Social entrepreneur Michael Combs founded CareerTrackers and CareerSeekers to support Indigenous and refugee talent.
What happens when naivety and a sense of obligation collide? The answer is a program harnessing some of Australia’s leading companies in the fight against disadvantage for Indigenous students and refugees.
Michael Combs, founder of CareerSeekers and CareerTrackers, is a maverick and rule-breaker. He’s a self-confessed naïf and isn’t afraid to voice uncomfortable truths. As a result, he’s created a game-changing social enterprise that constructs professional job pathways for Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers and refugees.
Backed by 19 of Australia’s leading companies, including Westpac, Qantas, BUPA and Lendlease, Combs has elegantly sidestepped barriers to his innovative vision of “giving equal access to opportunities to people”, and built a significant enterprise that delivers life-changing outcomes for thousands of the most vulnerable jobseekers in Australia.
Why are there no Aboriginal people in this meeting?
But it almost didn’t happen — if not for an embarrassing moment for Combs when he started a new job at Hewlett-Packard in Melbourne almost a decade ago. The scenario that sparked his vision for CareerTrackers reads like a comedy sketch. It’s his second day at HP. It’s a big job and one he has worked hard to get. In his first management meeting, he looks around the room, sees a sea of white male faces and asks, “Why are there no Aboriginal people in this meeting?” Combs, an African-American, who had got his career start from an internship scheme in the US, was shocked when the whole room fell about laughing at his innocent question.
“After the meeting, my boss pulled me aside and said, ‘it’s very different in Australia. We don’t have many affirmative-action programs; we don’t have Indigenous people working in this environment, certainly none that are at executive levels. I said to him, ‘well, we’ve got to change that.’ He said, ‘if you come up with an idea, I’ll support you’,” says Combs.
The next day, Combs took his big idea to his boss. It was a concept he had personal experience with and knew would work. Combs had come from a disadvantaged background. Born in Colorado Springs to a family who “didn’t have many successes”, he was lucky enough to get a place in a program called INROADS.
I believe in Australia we can crack this, but we won’t solve this issue being led by government. We’ll solve it by individuals in organisations who will drive the change.
Established in 1970, INROADS was designed to give young African-Americans and Native Americans a path into university and offer internships during their summer holidays to consolidate their career skills. He interned at Hewlett-Packard in the US and was eventually accepted into their Global Leadership Program — hence landing at its Melbourne office.
With the blessing of his boss and in conjunction with Melbourne University, he set up a training program to get Indigenous students into HP. The program ran for a year, but when Combs was posted to London — and with no-one driving it — the program folded. When he returned to Sydney for his next posting, his discovery of its failure forced Combs to ask himself some hard questions.
“It’s an obligation to repay the opportunity INROADS gave me,” he explains. “You get to a point where you ask yourself two things: Can you complain about it if you’re not willing to do something about it? And if not you, who? The role of the founder is to ignite it and then give it oxygen — that’s very much how I see my role. I decided to leave my full-time job and start CareerTrackers. What that meant was a whole year with no salary and uncertainty about even a name or a model. Even more deeply, as a founder, who am I to do this? Why would I attempt such a thing? I’m an African-American and I was 29 years old at the time. I knew nothing about Indigenous Australia and knew no-one in the country.”
Putting his fears aside, and inspired by the success of INROADS in placing more than 65,000 graduates into jobs, he treated his startup as a full-time job and began researching and writing his vision of a program that would offer skills training to Indigenous students and place them in paid internships throughout leading Australian companies.
The breakthrough came when Combs connected with Michael Traill’s Social Ventures Australia. SVA recognised CareerTrackers as an idea worth funding. The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, a charitable trust, matched that investment. From an original staff of two, the enterprise has grown to 48 people nationally.
In CareerTracker’s first year, it had 18 students working across nine different companies; today it has 1351 students working across 108 organisations. And 19 Australian companies have signed on for 10-year partnerships.
If you’re not making it easier for the next person, then shame on you.
“The fact that organisations like Westpac take 60 of our students every summer is amazing,” says Combs. “The perception around Indigenous employment that we’ve changed in corporate Australia is not about doing the right thing by the community, it’s about getting the best talent through the door. When I look at why Qantas signed a 10-year partnership with CareerTrackers — the largest community partnership they’ve signed — it’s because they wanted the best talent.”
Two years ago, Combs decided to apply the model to tackle underemployment in asylum seekers and refugees. “Asylum seekers and refugees have all these great skills and talents,” says Combs. So he created CareerSeekers to address the vital lack of entry points they face in gaining employment, such as an existing network of referees, local experience and skills recognition.
“At CareerSeekers, we can take those three things of the table really easily,” Combs explains. “You complete 12 weeks of paid work at Lendlease, you then have an Australian company on your CV, and you have a management team that can vouch for you — and that can also help you to position your career in Australia.”
In just two years, the CareerSeeker program has proved a game changer for over 100 newly arrived mid-career professionals who needed a leg-up in starting their careers and lives in Australia. Combs has partnered with more than 30 employers who have signed up to his vision.
In late 2016, JP Morgan’s global foundation decided to fund the program, believing that CareerSeekers is a global best-practice model.
Rob Priestley, former CEO of JP Morgan Australia and New Zealand, said at the time: “Often, when humanitarian entrants have settled in a new country such as Australia, it can be difcult fnding quality employment refecting the skills and qualifcations they achieved in their home countries. JP Morgan is committed to improving the lives of those in our community who have started to adapt to a new way of life and who have the right to work, but need guidance on developing their careers in Australia.”
And while Combs as founder has been able to get both local and global companies to share his vision, he hasn’t lost his original sense of outrage and desire to drive change.
He recounts how he was appalled to read in June this year that Germany’s Commissioner for Immigration, Refugees and Integration, Aydan Özoguz, estimated that only 25 per cent of its one million humanitarian migrant intake would get jobs in the next fve years — and it would take up to 10 years for the remainder. “WTF? You accept that?” he asked at a recent CareerSeekers graduation ceremony.
“I believe in Australia we can crack this,” Combs says. “But we won’t solve this issue being led by government. We’ll solve it by individuals in organisations who will drive the change.
“If you’re not making it easier for the next person, then shame on you,” he says. “I’ve built this network, I’ve built this brand; it would be shameful not to leverage it. It would be shameful not to push organisations a little bit harder and a little bit further.”
This is what Combs is telling corporate partners and funders. “This is bigger than us.
We have an obligation to the world — if you’re in a position of power and infuence, don’t forget that every single day you make decisions that change people’s lives.”
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