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Creative ingredients add flavour to Indigenous careers

12:05am July 18 2017

Haley Peckham graduated as a qualified chef through an apprenticeship at Westpac, a unique program to create new career opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. (Emma Foster)

Haley Peckham hasn’t taken the typical pathway to a fast-paced career in commercial kitchens.

Rather than learning various culinary skills in private restaurants, Peckham acquired her qualifications in a bank, learning the ropes from a team of chefs serving everything from chicken sandwiches to multi course sit-down meals.

Her unusual career course started three years ago when she joined a hospitality apprenticeship program for 10 young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, many of whom had never experienced life in a major city let alone intensive mentoring, studying and real-world paid experience.

After recently graduating as a fully certified chef, Peckham now runs her own section of the commercial kitchen in Westpac’s Sydney CBD office – something she says she had never imagined possible when growing up in Katherine in the Northern Territory.

“The practical, hands-on learning has been what I’ve enjoyed most. I’ve loved watching the other chefs and learning the different ways of preparing food,” she says.

“All the chefs – the executive chef, the pastry chef, the sous chef – they’ve all looked after me, guided me through, and pushed me to my best. Now, I’m even getting used to being a boss!”

At first blush, a bank offering hospitality apprenticeships may seem odd. Yet according to Suzanne Grech, Indigenous business manager in Westpac’s Commercial Services team and co-creator of the program, the bank is taking new approaches to break down employment barriers faced by many Indigenous Australians.

Indeed, late last year Westpac hit a significant employment milestone when the proportion of its employees who self-identify as Indigenous Australian reached 4 per cent. This makes Westpac the first financial services institution to have a greater proportion of Indigenous Australians in its workforce than the 3 per cent in the broader Australian population.  

The apprenticeship program, called Warrigal, was co-founded as a first-of-its-kind pilot in 2014 by Westpac and its catering supplier, Compass Group. Peckham, along with three of the other apprentices, gained their skills under the guidance of Jack Peacock, the bank’s executive chef.

Peacock, who formerly taught at TAFE, said it was a credit to the apprentices he took on that they battled through an at times tough environment to earn the skills and qualifications that will allow them to work in restaurants anywhere.

“A kitchen environment is so tough, it’s not easy and I think they respected the discipline and that’s why they stuck around,” he said.

“Yes it took up extra time, but I’m really passionate about what I do, and we all understood that there were a lot of things they were dealing with – they needed the time. It’s been great to see them blossom.”  

Amara Barnes, Westpac’s Indigenous talent program manager, says the bank’s approach to creating career opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is constantly evolving.

“Over the years, Westpac has built up a suite of bespoke programs – traineeships, internships and direct hiring – which have grown, and we deliver them well,” she says.

“Our challenge now is to spread our focus in two fresh directions. On one hand, to cultivate our pool of senior Indigenous leaders through better career development programs; and on the other, to help ensure no one is left behind, finding new ways to offer people the skills they need to get their foot in the door, not just in banking but in other industries, or back in community.”

As part of Westpac’s latest 2020 Reconciliation Action Plan (PDF 7MB), or RAP, which was released last week to mark the start of the bank’s NAIDOC celebrations, the company has committed to continue employing a greater proportion of Indigenous Australians in its workforce than the 3 per cent in the broader workforce.

But Barnes concedes there’s more to do.

“Exceeding Indigenous parity is just the beginning. We still have a way to go in building more cultural intelligence through Indigenous leadership, and in supporting those people who may be excluded from engaging in the economy,” she says.

Tegan Burke, left, who started her career through Westpac's Indigenous school based trainee program, with Indigenous talent program manager Amara Barnes, at the launch of the bank's most recent Reconciliation Action Plan.  (Flashpoint Labs)


According to the 2017 Close the Gap report by the Australian government, the employment rate for Indigenous Australians continues to fall, from 53.8 per cent in 2008 to 48.4 per cent in 2015. In the same period, the report says the employment rate for non-Indigenous people was much higher, albeit also falling, from 75 per cent to 72.6 per cent.

The report also calls out the ongoing discrepancy between school attendance, literacy and numeracy levels among Indigenous Australians compared with non-Indigenous Australians. Persistently lower education outcomes are putting more Indigenous people at a disadvantage as jobs growth continues to hurtle towards knowledge-based roles and away from manufacturing, agriculture and mining.

Grech says what the team learnt from the Warrigal pilot program led to a new national apprenticeship framework – known as Kuyal – to be rolled out in collaboration with suppliers to the bank that share similar goals. She says Kuyal, a first-of-its-kind program, has the potential to open up hundreds of traineeships and employment opportunities to Indigenous people across different industries and regions around Australia.  

“We learnt so much through the three year pilot phase. We’ve taken the successful aspects and approached it in a slightly different way to create Kuyal,” she says.

“This means job opportunities will arise in a variety of industries, not just hospitality – everything from security officers, to logistics managers, to property maintenance crews – in locations right around Australia.

“Through the framework, our suppliers agree to place and support Indigenous trainees within their business, using a preferred panel of recruiters and mentors, along with 360 degree, holistic support and mentoring for each trainee.”

Grech says the growing collaboration between large companies in Australia, along with a focus on social procurement, should generate additional creative ways to encourage sustainable employment pathways for more Indigenous Australians.

“As part of Westpac’s Supplier Inclusion and Diversity Policy, we are also looking to bring more Indigenous businesses into our supply chain.  Over the past three years, we met our target to source $3 million worth of products and services from Indigenous businesses.  We’ve just announced a new aim to increase our cumulative spend to $10m by 2020,” she says.

“We know Indigenous owned businesses are more likely to employ Indigenous people, so this way we can indirectly contribute to greater employment opportunities.”   

Against this background, Barnes says Westpac has received feedback directly from community about the importance of not only “employing the employable”.  

“As a bank, it makes sense for us to gravitate towards hiring people with existing skills, education or career experience,” she says.  

“We’ve committed to recruiting at least 400 Indigenous university students over the decade to 2025 through the CareerTrackers Indigenous Internship program; and why we have taken on more than 150 year 10, 11 and 12 students through our school based trainees since 2013.

“But we should aspire to not leaving anybody behind.”

Barnes says this notion is behind the bank’s RAP commitment to “placed-based” employment initiatives, working with communities – starting with Redfern and La Perouse – to ask about local work needs and barriers.

“While we’re yet to scope what this looks like, it might include designing experiences or job shadowing opportunities to improve computer literacy or customer service skills. Importantly, we are starting with an acknowledgement that we don’t know everything, but we’re going on a journey to start to know more.  And we’re only going to do that through consultation.”

Barnes adds that a key focus of Westpac’s new RAP remains on career progression and increasing the number of Indigenous Australians in leadership roles across the bank.    

Westpac released its 2018-20 Reconciliation Action Plan last week. Find out more about Westpac’s bespoke careers programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians at Indigenous Careers.


Emma Foster is a freelance writer. Previously, she led Westpac Wire and was a key contributor until December 2022. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she spent almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also a photographer and podcaster.

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