The Australian government’s $89 billion national sovereign shipbuilding program is set to give the Australian job market a significant boost – with more than 5,000 workers soon needed to develop its fleet of new submarines, major surface combatants and offshore patrol vessels.
But while increased job demand marks positive news for Australian citizens – and the economy in general – there are growing concerns about the nation’s supply of experienced or fit-for-purpose talent.
As it stands, Australia suffers from a national STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) skills shortage. This gap is set to widen further as the economy transitions into Industry 4.0. – an economy in which more than 75 percent of occupations are expected to be STEM-related.
Many experts fear that unless strategies are put in place to develop and refine the STEM-talent pipeline today, initiatives like the national shipbuilding program will be put in jeopardy.
With this in mind, the ADM STEM in Defence Summit will curate insights – from the sector’s leading strategists and thought-leaders – into how we can attract and retain a strong Defence workforce, in an environment where the hunt for talent is highly competitive.
Ahead of the Summit, Ai Group’s Head of Workforce & Development, Megan Lilly, and University of South Australia’s Director of Defence, Matt Opie, shared some insights into their current thinking on the matter.
Megan: “Essentially there are two key ways we can attract talent into Defence industry occupations – the traditional way, in which we focus on channeling students into STEM related disciplines and subsequently Defence careers; or the short-cut way in which we poach experienced and qualified professionals from other industries. While the latter is indeed a viable option, this will likely just end up in a poaching war without solving the problem. Building up the supply of skilled workers is going to require a fresh and innovative approach”.
Matt: “I agree that stealing talent from other disciplines is just transferring the problem, not solving it. To build a steady pipeline we need to arouse students’ interests in both STEM subjects and Defence-specific jobs and offer a rewarding pathway throughout the education system. I don’t see any reason why students should not be exposed to the concept of shipbuilding from a young age. In my opinion this would make for an engaging scenario in an engineering class and help students visualize and get excited about a prospective career in Defence”.
Both experts agree that building greater engagement in STEM subjects at school is key to developing a robust pipeline, but argue that it shouldn’t stop there.
Megan: “We need to see Defence industry jobs providing continuous ongoing professional development. This will serve to both retain talent and entice people into the sector. The kind of ambitious individuals we want in the industry are looking for careers, not jobs. We also need to send out strong messages about job sustainability – which the shipbuilding program can offer given its longevity”.
Matt: “One of my views is that we make a prospective career in Defence more attractive by promoting mobility rather than security. A lot of people, particularly young graduates, will get excited about gaining ‘international shipbuilding expertise’ both at university and through vocational experience, which will allow them to take on international roles following their domestic experience. Geographical mobility is high on the agenda of many young people these days. Rather than seeing ‘brain drain’ as our enemy, we can tap into the psyche of more dynamic individuals and pitch Defence-related courses in a smarter way”.
In addition to raising the profile of Defence industry careers, both argue that we need to broaden the profile of what talent looks like.
Megan: “Traditionally this profile has been too narrow. One of the most obvious ways we can broaden it is by increasing gender inclusivity. The current representation of women in Defence industries – and STEM careers generally – is unacceptably low; and we need active interventions to work on that. History tells us that unless we have a critical mass it is very hard to reach that tipping point needed to make sustainable change”.
Matt: “We need to leverage the discussion surrounding Industry 4.0 and inclusivity in STEM to help achieve a mass shift in attitudes and behavior, that will see more people from diverse backgrounds choosing Defence-related subjects, majors and careers”.
Megan Lilly and Matt Opie will join a panel alongside senior representatives from organisations including Defence Science & Technology, Soldier On, Skilling Australia Foundation’s PTECH Schools Initiative and Edith Cowan University at the ADM STEM in Defence Summit – to be held 21 August in Canberra.