VIEWPOINT: Defence Industry Skills in Great Demand

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Sporting and political pundits love to predict the outcome of upcoming contests – the Rugby World Cup, the AFL Grand Final, the NSW State election.

Right now defence businesses around Australia are involved in a guessing game of their own: what will the defence landscape look like in 6-12 months?

One thing is for certain: it will change.

Soon the Defence Strategic Review will be presented to the Federal Government for consideration – an independent-led review that considers the Australian Defence Force’s posture, preparedness and structure to ensure it is well positioned to meet the nation’s security challenges over the next 10 years and beyond.

Also expected in the first quarter this year, the Government will outline the optimal pathway to develop a nuclear-powered submarine capability with our AUKUS partners, the UK and the US.

I’m not a betting man, but I would take a punt that people throughout the defence sector are paying more attention than usual to the Defence Minister’s press conferences right now.

My hope for 2023 is that defence industry can come together and collaborate with governments at both levels, as well as the education sector, to boost the pipeline of skilled workers we need to deliver the programs required for the ADF to keep us all safe.

As the Managing Director for BAE Systems Australia’s maritime business, I’m responsible for delivering a fleet of the world’s most advanced anti-submarine warships to the Royal Australian Navy – a transformational ship-build program that is building an enduring sovereign capability for the nation, supporting the Hobart Class ‘Destroyers’ (DDGs) in Sydney and the Anzac Class sustainment and upgrade program at our Henderson shipyard in WA, all of which require more skilled people.

The Hunter Class Frigate Program is generating jobs, local prosperity, intellectual property and know-how such that the program at the centre of Australia’s maritime defence is considered one of the bedrock programs of continuous naval shipbuilding for Australia.

On the jobs front, we’ve already successfully generated more than 1,300 jobs into the Hunter program – the majority of them at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in South Australia.

But we need more people – 600 more in the next six months.

Resourcing is a challenge for a range of industries, including defence. Companies are competing for the same talent from a smaller talent pool than before the pandemic, and with a submarine program on the way, recruiting will only get tougher.

As chair of the Australian Naval Shipbuilding Group (ANSIG), an industry association made up of 18 defence prime contractors, I’m keenly aware we are all searching for the same kinds of skilled workers and trying not to poach from each other. Couple this with the demand from the ADF needing additional military personnel, and it is a significant challenge.

What we are seeing is specific skills – computer sciences and project management, engineers and systems engineers in particular – starting to dry out in some markets, which means we are seeing much stiffer competition for these people. We’re also seeing a rising attrition market, largely borne by the mining and resources booms in the west and the infrastructure programs in the east.

We can no longer rely on the traditional training and education methods to generate the same volume of people, and I believe it will be a mix of skilled migration, new tailored curriculums, perhaps shorter apprenticeship terms, and the establishment of national academies to ensure we don’t cannibalise each other.

At BAE Systems we are establishing degree apprenticeships and establishing capability hubs around the country – moving work to where it can be facilitated – which means we are investing in new tools and new IT systems, so we can connect workforces who aren’t located near our shipyards.

Now we need a commitment from governments, from academia and industry, to align funding and structural alignment efforts because right now it feels like we are allowing traditional competitive supply methods to further dilute the available talent supply pools – we need to ensure there is sufficient depth in the resourcing demographic for everyone.

In the 1980s in many industrial economies, we were training apprentices in three and four times the volume we needed; the surplus of university graduates and apprentices were employed by other industries.

With the country’s existing shipbuilding programs and nuclear-powered subs on the horizon, it’s time for us to press the accelerator button; it’s time for us to consider as a nation how we align the curriculums from schools into TAFES into universities, such that were able to tailor our needs to the depth that’s needed to deliver against the current defence programs.

We need to start training more people than the programs can possibly support today to deliver a steady pipeline of skilled people, knowing they’ll all be picked up by other sectors. The establishment of the National Skills Taskforce which is bringing together State and Federal Governments is very much welcomed, but there is no more urgent time to do this work. It’s a big year for defence – it’s time to come together, to work together, and ensure we can continue to deliver for our ADF keeping our nation, and all Australians, safe and secure into the future.

NOTE: Craig Lockhart is Managing Director at BAE Systems Australia – Maritime/Adelaide


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