Defence Industry’s Workforce Vicious Circle

Pacific 2019 held at Sydney’s Darling Harbour was a great event. The largest ever set of delegates, largest number of exhibitors; with the prime contractors largely selected, the cash is clearly beginning to flow, and so should the jobs.

But somehow the jobs aren’t flowing, yet. At such a great time in the Australian defence sector, the most common discussion at booths and in coffee queues was, ‘workforce and talent’. “It’s hard to find the right people” or “my talent is being poached – wage premiums are unsustainable” or even “I know we won’t find these skills locally, so I’m going offshore now”.

What’s going on? And perhaps more importantly, what happens if the jobs don’t materialise in the manner we expect?

A Defence Jobs Vicious Circle

It’s important to say my idea of a vicious circle being in play for defence industry jobs isn’t evidenced. I’ve not conducted a survey or accessed sensitive workforce data. This is a theory built on the back of two days asking those in the sector, at their stands, what their experience of talent and workforce is right now.

It was a topic easily broached. We saw Defence Workforce Plans issued or discussed by NSW, Queensland and South Australia over the week of Pacific 2019. We know there is a Defence Skilling and STEM Workforce Summit 6-7 November in Perth too. These are all sound investments in time and intellect – and they all gravitate towards the issue of ‘what to do’. What additional steps need to be taken, what new investments need to be made, what red-tape must be cut? Great questions requiring our urgent attention.

My observations here I hope honour that work, but offer an insight into why so many leaders in the sector feel like we’re slow out of the blocks on the issue of jobs.

I think there are four behaviours stalling defence industry jobs growth. Each behaviour is, in isolation, logical and defendable. But together they are acting to reinforce stasis and block jobs growth and industry progress.

At its simplest, the cycle describes how Primes know that to recruit ahead of the signed contract is folly, that trainers and educators can only act on clear signals from employers, that SMEs are an attractive, accessible source of short-term talent, and that government’s judge success (in part) by the number of entry level jobs created, and expect to see industry sign-up to ambitious targets as part of their contractual targets.

Evidence that such a circle might be in play could include:

  • Primes with large numbers of unfilled roles on current programs, and a sense that applicants are generally insufficiently skilled or experienced for those open roles, let alone more advanced roles that expect to open in future years.
  • SMEs losing key mid-career talent, and feeling forced to go overseas for replacement staff before they take on additional juniors who would learn and be mentored by those leading hands.
  • Universities and TAFEs who point to undifferentiated courses, begging for guidance on what more they need to do to create more job ready graduates, in what volumes, but with no clear messages in return.

Space is the Enemy

And all the while the spectre of ‘space jobs’ and other (more attractive) sectors loom over defence industry jobs. Not only does the defence sector need to navigate this vicious circle, we need build a brand that wins this ‘war for talent’. As an aside, can I offer that this dated sense that defence jobs were somehow a substitute for car jobs is in many ways the core problem. Images of industrial manufacturers in high visibility tops are, frankly, not what our sector is in 2020. Of course such roles exist, but a depiction of the engineering, design, advanced manufacturing, professional and services roles more often undertaken in defence industry might create more interest across a more diverse local population. Just a thought.

Break the Cycle

So, what to do about the Vicious Circle, and what happens if we don’t defeat it.

Perhaps unhelpfully, my sense is that courage is the cure. And by that I mean courage for the long haul i.e. patient courage. Courage from primes to move ahead of the contract and create entry level jobs at scale – building trust in government and communities, and a pipeline of mid-career talent in 5+ years. Courage for SMEs to bring one or two internationals in – but concurrently pin 3-5 Australian’s to them with the aim of in-housing expertise rapidly. Courage from universities and training agencies to use their ex-defence and defence industry advisors to craft agile, bespoke courses and modules to close the ‘job ready gap’ ahead of guidance from the primes. And lastly, courage from government to ride out the near-term productivity noise that will come as initially under-skilled home-grown talent works up the experience curve to full effectiveness.

If we don’t then I worry that the ‘Defence Compact’ falls over. Simply, the 2016 deal can be described as AUD $200B from government, to recapitalise our capable Defence Agency, on the condition it employs Australians in sustainable, advanced jobs. If the new jobs turn out to be visa hires, non-continuing contracts, unskilled or unlinked to exports – perhaps the entire deal will be reviewed. I’m not sure those of us in the sector would look forward to that.

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2 thoughts on “Defence Industry’s Workforce Vicious Circle

  1. Mike, excellent article. In these days of 24 hour media and instant gratification, everyone wants a quick fix. It will take courage and patience to build (rebuild?) the skills of the shipbuilding enterprise.

  2. Excellent thoughts Mike, from working across both Defence and other organisations, you could draw another circle that sits underneath the four you’ve identified that relates to the increasing demand for the same roles across broader segments of Australian industry. While individual roles are becoming more specific, the general skill sets are becoming more homogenous – Cyber, Logistics and Project Management are all potential examples. I do think, this can help give universities and TAFE’s a direction away from the vicious cycle – identify and deliver the transferrable and broadly applicable skill sets for undergrad/certificate level then build post-grads that tailor to unique needs.

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