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Rio Tinto's reinvented Indigenous training program a roaring success

David Prestipino -

The return of a key Indigenous training program at Rio Tinto has resulted in all 14 participants from communities across the Pilbara securing employment at the iron ore giant.

The group of graduates from Rio Tinto's 18-week Aboriginal Training and Liaison program celebrated their achievement with a graduation ceremony on Tuesday, with all 14 securing employment.

All participants are from the Pilbara, with the majority from Traditional Owner groups where Rio operates, including Banjima, Yindjibarndi, Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura, Yinhawangka, Ngarlama and Nyiaparli.

Rio Tinto general manager of rail maintenance, Matt Baartz, said it was the first time the iron ore titan had run the program since 2009 with ATAL curriculum now co-designed with traditional owners to help Rio provide the best environment for First Nations participants.

"We want to continue our journey to build thriving workplaces, and part of that means we've got to provide more psychologically-safe, culturally-safe, more inclusive and respectful workplaces, and the core of that is how we improve and increase the diversity within our teams," he told National Indigenous Times.

"The ATAL program is something we have always reflected on very fondly in our history as a great opportunity and way for us to be able to provide supportive means of bringing more Pilbara Aboriginals into our business."

Mr Baartz has worked for Rio his entire career across the Pilbara and Kimberley regions and began chatting and consulting with traditional owner groups three years ago about how best to reinvent the ATAL program.

"ATAL 2.0 is really about having a co-designed, work readiness program that has been built by Pilbara Aboriginal people ... so it's a much more nurturing approach," he said.

Mr Baartz expected double the participants for the 2024 program and further exponential growth year on year for more Aboriginal people to develop skills suited to employment in different roles and industries across WA's North West.

"We obviously are open to what's working and what we need to do differently as each year progresses and this will be a journey for all of the candidates and participants who graduate, but we're looking to grow this year on year," he said.

"We'll continue to work with senior leaders and mentors across our coastal operations, and ports, rail, utilities and the like, to ensure opportunities exist in future years as well.

"Those who want to use this training to pursue a career in a different field, are encouraged to do that as well.

"We were very fortunate this year it was a very high-calibre intake, so all 14 graduates will be transitioning into permanent roles, traineeships or apprenticeships in Rio Tinto as part of the program."

For one of those ATAL graduates, Ngarlama woman Asharnti Hicks, the news she had an apprenticeship with Rio Tinto was still sinking in and she couldn't wait to start her resources career next February.

"I never realised the amount of opportunity and support I would get throughout the program and within Rio the business itself, so yeah, I'm feeling good," she said ahead of Tuesday's graduation ceremony.

"The program has helped me a lot, especially my confidence. Just being around others in a new environment has also helped."

The 18-week course consisted of two phases, the first a six-week block "outside the gate" where participants receive training to help them prepare for a work environment, and a 12-week "inside the gate" period that included onboarding activities, safety and becoming 'industry-ready', with additional support from Indigenous mentors and trainers.

Information sessions for the 2024 ATAL program are next February, with the course starting in July. Visit the Rio Tinto website or email [email protected] for more information.

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