Chapter 6. Targeting disadvantaged youth – Cowboys: Dream, Believe, Achieve Case Study

This case study provides an overview of a programme in Queensland, Australia, where a sports club has built on its local business and community networks to generate partnerships with training providers and employers to deliver individually tailored Vocational Education and Training (VET) in the hospital sector for disadvantaged and disengaged youth. In particular, the programme focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to place them in higher quality jobs.



The Dream, Believe, Achieve (DBA) programme, conceived by the North Queensland Cowboys rugby league club, operates in a region with relatively high levels of youth unemployment, especially amongst the Indigenous population. The programme focuses on creating tailored VET pathways within the hospitality sector to provide disadvantaged, at-risk, and long term unemployed job seekers with the opportunity to understand the value of and gain access to education and training, thereby enabling participants to achieve their employment goals.

Unemployment and skills gaps affect disadvantaged job seekers

Townsville is the largest city in Queensland, Australia with a population of 190 000 people. It is an export hub for the resources and agriculture industries, given its proximity to Asia. The economy has transitioned over recent years to a service-based economy, with employment growing fastest in service occupations. In December 2016, the Australian Government, the Queensland Government and the Townsville City Council signed Australia’s first City Deal – a 15-year commitment, developed in collaboration with the Townsville community and private sector, to deliver economic and social outcomes for the region. Part of the Deal’s commitments are the delivery of the North Queensland Stadium and the Townsville Entertainment and Convention Centre, both of which are expected to boost job creation and skills development in the construction, services, tourism, retail, commercial and hospitality industries (Australian Government Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities, 2018[65]).

Despite its economic potential, the region has seen slower job growth compared to the rest of Queensland and Australia (8% between 2011-2016, compared to 15% and 11% respectively) (REMPLAN, 2018[66]). Unemployment rates are slightly higher than the Queensland and national rates (9.3% in 2017, compared to 5.9% in Queensland and 5.4 % nationally, with the difference largely explained by high unemployment rates within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population (24% unemployment rate, compared to 7% for the non-Indigenous population in Townsville in 2016 (RDA Townsville and North West Australia, 2017[67]).

The Townsville region also experiences high levels of youth disengagement within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. For example, only 30.3% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth aged 18 to 24 years are engaged in work, study or training, compared to 68.9% of non-Indigenous Australian youth. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth disengagement is also higher than at state level, where it is at 63.9% (Queensland Government Statistician's Office, 2018[68]).

The root of these issues experienced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traces back to family and cultural histories of unemployment and incarceration. A much higher percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth and children live in jobless families (44.6%) compared to non-Indigenous Australian families (11.1%) (Queensland Government Statistician's Office, 2018[68]). On average, in 2015, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth are sentenced to juvenile detention at approximately 24 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australian youth (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, 2016[69]). These challenges combined with limited skills, education and employment experience make it difficult for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to secure and maintain employment (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2017[70]).

Figure 6.1. Causes of education and training challenges affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults and youth in Townsville

Source: Chappell, C. (2017), Queensland Training Awards 2017 (2016/17): North Queensland Cowboys; Queensland Government Statistician's Office (2018), Queensland Regional Profiles: Indigenous Profile, RDA TNWQ region, (accessed on 18 January 2018).

The North Queensland Cowboys saw its local connections with business partners (mostly employers in the hospitality sector) as an opportunity to leverage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment. Through consultations with employers, registered training organisations (RTOs) and community service providers, the Club identified key challenges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander faced in accessing VET courses and employment, including low language, literacy and numeracy skills, designed a training programme focused on addressing these challenges (Allara Learning, 2016[71]).

Education and training challenges within the current VET system

Townsville’s accommodation and food services industry employs around 7% of the workforce (REMPLAN, 2018[72]). It has the highest rate of staff turnover, which creates employment opportunities for job seekers (Australian Government, 2017[73]). In 2016, a shortage of skilled hospitality workers with industry experience occurred both across the state of Queensland and nationally (Chamber of Commerce & Industry Queensland, 2016[74]; Colmar Brunton, 2016[75]).

National training quality standards require that students enrolled in a Certificate III in Hospitality complete 36 service periods (shifts) of practical work placement. Each service is a minimum of 2 hours in duration. This work experience is mostly undertaken in a campus-based café and/or restaurant (TAFE Queensland, 2018[76]). One of the challenges with this model is that students do not gain enough practical experience in the hospitality industry, having less chances of gaining a practical understanding of venue operating procedures, the different work hours, and the fluctuating nature of hospitality jobs in relation to the tourism sector (Colmar Brunton, 2016[75]). This creates a misalignment between training and employers’ expectations in relation to customer service and job-readiness skills.

In a survey of tourism and hospitality careers undertaken on behalf of the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade), employers expressed that courses did not meet workplace needs; trainers lacked industry experience; coursework was too theoretical and did not provide enough focus on the development of practical skills; computer and IT skills were not provided to sufficient levels. (Colmar Brunton, 2016[75]).

Programme approach

The North Queensland Cowboys has operated in Townsville for 22 years. A community-based organisation, the Club uses its business and community networks to improve the lives of disadvantaged youth and at-risk job seekers in the region. In operation since 2012, the DBA programme draws both on these networks and on the unique brand power of the Cowboys to attract and engage programme participants and to provide training that is tailored to participants’ and employers’ needs.

The programme design is based on in-depth consultation with local industries and community sectors. The Club also operates a registered, community owned charity, Cowboys Community Foundation (CCF) that aims to “improve employment, health and social outcomes for young North Queenslanders through education-based programmes” (Cowboys Community Foundation, 2018[77]). Drawing on both the Club’s and CCF’s community and business connections, the DBA initiative was able to co-ordinate in-depth consultations with employers, employment services, community service providers, Indigenous organisations and leaders throughout the region, and registered training organisations. After this extensive consultation and analysis, the DBA programme was developed to focus on work experience placements with the Club’s business partners, training tailored to student’s individual needs, and intensive mentoring (Chappell, 2017[78]).

Funding for the DBA training programme is provided by the Queensland Government through its Skilling Queenslanders for Work initiative. The Initiative offers funding to not-for-profit community organisations that focus on providing VET opportunities to disadvantaged job seekers, disengaged youth, and at risk youth engaged with Youth Justice Services or Queensland Corrective Services (Queensland Government Department of Employment, Small Business and Training, 2018[79]). The DBA programme currently focuses on delivering the nationally recognised Certificate III in Hospitality. Training has been tailored to local employers’ needs, with the goal of ensuring that all participants are job ready, adequately equipped with industry experience, and have highly-developed customer service skills. Workplace-based experience in one of the Club’s partners is provided as a central part of the course. Students work as trainees with individual employers, including at Cowboys events such as game days and corporate hospitality events at the 1300 SMILES Stadium.

Intensive mentoring

Participants receive up to 12 months’ individual mentoring and support. Once a DBA programme participant has been identified, an Aboriginal or Pacific Islander mentor is assigned as a case manager. All mentors working on the DBA are recruited by the Cowboys to specifically work with programme participants. Mentors work with participants to understand their career aspirations and identify any barriers to training participation and future employment. Common barriers are difficulties in accessing stable housing and/or transport, health issues, and foundation skills or learning gaps.

Mentors provide support throughout the duration of the course by assisting participants to find industry-based work experience and preparing them for job applications and interviews. At the end of the course, mentors link participants with potential employment opportunities. Support continues once students gain employment to ensure that the student and employer are able to work through any initial problems that may occur. This support by the programme mentors and the employers provides a stable introduction to the work environment and the development of sustainable employment for students.

Individually tailored training

The Cowboys and partner RTO, Allara Learning, work together to deliver a training model that is “responsive to each participant’s learning style and pace” (Chappell, 2017[78]). This means that the Certificate III in Hospitality course units of competency are selected to best suit the needs of the participating cohort, based on the mentors’ assessments. The course delivery is composed of intensive in-class training, complemented by out-of-class tutoring and support provided by Cowboys’ mentors.

Course study units are selected based on the identified needs of the training cohort. For example, English is a second language for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and some students have learning challenges and personal barriers that impact on their ability to attend classes, complete the course and transition into employment. In this circumstance, mentors provide language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) tutoring support for participants for the duration of the course. For assessments, the RTO applies ‘reasonable adjustment’ for these students so that they have equal opportunities to prove competency in learning. For example, for participants who have difficulty in expressing knowledge in writing, oral assessment can be offered as an alternative (Queensland Government Department of Employment, Small Business and Training, 2018[80]).

Others, in particular those who were long term unemployed, lack understanding of employer’s expectations, and how to apply and prepare for jobs. The introduction of job-readiness focused training, such as timeliness and practices for when running late and calling in sick, and resume and cover letter writing and interview preparation is incorporated into the training package. Mentors then tutor students during out-of-class hours to assist them with their skills development.

Additionally, all in-class training is conducted by professional trainers who are experienced at teaching disadvantaged job seekers and have well developed cultural awareness, sensitivity and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s culture. These are examples of how a VET course can be tailored to suit the needs of individual students whilst still conforming to the delivery of required units of competency. It is these considerations of flexible delivery methods that enable the DBA to offer training that matches the capacities and needs of each person.

As another way of motivating and engaging participants, the Club offers Cowboys merchandise, game day tickets, membership, and opportunities to meet Cowboys players (present and past) to DBA trainees as rewards. Participants’ progress and milestone goals are celebrated through group activities, which contributes toward an increase in self-esteem and ongoing motivation to complete the course and gain employment.

Figure 6.2. DBA solutions to provide disadvantaged job seekers with access to education and training opportunities

Note: An overview of the solutions developed by the Dream, Believe, Achieve initiative to provide access to education and training for disadvantaged jobs seekers in the Townsville region.

Source: Allara Learning (2016), North Queensland Cowboys team up with Allara Learning to build careers & future, (accessed on 19 January 2018); Chappell, C. (2017), Queensland Training Awards 2017 (2016/17): North Queensland Cowboys.

Programme outcomes

The Dream Believe Achieve programme is in its fifth year of operation. The Cowboys, in partnership with registered RTO, Allara Learning, have been delivering a Certificate III in Hospitality for three years. Although small in scale, the hospitality programme has generated positive outcomes for participants in Townsville. This has resulted in the expansion of the DBA programme to the city of Cairns, Queensland.

Over the two years that the DBA programme has operated, 100% of the programme’s training commencement target was achieved, and 81.8% of students completed the Certificate III in Hospitality, against the programme’s benchmark of 80%. Of those students who completed the DBA programme, currently 45.9% of students have gained employment. These employment figures are in alignment with national averages. A 2016 report produced by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) investigated Indigenous VET participation, completion and outcomes over the past decade. It was reported that in 2015-16, nationally 45% of Indigenous graduates who were unemployed prior to commencing their course gained employment after course completion (Windley, 2017[81]). In the field of hospitality, food and personal services, nationally 55.4% of Indigenous VET graduates gained employment after course completion (Windley, 2017[81]). The DBA employment rate is marginally higher than the national average, which reflects the success of the programme, after only three years of operation.

The number of DBA students who continued with further VET quadrupled from 5% in 2016 to 20.2% in 2017. NCVER’s analysis on national VET graduates not employed before engaging in training, showed that 34.3% of students went on to enrol in further study in 2016 (NCVER, 2017[82]). These results highlight the progress and positive impact of the DBA programme for participants. For full breakdown of DBA 2016-2017 training results see Table 6.1.

Table 6.1. Outcomes for the Dream, Believe, Achieve 2016-2017 training period



Number of students


Number of students







Completed certificate III





Awarded certificate of attainment





After training outcomes


After training outcomes


Gained employment





Continued to other VET training










Note: *2017 cohort to date. January 2018, some students are still completing training.

The DBA programme provides pathways to education and employment for disengaged youth and disadvantaged and long term unemployed job seekers that were not previously available to them. Students are able to gain transferable skills, such as job-readiness and excellence in customer service; mentoring support and employment aspiration planning for up to 12 months assistance with assessing and overcoming barriers to accessing VET opportunities; confidence in their skills and abilities, which is an important factor for students from a disadvantaged background; exposure to the hospitality industry and different real-world work environments; and develop highly desired entry-level practical and knowledge-based skills that ensure they are job ready.

The DBA programme also has positive outcomes for the hospitality sector in Townville and local regional areas, with the Club effectively aligning training providers’ offerings to local employers’ needs. Through the programme, employers gain a much-needed entry-level workforce that is both suitably trained and job ready; the opportunity to promote the hospitality industry and the various career pathways available to those prospective employees; and the opportunity to provide practical work placement/employment to a sector of the community that has largely reduce employment opportunities, thereby contributing to the community as a whole.

Lessons learned

The first two years of the DBA programme enabled the re-development of the programme’s initial processes, from student commencement through to course completion. Key learning areas addressed were the VET curriculum and training delivery, student readiness for study, work experience placement, and student recruitment. The investment in and development of a collaborative approach with industry and community organisations resulted in a tailored solution to delivering the Certificate III in hospitality. The key challenges and drivers of success are discussed below.


The provision of flexible and tailored training is a learning curve, with the approach to VET requiring constant modification and fine-tuning to accommodate individual participants and their learning needs. Student recruitment was particularly challenging in the early stages of the programme. Initially, participants registered for the DBA programme out of training obligations but had no real desire to search for employment or complete further study. The interview process was refined to better identify participants who genuinely sought employment and the opportunity to further their skills.

Drivers of success

Cowboys brand and community leadership

The North Queensland Cowboys provide a sense of identity, social cohesion and local pride in the Townsville area. The Cowboys embody the North Queensland culture and provide inspiration for young people throughout the region. Game days are a strong part of the local culture. All players in the under 20’s squad must either be furthering their education or be employed. The Club’s focus on youth education and training provides a positive outlook for young people in Townsville.

Having operated for 22 years, the Cowboys have developed many connections to local industry, community and youth through their sporting events and education and training programmes. The range of programmes offered encompasses primary school years and encouraging school attendance, motivating and supporting secondary school Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to complete their education, and culminating in the Dream, Believe, Achieve programme that provides disadvantaged job seekers with VET and employment opportunities. The development of these programmes has enabled the Cowboys to gain the trust and respect of schools, training providers and community organisations.

Collaboration with industry and community organisations

The breadth of the Cowboys’ community and industry networks provides the Club with a unique position to understand and respond to changes and unmet needs in the community. Through the many programmes that it offers to youth, in a sporting capacity and education and training capacity, the Club is actively involved in the community. This gives the Club first hand insights into community needs and to build relationships.

The Club leverages its relationships with corporate sponsors to promote the DBA initiative, which has resulted in active engagement from the business sector in Townsville. The Club has established five programmes that focus on education and training, and the transition to employment for young people and the disadvantaged. The Cowboys Community Foundation provides additional access to community networks in the region. The NRL Cowboys House programme focuses on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, a group most at risk of not achieving their potential. This programme promotes collaboration and engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Elders in and around the Townsville region.

Involvement by the Club with the Townsville community, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Traditional Owners in the region, has resulted in valuable input about unmet community needs. Networking with employers identified employment needs, and industry and trade trends. The extensive collaboration with community and employers enabled the DBA initiative to plan and implement training programmes that provide employment for disadvantaged job seekers in the region.


[71] Allara Learning (2016), North Queensland Cowboys team up with Allara Learning to build careers & future, (accessed on 19 January 2018).

[73] Australian Government (2017), Understanding the Townsville jobs market,

[65] Australian Government Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities (2018), Smart Cities Plan: The Townsville City Deal, (accessed on 17 January 2018).

[70] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2017), 7.5 Income and employment for Indigenous Australians, (accessed on 19 January 2018).

[74] Chamber of Commerce & Industry Queensland (2016), Hospitality industry: skills and labour shortages, CCIQ News, (accessed on 18 January 2018).

[78] Chappell, C. (2017), Queensland Training Awards 2017 (2016/17): North Queensland Cowboys.

[75] Colmar Brunton (2016), Tourism and Hospitality Careers Report,

[77] Cowboys Community Foundation (2018), Cowboys Community Foundation.

[82] NCVER (2017), VET graduate outcomes 2017: infographic, National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), (accessed on 19 January 2018).

[80] Queensland Government Department of Employment, Small Business and Training (2018), Reasonable Adjustment in teaching, learning and assessment for learners with a disability,

[79] Queensland Government Department of Employment, Small Business and Training (2018), Skilling Queenslanders for Work for training providers, Queensland Government Training, (accessed on 18 January 2018).

[68] Queensland Government Statistician's Office (2018), Queensland Regional Profiles: Indigenous Profile, RDA TNWQ region, (accessed on 18 January 2018).

[67] RDA Townsville and North West Australia (2017), Local government are unemployment rate, Townsville,

[72] REMPLAN (2018), Townsville North Queensland: Employment by Industry, (accessed on 18 January 2018).

[66] REMPLAN (2018), Townsville North Queensland: Unemployment Rate, (accessed on 15 January 2018).

[69] Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision (2016), Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2016 - Overview,

[76] TAFE Queensland (2018), Certificate III in Hospitality (SIT30616), TAFE Queensland course guide, (accessed on 17 January 2018).

[81] Windley, G. (2017), Indigenous VET participation, completion and outcomes: change over the past decade,,-completion-and-outcomes.pdf.

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