In six years, Barpa has grown from a brilliant idea into a construction company turning over $80 million annually. What is Barpa’s secret to building a strong and successful Indigenous workforce?
“It's not difficult to take real steps towards reconciliation. But to do that we need to be serious about Indigenous employment and engagement.
Jeremy Clark, Director and Business Development Manager, Barpa
Jeremy Clark, a Tjap and Peek Whurrong Traditional Owner from South West Victoria, was leading the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations when he saw an untapped opportunity.
“The Federation was minimally resourced, but we recognised that the federal government’s Indigenous procurement policy could help us meet a number of our goals – bringing in resources and economic opportunities, and empowering our people with employment,” Clark explains.
Since 2015, the Indigenous Procurement Policy has generated $3 billion in economic activity for the Indigenous business sector. But to capitalise on the opportunity, the Federation “had to find a business partner that shared our values and would be a true partner”.
Enter Icon, then Cockram Construction. Icon saw a joint venture as a chance to “provide employment opportunities and close the gap” on Indigenous disadvantage, explains executive director, Michael Read.
“We also saw a joint venture as a way to learn more about Indigenous people, culture and to start our reconciliation journey.”
Today, Barpa has a growing list of government and non-government clients and employs more than 20 Indigenous construction professionals.
“Barpa is a different type of construction company. It’s unique in the construction industry because at its core, Barpa is about social and generational change. Our vision is to empower Indigenous people and businesses through building Australian infrastructure – and that’s a vision that really drives us,” Clark says.
So, what insights can Barpa’s leaders share with the industry? Read and Clark have three:
- Expand your company’s hiring criteria
“Indigenous construction professionals aren’t growing on trees. We need to develop the workforce – and that’s something that Barpa invests a lot of time and energy into,” Clark explains.
Read says Barpa casts a wide net to secure the right people. “Some have had relevant qualifications and others have come to us through other industries with transferrable skills, which we’ve developed and supported through mentoring.”
Barpa actively seeks out Indigenous university students studying and supports them through graduate and scholarship programs, Read adds.
Clark points to an inspiring example of an employee who joined Barpa with no construction experience, but with skills in other fields.
“He struggled early on – the hours and requirements on site were a big leap, and he had young children and cultural responsibilities. But we supported him on his journey. He’s just finished work as a contract administrator on a $90 million project and is now mentoring our younger staff. He’s a real success story.”
- Build cultural competency
Clark acknowledges that Indigenous employees experience a “clash between two worlds” that must be carefully managed. Many Indigenous people have an additional “layer” of responsibility or “cultural load”.
“We have had many examples of staff who have worked hard for months, turning up on time and doing a great job, and then they have a cultural obligation and work is no longer a priority.”
First Australians have a unique and complex process to overcome grief after someone in their community dies, for example. Sorry Business is a period of cultural practices during which time the entire community comes together to share the sorrow and mourn the loss of the loved one. Understanding the practice of Sorry Business can better support Indigenous people in the workplace, Clark explains.
“A standard work contract may have bereavement leave, but Barpa also has a cultural leave policy to help Indigenous staff deal with Sorry Business for someone that many not be their direct relative, but may be respected in the community. In some cases, this may mean they are away from work for multiple days or a week.
“It’s not about making excuses. It’s about understanding the genuine obligations that Indigenous people have and to think differently about how we build workplace cultures.”
- Look long-term
Read says any company with a genuine commitment to change must think long term.
“You’ve got to be patient and persistent. We've found that a lot of our Indigenous staff have come from different industries and, all of a sudden, they are working on a very structured, process-driven commercial construction site. There are so many forms to fill out and timesheets; it can be a real challenge. We have to provide a lot of education and mentoring, and understand that it is a gradual process.
“You need to be patient, persistent, and at the heart of it all, you must want to provide opportunities for Indigenous people.”