A young woman with a large resume sitting with other prospective employees

Māori unemployment: there is a way out

In his previous column Joshua Hitchcock looked at the alarmingly low employment rate for Māori. Here he searches for some solutions.

Research in the United States on the effect of institutional racism in hiring practices show that a black man without a criminal record is less likely to secure a job offer as a white man with a criminal record. It is a statistic that is repeated often in the collection of Ta-Nehisi Coates essays on the Obama years We Were Eight Years in Power, and one that goes some way towards explaining the shockingly large gap between Māori and Pākehā unemployment rates in New Zealand that I discussed in my previous column.

After that column was published I was challenged to provide some solutions to the crisis of high Māori unemployment. It was not enough to define the problem; we need tangible ideas to solve this crisis. Yet, this is a problem that has seemingly baffled policy makers for the past thirty years, if not longer. With no tangible results. How do you overcome institutional racism? So, in an attempt to map out a pathway to resolving the crisis of Māori unemployment I will discuss four themes that can provide the foundation for a long term solution. We need better education and training pathways, we need jobs, we need the involvement of both the government and our Māori organisations, and we need better hiring practices.

It sounds easy enough. Create a skilled workforce and invest in job-creating activities. But this is only half of the story. We need the right training and the right jobs in the right locations. Two of the keystone polices of the Labour-New Zealand First Government – the first year free training and education, and the regional development fund – are positive next steps. With 20% of Māori between the ages of 15 and 24 not in employment, education, or training we as a society are failing the next generation of Māori. The high Māori unemployment rate is not going to decrease with this level of rangatahi denied the pathway to meaningful work. By providing every New Zealander who has not studied at the tertiary level with the first year of study or training for free from 1 January we should expect to see an immediate improvement. Investing in people and investing in ideas is crucial to solving the Māori unemployment crisis.

Two years ago the previous National government, in conjunction with the Māori Party, established Te Pūnaha Hiringa – The Māori Innovation Fund. $3million per annum was provided to Māori collectives to develop business cases to explore growth opportunities. 41 organisations received funding in 2015 and a further 31 in 2016 and many of these have now completed their business case development and are progressing to developing their joint venture business operations. By investing in ideas, this fund has allowed Māori collectives to fast-track development opportunities that they would not otherwise have been able to complete. An expanded allocation of funding from the $1 billion Regional Development Fund will supercharge the efforts of Māori collectives to develop development opportunities and drive employment for their people.

Te Pūnaha Hiringa is a good example of the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in action. The government, as kawanatanga, can meet its obligations to Māori by providing educational pathways and financial support to Māori looking to develop business ideas and Māori are then free to exercise our tino rangatiratanga. Tino rangatiratanga is both a right and an obligation. Not only should we be free to exercise control over our affairs, we must also take positive steps to ensure that Māori are not just surviving but thriving. For our Māori organisations, this means that we are always striving to grow our businesses, to generate employment, and to employ our own people. And if we do not have enough skilled Māori to perform these jobs, then we need to up-skill them.

That the unemployment rate for Pākehā is 3.5% and we are relying on record migration to fill vacant jobs shows that the New Zealand economy is more than capable of creating jobs. So while we need to reduce the number of Māori rangatahi not in employment, education, or training and while we need to ensure there are jobs available for Māori; it is also clear that there is an element of institutional racism in hiring practices in New Zealand. This is not unique to New Zealand. The study referenced in the opening paragraph demonstrates that this is an issue for minority groups around the world. The research in the United States showed that the job market, in viewing the high rate of incarceration of black men as applying to the entire race, treated all black men as if they were criminals; the effect being that they are less likely to be employed than a white man who actually does have a criminal record. The negative perceptions of minority groups in our society means that they are less likely to be employed than a Pākehā.

Requiring the blind screening of job applications would be a good start. Unconscious bias is a powerful factor in job screening and research published in 2000 showed that the use of blind auditions for orchestras, a field usually dominated by male musicians, resulted in an increase in the hiring of women by 25%. A reduced focus on the importance of ‘cultural fit’, a code word for ‘upper/middle class white male’, is also required. The culture of a workplace is an artificial construct that is generated by its employees. No wonder that a Pākehā-dominated culture is more likely to employ another Pākehā over a Māori.

We have the tools and the resources to solve this crisis. If I can achieve one thing with this series of columns on the Māori economy, it will be to continue to draw attention to the problems Māori face in the workplace and the economy, and to discuss the possibilities and the initiatives that are being undertaken to address them.

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