Illustration by Danielle Leedie Gray
“Self-determination for First Nations people needs to start somewhere … for us, it’s about offering fulltime employment. It’s giving people the opportunity – supported by a safe set of hands – and helping people build careers that will last as long as, or beyond our business into the next generation.”Hayden Heta – Managing Director at Wamarra
Australia’s public sector construction industry has long been recognised as an economic driver across the nation, however the industry is now also leveraged to build a range of other outcomes – with a significant focus on First Nations participation, including business partnerships, employment, training and development and community inclusion.
However, Victorian public sector professional and Wiradjuri man Hayden Heta identified the unmet need – that of building long term improved employment, career pathway and participation outcomes through fulltime opportunities.
While the sector is recognised for its important role in providing access to employment for First Nations people, the roles held are largely project oriented and on a casual basis, often requiring minimal skills, alongside little or no training or skills development opportunities.
“This does not make a desirable employee,” Hayden said.
A birds-eye view of the plight of young men in Hayden’s inner circle galvanised him into action. As a coach in the local AFL team, Hayden recalls the uncertain futures of the players under his wing.
“For me, the frustration came where I was coaching AFL with young First Nations men in Melbourne, and I would say 80 percent of the players were engaged in construction but not one of them could access full time employment,” Hayden said.
“They were engaged through labour hire, so a number of these individuals had years of experience but in every job, they went through they were doing the same task – holding signs or opening gates – that’s not really creating an employable employee.”
The inception of Wamarra
Governments at all levels have increasingly raised their expectations relating to social procurement to include a dedicated focus on First Nations employment, training and development and partnering with Indigenous businesses. However, it’s not simply enough to have jobs.
Recognising those government policy efforts were seeking to achieve increased opportunity and development for First Nations people, Hayden knew there was an appetite to deliver a solution that was building genuine and sustainable Indigenous employment and career development.
“The general perception was that Aboriginal people have access to plenty of jobs – which was also driven by social procurement at a government level. In reality, many of the jobs on offer to enter our sector were casual, they were attached only to the timeframe of project stages and they offered no training and development. At the end of the project, people were back to being unemployed again – and feeling disempowered and undervalued.
“I could see that there was an unmet need – and by creating a strong foundation for First Nations employment in the construction industry that centred on career pathways that are underpinned through full time employment alongside training and development.”
With 15 years in the public sector, Hayden had worked and consulted widely with Victorian Traditional Owners and Aboriginal communities, providing employment opportunities and economic participation.
Less than four years ago, Hayden Heta brought his vision to life with a business where Aboriginal participation and engagement are at the core of its operations.
Wamarra – an Aboriginal owned and operated Victorian-based civil contractor – provides meaningful long-term economic independence and career opportunities for Aboriginal people and their communities.
The heart of Wamarra
Wamarra’s business and its workforce are underpinned by three pillars:
- Continuity of employment – where employees are engaged full time, enabling many workers to experience job security for the first time in their lives;
- Upskilling – every employee, from the managing director to the newest recruit has an individualised 12 month rolling professional development plan including training and development commitment from the company. This enables each worker to not only perform their role better within the business but also to acquire new skills;
- A culturally safe environment for employees that recognises identity and experience, that develops trust and respect, that protects culture and values self-determination.
“Starting this business was really about providing a genuine solution to social procurement that also allows full time employment that changes the model in which Aboriginal people are engaged in construction,” Hayden said.
“And we are now starting to see the positive impact of a business like ours – what makes me the most proud is the success of our employees.
“It’s not the numbers – it’s the social impact that a business like ours has on the broader community. For example, we now have employees who are purchasing their first homes – and they are the first homeowners in the lineage of an Aboriginal family.
“If we talk about breaking the back of poverty or Closing the Gap or creating self-determination it’s little things like that which the broader population might take for granted that show how our way of working changes the generational behaviours.
“But it’s not just about buying houses – through our approach to employment, we are creating role models where children are now seeing their mums and dads get up every day and go to work. Those workers may not have had the same experience growing up – it’s not from lack of willingness or want, it’s from a lack of opportunity and that’s what I think our business is able to do – it’s able to create genuine opportunities so people can start to change and break the cycle.
“Money is not the definition of success … it’s the power to earn it.”
As a result of joining Wamarra, workers secure job security and financial independence. Just as importantly, employees are then positioned to contribute to the economy.
“As we know Aboriginal people or Aboriginal businesses are more likely to employ Aboriginal people and Aboriginal people are more likely to spend money in their own community so that to me is a really powerful outcome,” Hayden said.
From strength to strength
Less than four years after its launch, in 2023 Wamarra is built on 97 full time staff, including 55 First Nations people: “That’s 55 full-time Aboriginal staff who are now building their own careers in construction,” Hayden says, with another 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are undertaking an onboarding process.
Thanks to a strong word-of-mouth reputation for providing opportunity, Wamarra now boasts a workforce that includes brothers, cousins, fathers, and sons working together.
Roles across the full spectrum of the business include engineering, project management, and estimating to blue collar workforce supervisors, leading heads, carpenters, plant operators, concreters and general civil workers. Wamarra offers entry points and pathways with real futures for First Nations people.
Of the 55 fulltime Aboriginal staff, 45 are blue collar – about 70 per cent of the project delivery workforce. To shift participation to develop opportunities across aspects of the business, Wamarra has built relationships with Swinburne University and RMIT. “It’s really about identifying young Aboriginal people – as young as Year 10 – even before they’re ready to go to universities,” Hayden said.
“We’ve been engaged in a number of career expos, and we have presented to different schools around opportunities within a business like ours because I think that’s another piece to the puzzle. We have to educate Aboriginal people and communities that when we talk about construction jobs and careers it’s not just going to be at the end of a shovel or end of a drill.”
“When we identify a school student who is wanting to engage in our industry, who will benefit from our support and mentoring, we have a program to support them through their study including through scholarships. This will then hopefully lead to those young people coming in and working for our business on a full-time basis.”
Recently Wamarra has expanded its business into NSW. The approach has been to uplift the business model, including systems and technical expertise such as engineering and site supervision, and then employing a local workforce for project delivery.
In delivering work for a solar farm in Griffith, five local Indigenous people were engaged in the business, supported by technical skills and management. “So, we’re catching those people up to speed on how we operate our business in Victoria but then I hopefully over time we’re building more and more people and capabilities around those five individuals,” Hayden said.
“That is an example of our values dictating output – I think in that way you can actually make sure that the business is tailored to the communities because every community is different in terms of capability, need, aspirations, cultural diversity and challenges.”
Hiring for attitude – training for the future
Wamarra’s recruitment strategy is to recruit for behaviours and attitudes, with skills being a secondary component to securing a job.
The key is always, Hayden considers, attitude.
“We’re trying to build a sustainable business and create a culture within our business where people support each other, people work to particular standards and expectations,” he said.
“Our strategy is to engage people who have the right attitudes and behaviours – people who turn up every day on time with a willingness to learn and listen – and we will take care of the rest.”
To drive tailored development of its people and further impact social outcomes, Wamarra is lobbying all levels of government to help fund a facility to train new Aboriginal entrants into the industry. The approach aims to tailor culturally appropriate learning and development and deliver a model that also instils soft skills and behavioural skills such as punctuality, accountability and communication, alongside foundational employment skills.
Driving industry change
It’s not enough, Hayden says, to simply focus on the business at hand. Instead, the key is also to build advocacy and drive sector change from the top – with key decision makers and influencers.
To that end, Wamarra’s success and appetite for a sustainable shift in building opportunities for First Nations people, is driving Hayden’s bid to reach key policymakers across Australia. The goal is to challenge public sector procurement to reframe what successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait employment and opportunity looks like – and how to achieve it.
“I would say that changes I’ve seen over the past three years have been for the better,” Hayden said.
“Our business is operating out of Victoria, and I can see that the Victorian Government is thinking beyond driving a procurement spend through Aboriginal businesses achieving Aboriginal employment through their “hours target” … instead the focus has shifted to determining what is the social outcome of engaging First Nations people and businesses.
“It’s moving away from just ticking the box to actually understand or ask the question of their contractors: ‘What is the social legacy’.
“Our commitment to our clients is that through engaging in business like us that yes you will meet your procurement commitments – but the most important thing is that by engaging with us we employ new full time permanent entrants into the industry, we train and develop our people, and we work alongside them to grow their futures.”
With a growing demand for businesses that have the combined capability, capacity and values of Wamarra, growth opportunities exist well beyond the horizon.
While the focus of social impact has been primarily delivered through employees, it also extends to the communities the contractor delivers within.
“The NSW Government has awarded us to deliver a Roads Project – Roads to Home is focused on improving infrastructure around discrete Aboriginal communities,” Hayden said.
“For us, it’s a wonderful story – an Aboriginal engaging local Aboriginal people into full time employment and some of those people have family who live in this discrete Aboriginal community where we’re building the infrastructure or improving the infrastructure around those estates.”
Though Wamarra launched in 2020, the contractor now delivers a broad range of works from $200,000 to $15 million.
“We have started to price work to the value of $20 million, and in five years’ time, I’ve got no doubt that we will be tackling projects up to the value of $50 million plus. We will be delivering more complex projects of substantial value across Victoria, New South Wales and into Queensland.
“Our workforce would have doubled if not tripled, and our teams by then will look substantially different from a skill set perspective. In five years’ time, the investment that we would have paid into those people would be a fair way down the track as you would appreciate, so the ability for us to tackle more complex projects with new skills will be well embedded.
“You sort of dare to dream as to what this business could look like in another five years.”
Reconciliation in Action
Downer’s Industry Leading Approach to Engaging with First Nations Communities and People