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You are reading: Improving employment and education outcomes for Somali Australians

Andrew Harvey, Giovanna Szalkowicz and Michael Luckman

Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research (CHEEDR), La Trobe University

Executive summary

Recent decades have seen a substantial increase in the arrival of Australian migrants from Somalia and other countries within the Horn of Africa. Around half of the 16,000 Somali Australians currently live in Victoria, forming a diverse and relatively young community in and beyond Melbourne. Somali Australians have brought with them a belief in the importance of education, and they access both vocational and higher education at higher rates than other Australians. Despite these high levels of tertiary education access and participation, outlooks are sub-optimal, with relatively high levels of unemployment and socio-economic disadvantage. What explains the gap between education access and employment outcomes, and how might we improve the overall employment outcomes of Somali Australians?

To explore these questions, we conducted a mixed methods study examining employment motivations, experiences, and outcomes of Somali Australians. In interviews with Victorian university students, graduates, and community leaders we found a consistently strong commitment to education, high parental and community expectations, and a relative employment benefit from possession of a higher education degree. Interviewees spoke of their resilience, desire to contribute back to their communities, and generally positive experiences of university. Those who were members of a leadership program, Himilo Community Connect, also spoke of the impact of that program on their employability, and our research revealed several innovative internship programs operated by large employers, which are helping some Somali Australians to transition successfully from education to the workforce.

Overall though, employment outcomes for Somali Australians are stubbornly poor. The gap in outcomes is not explained by different levels of educational attainment. Indeed, a Somali Australian with a Bachelor Degree is about as likely to be unemployed as another Australian who has left school at Year 10 or earlier. Higher education improves employment outcomes for all groups, but not all degrees are treated equally. Our interviewees spoke of unconscious bias and, in many cases, explicit discrimination, during the application and interview stages of employment. Discrimination typically included negative perceptions of names, accents, skin colour, religion, and clothing. Conclusions from our previous research within universities correlate with these findings, with many new migrants being subtly but effectively silenced within and beyond the classroom. Both our qualitative research and the national data confirm that racism and discrimination remain prevalent, and that further strategies are required to tackle bias within schools, universities, workplaces, and communities.

A second challenge facing many Somali Australians is a paucity of networks and social capital. Within university, a dearth of networks and connections is often exacerbated by a belief that academic grades are more important to securing employment than extra-curricular activities and workintegrated learning. We found a need for greater facilitation of networks, mentors, peer relationships, events, internships, and other programs designed to build social capital and increase access to opportunities. Potential strategies include an expansion of targeted internship programs among employers and governments, the involvement of university students and alumni in promoting peer relationships and mentoring, and the expansion of community leadership programs.

More broadly, our findings confirm the need for greater education on the benefits of workforce diversity, and a sustained, strategic approach to improving social inclusion. Too many Australian migrants are qualified yet unemployed, multilingual yet maligned for their accent, communityminded yet isolated, and aspirational yet overlooked. Economic prosperity and social cohesion depend on strong education and the provision of meaningful employment opportunities for all Australians.

Read the full report on the La Trobe University website.