Aboriginal Labour Force Characteristics

Here, analysis is provided on employment of the Northern Territory's (NT) Aboriginal working age population in comparison to the non-Aboriginal working age population. This includes the results and changes of employment, unemployment and participation rates between the 2011 and 2016 Censuses. The NT's position and performance is compared across the jurisdictions and Australia. The NT Government has adopted the term Aboriginal instead of Indigenous, as Aboriginal includes Torres Strait Islanders as well.

Infographic showing working age population Infographic showing proportion of working age population Infographic showing portion employed in public sector Infographic showing unemployment rate

Working age population | Employment | Unemployment | Labour force participation | Explanatory notes

The following sections explore Aboriginal labour force characteristics based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2011 and 2016 Censuses, which are based on count data at a particular point in time. Therefore, statistics are not comparable to the main Labour Market page which are based on the estimated resident population estimates. The Northern Territory (NT) Government has adopted the term Aboriginal instead of Indigenous, and Aboriginal includes Torres Strait Islanders.

Working age population

The 2016 Census shows that the NT’s Aboriginal working age population consisted of 40,760 persons, ranking the fourth highest of all the jurisdictions. Over the intercensal period, the total Aboriginal working age population increased in all jurisdictions, which ranged from 7.5% in the NT to 29.6% in Victoria. Nationally, the Aboriginal working age population grew by 22.1% to 428,775 people (Table 1).

As well as experiencing the lowest growth in the total Aboriginal working age population, the NT’s share of the national Aboriginal working age population declined from 10.8% to 9.5%, over the intercensal period (Chart 1). This also occurred in other parts of Australia that historically had a high Aboriginal population such as South Australia and Western Australia, as a result of greater Aboriginal population growth in other jurisdictions, particularly along the East Coast. A key contributor to the higher rate of growth and share of the national population in other jurisdictions relates to people newly identifying as Aboriginals as well as children born to parents of mixed heritage, with one parent identifying as Aboriginal, are newly identifying as Aboriginals. Both of these factors tend to be more prevalent in Australia’s metropolitan centres.

In October 2018, ABS released a paper (Census of Population and Housing: Understanding the increase in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander counts, 2016, ABS Cat. No. 2077.0) further examining the increase in Aboriginal population counts between the 2011 Census and 2016 Census, and provides additional information about the drivers of Aboriginal population change across the states/territories and remoteness regions.

In terms of the Aboriginal proportion of the state total working age population, the NT reported having the strongest share of the jurisdictions (25.5%), increasing by 0.1 percentage points in the intercensal years. Across the other jurisdictions, this proportion ranged from 0.7% in Victoria to 4.0% in Tasmania, with most states experiencing an increase (Chart 2). This is a result of the NT having a smaller population compared to the rest of Australia, with the Aboriginal people representing about 30.3% of the total population, compared to 3% nationally (refer to the Population section of this website).


Despite the growth in the Aboriginal working age population, the gap for employment outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the NT has widened over the intercensal period. The Aboriginal employment rate (the employment to working age population ratio) has declined from 33.1% in 2011 to 27.3% in 2016, which was the lowest result of the jurisdictions (Table 2). Over the same period, the non-Aboriginal employment rate was broadly stable at 76%. As a result, the gap has widened by 5.2 percentage points to 48.7 percentage points in the NT, over the intercensal period (Chart 3).

Across the other jurisdictions, the gap between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations narrowed, ranging between a 26.3 percentage points difference in Western Australia to a 5.0 percentage points difference in the Australian Capital Territory. Nationally, the gap narrowed by 1.4 percentage points to 17.5 percentage points over the intercensal period.

The Aboriginal employment rate has improved somewhat in New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory in the 2016 Census. The build-up and the transition that follows the mining investment boom has driven some significant disparity in economic conditions across the states over the past decade, which flowed through to differences in employment growth including for Aboriginal Australians. As a result, the Aboriginal employment rate fell in the prominent mining states including the NT (down 5.8 percentage points), Western Australia (down 1.7 percentage points) and Queensland (down 1.2 percentage points) over the intercensal period.

The NT Aboriginal employment rate was also negatively affected by the changes to the Commonwealth Government’s employment programs during the intercensal years, from the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) (where individuals were classified as being employed) to the Community Development Programs (CDP) (where individuals are classified as unemployed job seekers). This suggests an increased propensity for some people who identified as employed in 2011, subsequently would have identified as unemployed in 2016 under the same conditions.

Employment by status

By status, this decline was driven by a drop in the proportions in both full time employment (down 0.7 percentage points) and part time employment (down 3.8 percentage points). Employed Aboriginals who were away from work with their status unspecified also contributed to the negative result (down 1.3 percentage points). In comparison, the proportion of the non-Aboriginal population employed in a full time position fell (down 0.3 percentage points) however increased for those engaged in part time work (up 0.5 percentage points). Similarly to the Aboriginal population, the proportion of the non-Aboriginal population who were employed but away from work with status unspecified also declined (down 0.8 percentage points).

Employment by industry

Despite the broader decline in Aboriginal employment rates in the mining states, the mining industry has employed significantly more Aboriginal Australians than reported in the previous Census (an increase of 22.4%). However this was not the case in the NT, which declined by 16.8% from the 2011 Census.

The 2016 Census identified that the most common industries that Aboriginals were employed in were the public administration and safety, health care and social assistance and education and training services sectors. This was broadly consistent with the non-Aboriginal population in the NT, with these combined service sectors being the largest employer in the region. In contrast, there were fewer Aboriginals employed in financial and insurance services, rental, hiring and real estate services, wholesale trade and information media and telecommunication sectors. Again this was similar to the non-Aboriginal population in the NT (Table 3, chart 4).

In terms of industry development, the professional, scientific and technical services, and construction sectors experienced the highest growth in Aboriginal employment in the NT, which was consistent with the non-Aboriginal population. This growth is likely related to the various construction projects that have taken place in recent years in the remote regions.

In contrast, manufacturing, public administration and safety, and arts and recreation service sectors experienced the largest decline in Aboriginal employment. The employment decline in the manufacturing sector was also apparent for the non-Aboriginal population, and likely reflects the limited activity and opportunity in the NT in recent years.  Despite these large declines, the number of Aboriginals employed in the manufacturing and arts and recreation service industries are low. In comparison to the non-Aboriginal population, the sectors that reported the largest declines in employment over the intercensal period were manufacturing, wholesale trade, and financial and insurance services.


Over the intercensal years, the NT unemployment rate increased from 19% to 26.7% for Aboriginal Territorians. The NT was found to have the highest unemployment rate for Aboriginals compared to the rest of Australia. Over the same period, the non-Aboriginal unemployment rate increased slightly to 3.8%, however maintained the lowest rate of all the jurisdictions (Table 4, chart 5).

This high Aboriginal unemployment rate is a result of a 2.2 percentage point increase in the proportion of unemployed Aboriginals over the NT working age population over the intercensal years, representing the largest increase of all the jurisdictions. As reported in the 2016 Census, unemployed Aboriginals in the NT make up 10.0% of the total working age population, representing the third highest proportion of all the jurisdictions (Table 4).

Western Australia (up 2.1 percentage points), Queensland and South Australia (both up 1.1 percentage points) were the only other jurisdictions to report an increase in Aboriginal unemployment greater than 1 percentage point. The increase in the Aboriginal unemployment rates and the proportion of unemployed Aboriginals (particularly in the mining states) also reflects the changes in the Commonwealth employment programs between the 2011 and 2016 Censuses.

In comparison, the unemployed non-Aboriginal population as a proportion over the total working age population increased slightly by 0.7 percentage points, recording the third equal lowest rise amongst the jurisdictions. As a result, the unemployment gap has widened by 1.4 percentage points to 7.0 percentage points in the 2016 Census. Nationally, this proportion for both the unemployed Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations increased by 0.8 percentage points over the intercensal years, resulting in the gap remaining at 5.2 percentage points.

Unemployed by status

By status, there was an increase in the proportion of unemployed Aboriginals looking for both full time (up 1.9 percentage points) and part time work (up 0.3 percentage points). Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia were the only jurisdictions to report and increase in unemployed Aboriginals searching for full time employment, where the other states had interest in finding part time employment. This may be a result of previous full-time workers on mining developments looking to secure similar work post project completion.

Similarly, the NT’s non-Aboriginal proportion of the total working age population reported increases in both looking for full time and part time work (up 0.5 and 0.4 percentage points, respectively), over the intercensal years.

Labour Force Participation

The NT’s Aboriginal population participation rate decreased from 40.9% in 2011 to 37.3% in 2016, reflecting the lowest rate of the jurisdictions, which ranged from 46.6% in Western Australia to 68.3% in the Australian Capital Territory (Table 5, chart 6). This result primarily relates to the scarcity of jobs in remote areas, where people may give up looking for work and drop out of the labour force, as well as the difficulty in collecting data in isolated regions.

Census data suggests that a much higher proportion of Aboriginal Australians were not in the labour force compared with non-Aboriginal Australians. The participation rate for non‚ÄĎAboriginals was relatively stable at 79% during the intercensal period. Nationally, the Aboriginal participation rate increased to 51.9%, however was relatively stable at 64% for the non‚ÄĎAboriginal population, over the intercensal years.

Half of the Aboriginal population in non-urban areas were not in the labour force, compared to 43 per cent in urban areas. In the NT and Western Australia, about 54% and 48% respectively were not in the labour force. In contrast, less than one third of Aboriginals in the Australian Capital Territory were not participating in the labour force.

Explanatory notes

The ABS provides estimates on the NT’s remote and Aboriginal populations and characteristics every five years, following a Census. The labour force data released as part of the Census provides a ‘point in time’ snapshot of labour force characteristics based on responses to four questions, as reported by individuals completing a Census form on a particular night.

In contrast, the monthly ABS’s labour force survey produces the most reliable and current estimates of labour market information. The survey is designed specifically to measure changes over time in the Australian labour force, and to provide a high quality measure for use in international comparisons. It provides a more accurate estimate of key labour force statistics of the Australian economy, including employment, unemployment and underemployment, as well as a range of more detailed data specific to the labour market.

The ABS have released a Fact Sheet which outlines the strengths and key uses of each collection, as well as how the collections differ and explains why the statistics produced in each of these two collections are not directly comparable.