Indigenous people in the Hunter Region are almost three times more likely to be job seekers than non-Indigenous people, federal employment data shows.
Job market insiders say the reality is worse than this, as Indigenous people have lower labour market participation than non-Indigenous people.
They attribute this problem to structural racism, along with complex cultural factors.
Of the 32,910 job seekers in the Hunter in March 2021, 4212 were Indigenous.
Indigenous people represented 12.8 per cent of registered job seekers in the Hunter - up from 10.6 per cent in 2015. This is despite them representing 4.6 per cent of working-age people in the Hunter.
While the pandemic caused many Indigenous people to lose their jobs, the pre-pandemic figures are most striking.
The number of Indigenous job seekers in the Hunter rose by 8 per cent [from 2600 to 2799] from September 2015 to March 2020.
This was despite the total number of Hunter job seekers falling over this same period from 24,553 to 19,933, a 19 per cent decline.
Laurie Perry, chief executive of the Singleton-based Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation, said the figures were "terrible".
"Systemic racism is alive and well in this country," Mr Perry said.
While there is high structural unemployment in the Indigenous community, the problem is considered a complex one.
Researchers say racism and discrimination are involved, but cultural misunderstanding, fear and ignorance are also factors.
Intergenerational disadvantage and trauma mean more Aboriginal people struggle to find work, gain qualifications and meet workplace expectations.
Mr Perry was concerned that many unemployed Aboriginal people had "major issues", including getting a car and a driver's licence, along with outstanding fines.
The incarceration rate of adult and juvenile Aboriginal people remains unresolved, deepening the disadvantage.
A greater focus on solving the institutional and structural problems was needed, alongside the more symbolic, "box-ticking" activities.
"NAIDOC Week is one week of celebration of Aboriginal culture, but it should be acknowledged and respected every day across the country. One week isn't enough," Mr Perry said.
Debbie Barwick, NSW Indigenous Chamber of Commerce chief executive, said the employment figures were "quite shocking".
The Indigenous chamber, based in Rutherford, works with numerous employment providers to help Aboriginal people find work.
"It's interesting because a lot of Aboriginal people gain skills and qualifications to get work," Ms Barwick said.
"In some communities in regional areas, Aboriginal people have lots of tickets and skills but they're still not employed."
She believed this was the case in the Hunter.
"It seems to be a real issue where Aboriginal people are skilled, but they're still not getting into key roles."
She said there were a lot of job initiatives for Indigenous people, but they can be "short-term opportunities".
"Aboriginal people are expected to jump on those short-term opportunities, but what they really want is sustainable employment like everybody else."
Hunter Business Chamber chief executive Bob Hawes said there were "the cultural issues that we often hear about".
"It's disappointing if there is discrimination and other factors that then come into it," Mr Hawes said.
He said there were "quite a number of proactive programs out there" for Indigenous people in the Hunter.
These programs were often linked to support for trainees and apprentices that "do positively favour Indigenous people".
"You'd hope organisations are taking up those opportunities where they can, particularly at the moment where now is a good time for anyone to jump into the labour market, providing they have the skills and training."
Mr Perry said he was developing an online map to help "close the gap".
"It's about mapping Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal service providers that engage Aboriginal people," he said.
"They deliver services that are supposed to create employment."
The federal government's Indigenous Affairs Committee is holding an inquiry into opportunities for Indigenous Australians in employment and business.
The inquiry aims to address the tough barriers that Indigenous people face when seeking a job or starting their own business.
Employers can be fearful of employing Indigenous people due to cultural differences and workplace expectations. However, many employers are facing and overcoming these fears.
A Hunter Region Employment Facilitator submission to the inquiry, prepared by former facilitator Warrick Jordan, said participation in work and looking for work was strong among Aboriginal people in the Hunter.
However, high unemployment rates among Aboriginal people persisted.
"This makes the Hunter an ideal place to consider the impacts of structural barriers to Indigenous employment, and how it relates to the 'fair go'," Mr Jordan wrote.
He added that a number of Indigenous-owned businesses were prospering "in a diverse range of commercial sectors in the Hunter and surrounding regions".
"These successes provide guidance on what steps can be taken to successfully encourage Indigenous-owned businesses."
He said higher-level vocational and tertiary education rates were "substantially lower for the Indigenous population in the Hunter, compared to the non-indigenous population".
"This is especially the case in the Hunter outside of Newcastle and Lake Macquarie."
However, the "long-running proactive role" of the University of Newcastle in attracting Indigenous students was having a positive effect.
Culture of Respect
The inquiry has heard that employers like Woolworths Group are employing more Indigenous people.
"More than 4500 of our team members identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples," a Woolworths Group submission to the inquiry said.
More than 2800 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander job seekers had been offered jobs with the Woolworths Group through the federal government's Employment Parity Initiative.
The initiative aims to increase Indigenous employment in large companies to "reflect the proportion of the Indigenous population nationally [about 3 per cent]".
Woolworths believed building a culture of respect was "essential to embracing diversity in its many forms".
"A focus on greater diversity has increased cultural competency in our stores and helped us break down barriers."
A Woolworths program achieved a retention rate among Indigenous staff of around 76 per cent in six months of employment.
The Woolworths work experience can make it easier to progress to other jobs, helping break the cycle of long-term unemployment.
A Rio Tinto submission to the inquiry said it directly employed more than 1400 Indigenous people across Australia.
"Our reconciliation action plan sets a target of 8 per cent Indigenous employment for our Australia operations. Our Indigenous employment headcount as a percentage of total headcount is currently 6.7 per cent."
Rio Tinto said the turnover rate among Indigenous employees was 25 per cent.
The top reasons cited for Indigenous employees leaving Rio Tinto included: Alcohol and other drugs, fitness for work breaches and issues, leaving for other employment and family lifestyle.
A Rio Tinto project aims to increase retention of Indigenous employees.