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Getting our workforce match fit: How can Australia build the AUKUS submarine workforce?

Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarine fleet is described as the most complex and ambitious nation-building program in our history, placing immense strain on our already stretched skilled workforce. For UNSWs head of nuclear engineering, Dr Edward Obbard, getting the skills pipeline right now will set this first stage of AUKUS up for success.

Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarine fleet is described as the most complex and ambitious nation-building program in our history, placing immense strain on our already stretched skilled workforce. For UNSWs head of nuclear engineering, Dr Edward Obbard, getting the skills pipeline right now will set this first stage of AUKUS up for success.

There can be no doubt, the ambition that is Australias development of a nuclear capable workforce to support the delivery of the nations future nuclear-powered submarine fleet is without a doubt one of, if not the most inspired nation-building projects in our national history.

Indeed, the AUKUS submarine program has been described as “the most transformative industrial endeavour in Australian history” — exceeding in scale, complexity, and economic significance the creation of an Australian automotive manufacturing sector and the construction of the Snowy Scheme in the post-war decades.


To this end, both sides of Australian politics have recognised the central role a viable, competitive, and highly skilled local industrial base and world-leading workforce will play in shaping the cost-effective and on schedule delivery of these future platform — something both the United States and United Kingdom have also identified as critical to the success of the program.

As part of this, the Albanese government announced at the time of the original AUKUS announcement in March, they are developing a comprehensive AUKUS submarine workforce and industry strategy to support delivery of advanced conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines to the Australian Defence Force.

The government’s planned Workforce and Industry Strategy will focus and detail a number of critical areas, namely how Australia will:

  • Attract, recruit, develop, qualify, and retain a highly skilled trades, technical, scientific. and engineering workforce.
  • Invest in new infrastructure for sustaining and building nuclear-powered submarines in Australia.
  • Support and build the capabilities of Australia’s world-leading defence industry.

Going further, the Albanese government identified key pillars of delivering this ambitious nation-building program, namely:

Infrastructure: The new fleet of submarines will require extensive new sustainment infrastructure in Western Australia at HMAS Stirling including wharf upgrades, warehousing, and sustainment facilities. These facilities will be supported by new submarine construction infrastructure in South Australia at the Osborne shipbuilding precinct, including site identification and design, land transfer discussions, civil works and prototype facilities, and national engineering and technology facilities as part of the whole-of-nation strategy to develop the world-leading workforce required to support the delivery, operation, and sustainment of the nation’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

Industrial base: Having the necessary industrial base in the country will prove equally critical to operating and sustaining, not just Australia’s own fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, but also supporting those of the US and Royal Navy’s, respectively, accordingly, the government’s strategy will:

  • Develop opportunities for Australian industry to carry out maintenance for US Virginia Class and UK Astute Class submarines during their rotational presence in Western Australia.
  • Provide opportunities to embed Australian industry in the UK and US nuclear-powered submarine construction and sustainment programs and supply chains with our partners, including Australian industry supplying Australian-manufactured materials and components to the UK and US submarine programs.
  • Establish mechanisms for Australian industry to register interest in participating in the Australian, UK, and US nuclear-powered submarine programs.

Workforce: The government’s strategy will place a heavy emphasis on building the workforce necessary. The government’s strategy will conduct detailed workforce planning to include identifying the Australian submarine industrial workforce through forecasting workforce demand and supply, identifying priority skills areas, identifying education and training requirements, and finalising a workforce strategy.

The Commonwealth will also work with the South Australian government on a dedicated skills and training academy to deliver tailored education, training and skilling for Australia’s submarine and naval shipbuilding workforce including:

  • Career training programs to bring new people into the workforce, such as apprentices, undergraduates, and graduate apprentices.
  • Lifting the skills of the existing naval shipbuilding workforce.
  • Transition programs to bring in people from adjacent industries in the defence, manufacturing, and technology sectors.

This work will be expanded to include workforce training and development in Western Australia, to develop a skills and training program, leveraging existing relationships with WA vocational and tertiary institutions — this will also include early opportunities to embed industrial, Australian Defence Force, and Australian Public Service personnel in the UK and US facilities and shipyards to build the necessary skills and experience on active submarine construction lines.

Finally, the workforce development strategy will also include a suite of new education and training courses including:

  • Expanding the Sovereign Shipbuilding Talent Pool (SSTP), commencing with an initial cohort of 74 apprentices, undergraduates, and graduates in coming months.
  • Developing nationwide education and skilling plans with the university and vocational education sectors.
  • Supporting an existing cohort of over 50 Australians to commence new specialised courses in the UK and US and new tertiary courses for nuclear engineering at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and nuclear science at the Australian National University.

Enter, UNSW’s head of nuclear engineering, Dr Edward Obbard, who has added more meat to the bones of the government’s strategy, while also highlighting concerns about Australia’s capacity to not only develop the skilled workforce needed, but to sustain it concurrently in an economy already mired by skills and labour shortages.

Dr Obbard explained, “It’s only four years until 2027 and that is when nuclear-powered submarines will be coming to Australia and we will have to have people trained up to work on them and help maintain them, while also getting experience of the nuclear systems involved. It does not sound very far away to me and right now there are insufficient numbers of trained experts to support a sovereign nuclear propulsion program.”

However, Dr Obbard has equally sought to provide the foundation for a road map that will help the nation move towards delivering the workforce necessary for sustaining and operating Australia’s fleet of nuclear submarines, stating: “To understand how we can address the shortage, you need to know how suitably qualified and experienced people are grouped in three tiers.”

A three-tier approach

Central to Dr Obbards thesis and analysis is an emphasis on developing a three-tier focus to developing Australias nuclear ready and capable workforce in a timely manner and draws heavily on the experience of the United States and United Kingdom over their collective history of developing, maintaining, and operating nuclear-powered submarines.

Dr Obbard isnt without recognising the challenges facing Australia in the area of nuclear experts in particular, with Dr Obbard explaining, “ based on nuclear-trained personnel supporting the US Navy’s 70-strong submarine fleet, indicates that more than 200 subject matter experts will be needed in Australia to make top-level decisions regarding the eight new SSN-AUKUS subs.

“These experts would ideally have at least 20 years’ experience in nuclear technology, which presents a problem for Australia given nuclear power has been banned by legislation since 1998.”

Digging deeper into the challenges facing the development of Australias own nuclear expert workforce, Dr Obbard details, “They [nuclear experts] need to be world experts in specific areas related to the submarines or the nuclear power plant, and to get to that point, they will likely have done research and obtained PhD degrees and been working in their area for 20 years.

“But if we look at pressurised water reactors, which are the nuclear reactors which propel these types of submarines, there is virtually nobody in Australia with any experience of those — because we’ve never had them before. So, I think in the short term, those people will have to come from USA and UK and after that it will just take time to upskill our own people to that level,” Dr Obbard states.

On the second tier is what Dr Obbard explains as the “nuclearised workforce”, subject matter experts who have more direct, hands-on experience engaging with and managing nuclear infrastructure like land and sea-based reactors.

Dr Obbard, through his detailed analysis, estimates that, with 13 possible (5 Virginia Class and 8 SSN-AUKUS Class) boats, Australia will require around 4,300 people with the necessary skills and training will be required at this level to support the AUKUS program.

Despite the immense number of people required to fulfil this workforce requirement, Dr Obbard is highly optimistic about the nation’s capacity to build, train, and sustain this workforce, with Dr Obbard stating, “I think Australia is actually quite well-placed to train up this middle tier because we produce a lot of graduates in a wide range of engineering disciplines.

“After that, it’s just a case of doing a specific nuclear engineering course like a master’s, or a minor, which is then the pathway to being part of the nuclearised workforce,” Dr Obbard added.

However, developing this workforce isn’t without its challenges, as the limited nature of Australia’s own nuclear reactor infrastructure, namely the research-oriented Lucas Heights reactor will necessitate the large-scale overseas training, education, and professionalisation of this mid-tier workforce.

Dr Obbard explained, “I think Australia will need to send a significant amount of those middle tier experts overseas because we have so few nuclear facilities here for them to get the training they need on the relevant systems. In the US they have old boats where the nuclear reactors still work, which allows engineers to test and train and learn about safety systems to get the experience they need before they go to sea.”

The final tier of Australia’s future nuclear workforce is what Dr Obbard defines as the “nuclear aware” workforce, which through analysis, Dr Obbard estimates to be worth between 4,000–5,000 people will be the foundation of success for Australia’s delivery of the nuclear submarine capability.

This “nuclear aware” workforce is the “meat and potatoes” component of the workforce, or put simply, the tradespeople and skilled technical and trade professionals, such as fitters, machinists, and welders who will be responsible for physically delivering the submarines themselves and accordingly will require a degree of nuclear awareness in order to safely complete their role.

Dr Obbard added, “The bulk of the workforce in a shipyard would likely be at this nuclear aware level, and the training might only take a couple of months. It’s a much quicker process, although there are also a lot more people to train up. But I think it’s probably the sort of thing that could be done at a TAFE institute to ensure there is the requisite nuclear safety training being provided.”

Hurdles to overcome

Despite what seems to be an insurmountable task, Dr Obbard is highly optimistic about Australia’s capacity to develop and deliver the workforce necessary to delivering our future nuclear-powered submarine capability, in saying this, it isnt without its challenges.

Central to delivering this is the necessity to ensure that Australias future nuclear workforce is in fact Australian, something Dr Obbard highlights, stating, “around 50 per cent of current researchers at universities around the country are foreign nationals, while the AUKUS recruitment pipeline requires Australian citizens”.

Going further, Dr Obbard added, “We need to ensure we are attracting top local students who want to pursue engineering and research careers. Given the citizenship issue, it’s even harder than you might realise with regards to AUKUS just from looking at the total numbers of how many students are graduating in Australia.”

This requires greater buy in and support from government, something Dr Obbard explains, “If ministers could provide some affirmative statements about why young Australians should study nuclear engineering, and how the discipline helps society overall, I think that could really help.”

Lessons for Australia’s future strategic planning

There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition.

Despite the nations virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.

While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia, this is particularly well explained by Peter Zeihan, who explains:

"A deglobalised world doesn’t simply have a different economic geography, it has thousands of different and separate geographies. Economically speaking, the whole was stronger for the inclusion of all its parts. It is where we have gotten our wealth and pace of improvement and speed. Now the parts will be weaker for their separation."

Accordingly, shifting the public discussion and debate away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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