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Why Defence must tackle its digital skills crisis with ferocity

The digital skills and technology gap in the military is well known and being discussed with increasing urgency. But beyond the need to embrace the latest technology on the battlefield, there is a lesser known but no less critical issue relating to the use of technology in the support systems that the military depends on, writes Scarlett McDermott, chief technology officer at WithYouWithMe.

The digital skills and technology gap in the military is well known and being discussed with increasing urgency. But beyond the need to embrace the latest technology on the battlefield, there is a lesser known but no less critical issue relating to the use of technology in the support systems that the military depends on, writes Scarlett McDermott, chief technology officer at WithYouWithMe.

Outdated training and employment models leave defence forces scrambling to stay relevant. The existing technology gap has combined with the widespread disruptions of the past two years, creating a crisis. Increased remote working, the rise of the gig economy, and the predicted ‘great resignation’ have left militaries struggling to grow capacity and capability, which they need to do rapidly to keep up.  

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Defence forces are unique organisations and traditional business practices often fail to understand the challenges faced by modern militaries. For example, military recruits are drawn from a closed labour market. A challenging recruitment process ensures personnel have the required characteristics like physical stamina and intelligence, however each employee must join at the bottom of the organisation. Personnel are selected, trained, and promoted from within and every new employee must go through this process. There is no lateral recruitment, and promotion at higher levels necessitates a pull through from lower levels. This model makes retention and upskilling within the organisation more important than for civilian businesses, which can hire talent for mid and high-level positions.  

Modern defence forces hire character and train skill, and personnel uniquely blend generalist skills with specialised trade knowledge. The military spends vast amounts of time exposing its personnel to a diverse range of experiences to cultivate leadership skills, from leading small teams of fellow soldiers on basic training, to leading deployed teams in operational environments while still junior in rank, leadership skills are critical at all levels. 

Technical or trade skills are easier to acquire and are taught, refreshed, and refined throughout a career. WithYouWithMe tested 30,000 veterans and found that 67 per cent of them had the same aptitude traits as the best software engineers. This statistic speaks to the heart of the adage, “hire character, train skill”. 

Outsourcing technical skills training allows militaries to focus on character building while offering their personnel in-demand, updated skill training throughout their career. Combining the impressive leadership experiences of military personnel with flexible technical upskilling in critical trades must be the focus of evolving militaries.  

Fortunately, the Australian Army is embracing this innovative thinking with the Deputy Chief of Army’s Flexible Establishment Trial (FET). Now in its second year, the FET supports the Australian Army in reengaging part-time and released soldiers, allowing them to contribute their hard-earned skills back to Army. Encouraging continued connection to the military allows the Australian Army to retain personnel with the desired leadership background, while capturing their in-demand trade skills.  

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In addition to the FET, the recently launched OneArmy.Potential platform acts as a two-way marketplace by allowing Commanding Officers (COs) to fill critical roles by connecting them to members with valuable industry skills and experience.​ By offering soldiers aptitude testing, skill mapping and upskilling, OneArmy enables COs to utilise data to drive their decisions. They can prioritise skills over rigid trade definitions to get critical roles filled without delay. This allows unit commanders to scale the workforce on demand, to work projects and tasks, not days.​ A contingent military workforce with in-demand digital skills ensures the right person for the right role at the right time.  

Australia is not alone in identifying the risks of a business-as-usual model for their defence forces. Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom are all revaluating their aptitude, training, and employment systems for both full-time and part-time serving members to ensure future militaries have flexible workforces with both leadership experience and critical technological skills in-built.

Tomorrow’s armed forces will need to mobilise quickly to meet emerging threats, from deployed operations to domestic disaster assistance. Widespread aptitude testing, skills databases that capture both military and non-military training, and rapid upskilling in digital technology are all necessary in a rapidly evolving battlespace. 

With a closed labour market and increasing demands for personnel, militaries must take seriously issues of retention and retraining. As the pace of technological change increases, new models are needed to ensure that members are supported throughout their career with upskilling in key capacities and meaningful work that matches their desire to serve.  

Scarlett McDermott is the chief technology officer at WithYouWithMe, a veteran-led Australian tech company dedicated to tackling the global digital skills crisis. 

Why Defence must tackle its digital skills crisis with ferocity
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