.
Time management, being prepared and balancing the internship with university have been the major challenges so far.
However the re is an upside: “The sense of achievement that comes with partaking in the program, and the fact that I have been able to work on projects at my architectural firm that have allowed me to give back to the indigenous community.
“Even though I am only in my second year of studies, I already have more industry experience compared to the majority of the students in my cohort; and when it comes time to finding a job after I have completed my university degree, I will be confident in knowing that I am completely prepared.
“I would highly recommend the program to any indigenous university student who takes their studies seriously and aims to work in the private sector in the future.
“CareerTrackers is honestly life changing, and is highly specialised in helping you to define and achieve your individual goals; and through the ongoing consultations and leadership seminars that the program offers, they have helped me to actualise these goals and undeniably grow as a person.”
Queensland University of Technology, Bachelor of Urban Development (Construction Management)
||Aiona Nona became involved in CareerTrackers through Oodgeroo, the indigenous unit at Queensland University of Technology.|
“They advertised through email and what caught my eye were the words ‘career’ and ‘opportunity’. I sent an email out to them and by the next day I got a phone call from Michael Combs … and that is where it began.”
Nona says he was motivated to participate in the program not only to gain an internship with a global construction company, but also due to the effort of the CareerTrackers team.
“They were determined to get me an internship with a construction company.”
He has only praise for the program, which he says has “set a high benchmark with indigenous people and ‘closing the gap’”.
Nona began his internship with Lend Lease in November 2011 and is now working one or two days a week while he studies. As part of the Lend Lease system, once a job is completed, he is placed with another project.
“I’ve got to know the operations manager Mick Tully very well and he’s told me that if I hear of a job I’m interested in to just get in contact with him and he’ll try and sort it out.
“For example, Lend Lease is doing an extension on a shopping centre up in Cairns that I’m very interested in because of family and it’s close to home.”
Managing his internship at Lend Lease and his studies has presented some challenges for Nona. “I told Lend Lease what days I’m free from university and those were the days that I went into work. … Lend Lease is very understanding and flexible.
“Opportunities like this don’t come around too often. You have to know what you want, take it with both hands and run with it.”
Verhonda (Bonnie) Smith
University of Melbourne, Bachelor of Arts
|A talk about CareerTrackers at the 2011 Indigenous University Games caught Verhonda Smith’s interest. Inspired by other students already in the program, Smith joined as well, hoping to change the negative perceptions of indigenous people and show that they are capable of great success.
“In the very beginning Sean [Armistead, program director SA, Vic and WA] asked me why I wanted to be involved. I told him, ‘I want to show the girls back in Bourke there is more to life than getting pregnant at 15’.
“I know my success will be their success and we can use these successes to show other young Aboriginal girls that developing a career is an option.”
Smith is loving the experience and praises the CareerTrackers team and fellow students. “It’s that sense of blending community and professional experience.”
Smith says the internship will assist her in her future career and during her university career.
“I will take away the networks I have helped create and I believe this program will have opened many doors and created more opportunities for me in my field of interest.”
Smith has been an intern at Urbis since January 2012 and will complete the remainder of the 12-week internship by the mid-year break, but hopes to continue to be involved with CareerTrackers.
“… it is creating a community and will be part of my career development for life. Although I am not 100 percent certain of the career I am aiming for, it has narrowed the scope,” she says.
“I am really enjoying my role at Urbis, I would love to continue working there developing my skills and contributing to their policy and advisory.
Smith believes that CareerTrackers is creating significant change for indigenous students, families and communities.
“CareerTrackers is changing stereotypes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. The students and companies involved in this program are not only bridging the gap in the private sector, but also positively reconciling our communities.”
She’s prepared to work hard to achieve career success. “If you do the hard yards things will pay off and you’ll have a great sense of achievement. So believe in yourself, anything is possible,” she says.
Green Building Council of Australia
University of Melbourne, Bachelor of Commerce
||Mark Austin had previously worked with the team behind CareerTrackers, and they came to him to enquire if he had an internship lined up. CareerTrackers’ commitment and professional attitude motivated him to participate; he was hoping for a more positive experience in the workforce, having had issues in this area in the past.|
“They put in a big effort to ensure that their students are looked after in every aspect of life. The program’s success is really its people and the support that they deliver to us as students. They’re there for us.”
Austin says the program is also very well structured, a significant point for him given he was relocating from Melbourne to Sydney for an internship with the Green Building Council.
“Without knowing anyone who lived there, I was a bit hesitant to make the journey but they provided me with accommodation which was shared with other interns, giving me a great opportunity to bond with others in a similar position to mine.”
For Austin, the biggest challenge has been moving beyond his comfort zone, which he says is “not a bad thing”.
“It has allowed me to work in another city for a great organisation, meet a lot of new people and increase my independence and ability to look after myself.”
He says the most rewarding aspect of the program has been the support network. “[It provides] a community available to you beyond the internship, not only for your professional development, but personal as well. An internship is a great opportunity to gain a valuable insight into the professional working environment and CareerTrackers does a great job of aligning both the student and employers expectations to reach a mutually rewarding experience.
“With a much more globally connected world, the competitive market really requires a person to take up opportunities that can give them an advantage.”
Austin says it is a great privilege to go to university and that privilege should be honoured with commitment to learning and a determination to succeed. “It is undoubtedly testing to be placed in an institution that demands an autonomous work ethic, which can also feel alienating at times,” he says.
“It is important to remember that you are doing your people, your family and, most importantly, yourself proud. You are not alone in this, and organsiations like CareerTrackers staffed by people that have walked the path you’re walking, can assist you in finding direction and purpose when the stress and uncertainty of aspirations can limit your motivation.”