Hunt is on for a new set of skills

12 Jul 2021

A growing sector is looking for a diverse set of workers.

Defence SA’s Richard Price wants all Australians to know working in the defence industry is not just for soldiers. There are jobs for almost everyone – and he wants you to consider them.

The South Australian government agency’s chief executive is seeking to attract workers skilled in everything from electrical systems to cyber security, professional services to machine learning, in order to roll out the multibillion-dollar defence industry projects under way.

“Almost any role you can think of in industry, as well as the support services, there are jobs for them,” Price says. “And the thing is, with these 20 or 30-year projects there are opportunities for career development across the sector as well.”

SA is at the centre of the Australian Defence Force’s $90 billion infrastructure spending program, with the lion’s share of national projects.

There are the high-profile Collins-class submarine upgrades, and the Attack-class project where negotiations continue over Australian industry content requirements. SA is also home to the Arafura-class offshore patrol and Hunter-class frigate warship-building programs.

But as well as the headline-grabbing ships construction, SA is home to defence and industry hubs to equip Australia for contemporary and future international threats.

These include a $1.2 billion upgrade to the Jindalee Operational Radar Network and other projects in cyber security, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare, space and big data. They will require a highly skilled and higher-paid workforce to design, create and operate, as well as supply chains to enable the projects.

KPMG chief economist Dr Brendan Rynne says the economic and social impact of the defence and technology programs is “highly important” to SA.

He says each advanced manufacturing or technology job adds much more to the economy than an equivalent basic services role, and the higher pay rates had flow-on effects.

“If you look at the payroll data, you’re seeing there are meaningful opportunities in South Australia,” he says.

At the peak of the infrastructure building in 2026 and 2027, about 6000 people are expected to be working directly on the defence projects.

Defence SA’s Price says, “everybody thinks about welders”, but notes that on-the-tools tradies are a fraction of the required workforce.

“The level of automation in machining and welding and construction means many of the jobs are not exactly hands-on-the-tools,” he says. “It’s programming the machines that actually do the work. That’s part of the industry’s modern manufacturing processes.”

And cutting-edge electronics workers are also required on the other side of town to delve into information warfare and electronics systems projects occurring in and around the RAAF Base Edinburgh. They too are tipped to cumulatively generate multibillion-dollar outputs.

“Our view is they (information warfare projects) have as much benefit for the state as the shipbuilding projects,” Price says.

But herein lies the challenge – to attract and retain skilled workers to the state. A big part of this, says Price, is overturning outdated notions of the skills needed to work in the defence industry.

Government-commissioned research of interstate workers with transferable skills found most people still thought of military service when they considered defence more broadly, not the myriad of jobs in the supporting industries.

One in five people have negative perceptions about the industry, and one in three know only some of the roles available.

Young people seem to be heeding the call, however, with Price noting graduate engineers coming from interstate. Over the three quarters to the end of 2020 there was net positive interstate migration into SA, according to ABS figures released last month (May), reversing annual population declines for the first time since the early 1990s.

The state government has also outlined a progressive plan, the Defence Industry Workforce and Skills Strategy, to upskill people for contemporary and future needs.

Specific vocational training under a $203 million Skilling South Australia program will boost the workforce, while a $600,000 scholarship program for STEM university students aims to create a pathway into the workplace. This builds on a $250 million program to enhance STEM learning across 139 schools.

Industry is also doing what it needs to source, train and recruit staff to the mega projects.

BAE Systems Australia, which is a prime contractor to defence for the Hunter-class frigates and JORN upgrades and undertakes advanced manufacturing for elements of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project, also undertakes training and education to build the industry.

Chief of future business Chris Keane says BAE’s defence and security is highly complex, meaning it looks to employ “the most highly skilled people in Australia”.

“Our approach is multifaceted and begins with inspiring primary school students with STEM programs and continues with a strong focus on early career opportunities such as internships, apprenticeships and graduate positions,” he says.

“We also work closely with academia and industry because technology is rapidly changing the way we work, and it is critically important that we collaborate about courses and career development to achieve the best outcomes for students and future employers.”

The Australian Industry Group delivers the SA Premier’s Defence Industry Scholarships for final-year science, technology, engineering, maths and business degree students. A dozen students have completed their placements so far, with eight subsequently employed by the companies.

Story by Rosanne Barrett.

Sourced from: ‘The Deal: Reinventing Business’, The Australian, June 2021, p.7.