• Attendees were broken into groups on the first and second days to brainstorm.
Ewen Levick
    Attendees were broken into groups on the first and second days to brainstorm. Ewen Levick

Government and industry delegates convened this week for the National Defence Industry Skilling and Workforce Summit to brainstorm ways to grow the skilled workforce.

The summit, run by KPMG at Perth’s Optus Stadium, was opened with a traditional welcome by Robyn Collard, a Nyungar Yorga woman. Collard was followed by Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price, who took the opportunity to announce an expanded Defence Industry Internship Program. The program will now provide 70 internships nationwide.

“The program links engineering students with defence industry by facilitating 12 week internships with defence industry small businesses,” Minister Price said. “The government is investing $1.9 million in the Defence Industry Internship Program in 2019-20.”

Minister Price also ventured unusually off-script and challenged industry to better communicate the value proposition of defence industry to key target audiences, particularly in regional Australia.

“If you’re in a location like Townsville, where there’s a significant Defence presence, there’s also going to be a big industry presence,” Minister Price said. “So you’re likely to know what opportunities are there.

“But if you live in Geraldton, in my electorate, there’s no Defence presence. When you talk to parents in Geraldton about defence industry, they think you’re talking about sending their child off to war. There’s a language problem. I’m challenging you to think about those parents.”

Minister Price also gently reprimanded those present for using terms that may not be understood by the people they need to recruit.

“The other issue I struggle with is the term ‘STEM’,” Minister Price said. “If your parents didn’t go to university, I can tell you they probably don’t know what that means.

“I met two very educated women in Karratha the other day and I was talking about this conference and opportunities in the defence industry. I said, ‘I really want us to stop talking about STEM’. And they didn’t know what I was talking about.

“They were 25 and 45, both highly educated,” Minister Price continued. “I use that example to show that the question for all of us is, are we doing enough? I’d say probably not.”

BAE Systems Chief Technology Officer Brad Yelland then took the stage to outline the true scale of the skills shortage to attendees.

“I’ll be honest,” Yelland said. “BAE Systems Australia is 200 engineers short of what we need. But in the next three years, we will need an additional 1500 engineers.

“In that time, Australian universities will graduate about 34,000 engineers. That may seem like a lot, but of those, only around 25 per cent are eligible to work in defence industry,” Yelland said. “That’s about 8500 people.

“Let’s be optimistic and say that half of those actually want to work in defence industry,” he continued. “We’re now down to around 4000 engineers. BAE Systems Australia needs a third of those, so I don’t know what the rest of you are going to do.”

Yelland also outlined his own experience in becoming an engineer to inform ideas about how to address the skills shortage. He originally aspired to be a lawyer, but a sudden interest in Formula 1 pushed him into aerospace engineering. Interestingly, Yelland revealed that he once held the lowest-ever HSC score amongst engineering graduates from RMIT. His score remains the second-lowest on record, pipped by another RMIT engineering graduate who now also works at BAE Systems.

“School scores are clearly not indicative of ability,” Yelland said. “Perhaps we need to adjust the system to make sure those that really want to become engineers, can.”

Attendees were then separated into groups to come up with ways to grow the national skilled workforce. Ideas focused on four strategic themes – engage, attract, train and retain, and collaboration - and included better equipping teachers to communicate career pathways, potentially pooling skilled labour, coordinating and staggering project schedules, and speeding up visa approval processes. These were then refined, expanded, and stress tested on the second day of the summit.

Other speakers on both days included Senator Michaelia Cash; First Assistant Secretary of Defence Industry Policy Division Dr Sheridan Kearnan; Brigadier Simon Gould, Lead ADF Total Workforce Model Centre of Excellence; local MP and Assistant Minister for Vocational Education, Training and Apprenticeships Steve Irons; and Ian Irving, Chief Executive of the Naval Shipbuilding College.

ADM Comment: Perhaps the most interesting messages of the summit were delivered early on. Minister Price, now clearly settled in the portfolio, was unusually frank in her off-script remarks. She delivered a softly spoken but strongly worded opinion: neither Defence nor industry are moving outside their bubble and getting the Australian public on side.

Brad Yelland hit a similar note, saying that few university graduates are comfortable seeking jobs in defence industry, especially given engagement days on campus are often hit by protests. Ian Irving, meanwhile, said that shipbuilding opportunities in Australia are so exciting that ‘graduates should be banging on the door’. So where are they?

Minister Price summed up the problem to a room full of Defence and industry figures: “We’ve made a good start, but are we spreading the message far and wide? Or are we preaching to the converted?”

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