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Tackling the Defence and defence industry workforce challenges: DSR

Just how is the Commonwealth ameliorating Defence and defence industry’s workforce shortages?

Just how is the Commonwealth ameliorating Defence and defence industry’s workforce shortages?

The Commonwealth’s recently released Defence Strategic Review (DSR) explains in no uncertain terms that we are living in testing times.

The document maintains that for the first time in decades, we are seeing a return of major power competition in our immediate region, with the United States being challenged as the “unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific”, potentially placing us on the path to conflict.


This has prompted a significant rethink of Australian defence posture and acquisition process. Simply, the DSR explains, “for the first time in 80 years, we must go back to fundamentals”.

Needless to say, significant workforce shortages make this task easier said than done – impacting both the warfighting capability of the Australian Defence Force as well as the industrial base that sustains its ability to prosecute conflict.

It is a double hurdle that Defence will have to overcome, and luckily, one in which the DSR offers robust recommendations to ameliorate.

On the ADF and APS front, the DSR acknowledges that the workforce situation is deteriorating. In fact, the document has gone as far as to suggest that without a substantial review into the Royal Australian Navy’s workforce, that they will have difficulty in ensuring future readiness and integrating advanced technological capabilities into service. Think this is hyperbole?

“Navy faces the most significant workforce challenges of the three services,” the DSR reads.

“Assuring an adequate workforce to sustainably meet enterprise priorities and transformation, government-directed tasking, readiness for future contingencies, and transitioning new and technologically advanced capabilities into service is Navy’s biggest challenge.”

As if suggesting that the ADF might have challenges maintaining readiness is not problematic enough, the Commonwealth has likewise outlined that the industrial base itself is feeling the squeeze in building and maintaining defence equipment, going as far as to suggest that it will have to deliver “trade-offs”.

“New capability requirements coupled with sustainment demand for existing capabilities and the need to address severe workforce pressures will require difficult decisions and trade-offs to manage the Defence budget over the immediate period,” the document outlines.

In response to these concerns, Professor Stephen Smith and former chief of the Defence Force Sir Angus Houston detailed four recommendations to alleviate Defence’s workforce concerns, with the Commonwealth already in the process of enacting policy changes to meet some of them.

  1. Develop options to enhance Defence’s recruitment framework to broaden the eligibility pool of candidates, especially in key technical and specialist trades.
  2. Develop options to change “the policy and risk settings” to achieve recruitment targets by 2024.
  3. Centralise ADF personnel management into a single integrated system headed by a chief of personnel reporting to the Chief of Defence.
  4. Conduct a comprehensive review into the Reserves, including considering the establishment of a ready reserve scheme.

In news that would be music to the ears of our Australian Defence Force personnel, the DSR also recommends improving incentives for Defence members.

Pay and service conditions as well as workplace culture for both the APS and ADF should be highly competitive in the labour market,” the document reads.

A welcome recommendation to thousands.

Just how are we going to fill these roles?

The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence announced in May that the plan to build nuclear-powered submarines would require 20,000 workers over the next 30 years.

To achieve this, the Deputy Prime Minister announced substantial investment into skills programs in the immediate short-term to prepare our workforce for when the programs commence.

This includes an additional 4,000 university places as well as funding for the Department of Education to the tune of $128.5 million, which will be tailored for STEM education including physics, chemistry, mathematics, material science, naval architecture, computer science as well as mechanical, electrical, chemical and nuclear engineering.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s office confirmed that the additional funding will ensure that the Department of Education will be able to support the nuclear-powered submarine program “through international engagement advice and research”. The government has also expanded the Defence Industry Pathways Program with $11.4 million over three years for the Western Australian shipbuilding sector.

In a statement to Defence Connect, a Defence spokesperson detailed their phased approach to building Australia’s next generation workforce.

“Defence has a variety of initiatives to ensure that Australia has a highly skilled workforce to support projects that are critical to our national security and economic prosperity. This includes working with other government departments, universities, vocational and school education providers as well as industry to ensure the skills needed by Australia’s defence industry workforce are met across relevant engineering and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines,” a Defence spokesperson wrote.

The Australian Submarine Agency (ASA) is working with the South Australian government, industry, and the tertiary education sector to design and deliver tailored education, training, and skilling for the submarine and naval shipbuilding workforce. ASA is also working with the vocational sector to develop the technical and trade specialists needed to build and maintain our nuclear-powered submarines.

The Australian government is funding an additional 4,000 university places over the next four years to grow the number of STEM students needed by the nuclear-powered submarine enterprise. This includes physics, chemistry, mathematics, material science and naval architecture as well as mechanical, chemical, electrical and nuclear engineering.

The first students are expected to start their studies in 2024.”

Enhancing ADF personnel management

In late May, the federal government announced that it had achieved one of the recommendations laid out on in the Defence Strategic Review, appointing an inaugural chief of personnel in the Australian Defence Force.

Chief of Personnel Major General Natasha Fox, who commenced in the role on 5 June, reports directly to the Chief of the Defence Force.

It is hoped that under MAJGEN Fox’s oversight, Defence will centralise personnel management into a single integrated system, where the government hopes the ADF can increase the effectiveness, efficiency, and cohesiveness of personnel management.

This integrated end-to-end people management system is hoped to improve the welfare of Australian Defence personnel and ensure they are provided with a rewarding career.

ADF Careers

The moves to enhance both Australia’s future industrial workforce capability and streamline Defence’s internal workforce management process will be enhanced with a “new era” for ADF recruitment with the newly released ADF Careers.

Announced in mid-July, ADF Careers boasts a system that will speed up the recruitment process, with Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Matt Keogh explaining that the move is an “ambitious but necessary reform” to Defence posture.

“The Defence Strategic Review recommends changes to policy, process, risk appetite, and our approach to recruitment to be able to meet our workforce goals,” Minister Keogh said.

“We need an innovative and bold recruitment model that increases the speed of recruitment from application to enlistment to inspire the defence workforce of the future and grow our Defence Force.

“Our people are our most important Defence capability and we want more Australians to have the chance to experience a rich and rewarding career in the ADF.”

Though more on the way, the wheels are in motion for building a stronger and more resilient Defence and defence industry.

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