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Opinion: Many hands make light work and the whole-of-nation opportunities of defence industry

Delivering AUKUS and a competitive defence industrial base ultimately depends on the skills, competency, and vibrance of Australia’s skilled workforce which is why it is a major priority for the Minister for Skills and Training, the Hon Brendan O’Connor, and the Albanese government.

Delivering AUKUS and a competitive defence industrial base ultimately depends on the skills, competency, and vibrance of Australia’s skilled workforce which is why it is a major priority for the Minister for Skills and Training, the Hon Brendan O’Connor, and the Albanese government.

There is no doubt about the scale, complexity and economic significance of the AUKUS submarine program.

It will drive Australia’s workforce, skill development, industrial capacity, economic and defence power forward with an ambition not seen before in Australia’s history.


But if history is a guide, we have the will and the talent to succeed.

We only need look at our Australian-made Classic F/A-18 Hornet fighters.

These American-designed fighter jets were assembled by Australian hands at Avalon Airport and Fishermans Bend in Melbourne. Thirty years since the last Hornet rolled off the lot at Avalon on 12 May 1990, these fighters still boast an enviable reputation.[1]

The Australian Hornets were arguably equal to, or better than, American-built versions, and the company that built our Hornets was also the first company outside America to be chosen as a supplier of parts to the then cutting-edge Super Hornet program.[2]

Our achievements in the Hornet program – and this is before we discuss the obvious successes of our Bendigo-built Bushmasters – are the reason why this Government is investing in skills, trades and advanced manufacturing, including in the defence industry.

We’re investing because Australian workers deliver great things when they are backed by the right investments.

But we need to continue ramping up the scale of our efforts.

When we announced the pathway to acquire conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarines, we took the first step as a nation towards the single greatest leap in our economic and industrial capability since the post-World War 2 period.

Our nuclear-powered submarine program will equip Australia’s Navy with game changing technology.

Nuclear-powered submarines can stay virtually silent and hidden beneath the surface for months. Our nuclear-powered submarine capability will be critical to our future strategic deterrence.

And to build these submarines we will need a skilled workforce to fill 20,000 direct nuclear-powered sub jobs over the next 30 years – jobs in industry, our defence force and the public sector.[3]

Nuclear-powered submarines are complex and will need to be built and maintained by an army of trades workers and technicians, many of them educated at TAFEs and technical colleges, as well as universities.

At its peak, Australia’s industrial workforce will need approximately 8,500 workers just to fill the needs of the submarine program.[4]

These won’t just be workers to build the subs themselves.

Workers will be needed to construct the shipyards and qualified trainers will need to train those workers.

This means we won’t just need nuclear engineers — builders, sparkies and welders will all be links in the chain supporting the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines.

Shipyards, ports and neighbouring communities in Adelaide and Western Australia will have better access to quality jobs with good conditions — but only if we can train the workforce this mammoth program needs.

In this year’s Federal Budget, we invested nearly $150 million to start delivering this workforce.

We’re spending $128.5 million over four years to fund an additional 4,000 university places, targeted at STEM disciplines including physics, chemistry, mathematics, materials science, naval architecture, computer science and more, and to support the development and delivery of education, skills and training initiatives.

We’ve extended the Defence Industry Pathways Program by $11.4 million over three years, providing hands-on training in the Henderson Shipbuilding precinct, and will provide $3.9 million over two years to establish a defence skills and training taskforce.

The taskforce will work with industry, the education sector, unions, and governments at all levels to plan for the defence industry workforce needs. We’ll also deliver an AUKUS Submarine Workforce and Industry Strategy, a comprehensive plan for the program’s workforce needs.

This is just the start.

Our Government will be working with the governments of South Australia and Western Australia to develop new skills and training programs and training institutions.

In South Australia, we will be partnering with the South Australian Government to develop a new Skills and Training Academy campus in Osborne close to the planned submarine construction yard.[5]

It won’t be easy. This challenge comes as Australia faces its deepest skills crisis in recent history.

When Jobs and Skills Australia last took stock of occupations in shortage in 2022, the list of occupations it assessed as in shortage almost doubled. For occupations in the Technicians and Trades Workers occupation group, nearly half — 47 per cent — of all occupations in this group are in shortage.[6]

And technicians and trades workers are exactly who we need to deliver AUKUS.

With a lot of the skills in this occupation group being cultivated through apprenticeships, only about 55 per cent of apprentices and trainees complete their program — that means almost half drop out.[7] This is not good enough.

That’s why I’m focused on overhauling our skills system to improve training and ensure more apprentices are supported to complete their training. Our recent Budget delivered critical new Australian Apprenticeship supports and the Commonwealth is prepared to invest another $3.7 billion in federal investment in the skills system through a new five-year National Skills Agreement with states and territories.

In 2023 we’ve partnered with states and territories to invest $1 billion in Fee-Free TAFE, including supporting up to 9,000 training places in sovereign capabilities like manufacturing and defence industry.

We have also committed to a further 300,000 Fee-Free TAFE and VET places in high skills needs areas from 2024-2026 subject to agreement with states and territories.

We are rolling out a new Jobs and Skills Council (JSC) in Manufacturing, which is a $23.4 million investment bringing together employers and unions to work in partnership with governments and the education and training sectors to find solutions to workforce challenges. This JSC will be especially focused on key new industries like advanced manufacturing. This is on top of a $1 billion investment in advanced manufacturing through the National Reconstruction Fund.[8]

Skills, especially TAFE, is top of the agenda for the Australian Government. It’s like jet fuel, powering Australian jobs, Australian defence, and Australia’s future. Without investment in skills, our defence industry and our economy are essentially grounded.

The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP is the Minister for Skills and Training, a Cabinet position in the Albanese Labor Government. He represented the interests of Victorian workers before becoming Assistant National Secretary of the Australian Services Union (ASU). He was elected to parliament in 2001 and has since headed several portfolios. As Minister for Employment Participation, he overhauled the employment services system, streamlining the process to provide a personalised service called Job Services Australia. As Minister for Home Affairs, one of his many noteworthy achievements includes reforming Australia’s anti-dumping regime to encourage fairer and equitable business practices.

Mr O’Connor went on to serve as Minister for Small Business at Cabinet level, the first time in over ten years that the portfolio had been elevated to such a level. Mr O’Connor worked to cut red tape and support growth and jobs through tax reform, including the $6500 Instant Asset Write-off to assist Australia’s 2.7 million small businesses to improve their cash flows and the introduction of Australia’s first Small Business Commissioner.

In 2013, Mr O’Connor was elevated to Minister for Immigration and Citizenship and finished the term as Minister for Employment, Skills and Training. From 2013 – 2019, Mr O’Connor was appointed Shadow Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations. In 2019, he was appointed Shadow Minister for Employment and Industry, Science, and Small and Family Business as a member of Anthony Albanese’s Labor frontbench team and served as Shadow Minister for Defence from January 2021 until Labor won the 2022 election.

Mr O’Connor has degrees in Arts and Law from Monash University and completed Harvard University’s Trade Union Program.

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