In what may be a world first, competing Defence primes are collaborating to develop strategies to ensure Australia has the skilled workforce required to deliver the Attack-class Future Submarine and the Hunter-class Future Frigate programs.

This is an issue which continues to loom large in naval maritime sector thinking, bearing in mind that current resources clearly need strengthening, both numerically and in terms of skills, amid significant growth in adjacent employment markets such as oil, gas, minerals and infrastructure.

According to the 2017 Naval Shipbuilding Plan, by 2026 the industry will require more than 5,200 personnel directly employed in construction, and more than double that number working in sustainment and supply chain activities for the Commonwealth and industry.

Ultimately, more than 15,000 personnel will be directly or indirectly employed in the national naval shipbuilding enterprise, the Plan forecasts.

With this very much in mind, the signature last October of the Naval Shipbuilding Industry Strategic Workforce Plan established unprecedented collaboration between the Naval Shipbuilding College (NSC) and leading naval primes – ASC, BAE Systems Australia/ASC Shipbuilding, Luerssen Australia, and Naval Group Australia (NGA), together with Lockheed Martin Australia and Saab Australia.

The four-step strategic workforce plan essentially addresses demand, supply, solutions and sustainment on a national basis.
NSC’s role is that of an aggregator and a coordinator of strategy and educational skilling, says Ian Irving, the College’s Chief Executive.

“We’re up to five iterations of the demand data provided by the nine biggest companies; we’ve got very, very good data up to 2025 and estimates up to 2035,” he said to ADM.

“We’ve got our first piece of what will be an iterative process, the supply analysis for the country around all the professional roles, and by the end of April we’ll have the operational roles understood as well.

“We’ve got models for the supply chain, we’re working through the supply solutions and we’ll have all the priority roles completed in the next six months. We’ve prioritised those that are needed early, and in parallel with all that, we’re reaching out to the companies about their current acquisition strategies.”

Industry engagement
Operationally, the plan draws on a strategic governance forum chaired by Tony Dalton, Deputy Secretary Naval Shipbuilding within CASG; a CEOs’ forum; an HR directors’ forum; a communications forum; and a current acquisitions forum; in all of which the NSC engages with industry peers and implements decisions.

“We’re a hub and spoke model, we’ve established a network of 21 institutions, TAFE colleges and universities that are partnering with us and we’re working with them to ensure that required courses are available with the curriculum that meets the needs of the sector,” Irving said.

“There may be some areas where specialist training is required that would not ordinarily come in an accredited training scheme, and more specialised training can either be put in place by ourselves or by another training provider.

“There’s a shortage of design engineers and no traditional designer course, and in this instance NSC has put its own course in place. Procurement and sub-contract management are also not typical courses within the Australian curriculum.

“We’re looking to identify those areas where it would be appropriate to have courses made available that can be aggregated across all the players,” Irving explained to ADM.

The facilities under construction at Osborne for the frigate and submarine programs will be amongst the world’s most modern, involving digital integration down to the factory floor.

“The ability of individual assembly workers to engage with that technology is something that has to be imparted, as is the ability of suppliers to integrate their workforce and their systems with the primes,” Irving said.

“In terms of complexity and sophistication the ships and the submarines themselves are absolutely beyond the baseline of what we’ve seen previously, and without question we will be the parent navies of them both. So we as a country need to be able to master both boats in a more intensive way than we ever have before, both operationally and technologically.”

Demand curve
The current demand in the naval construction sector is predominantly around experienced designers, project managers, combat systems engineers, systems engineers and procurement specialists, Irving notes.

“We have some very experienced people as a core but others will have to come from adjacent sectors while we develop more of those skills through the education system. We’re balancing all that, there are no specific concerns yet about a particular shortage, but there’s work to do.”

The NSC already has more than 2,000 people on its national Workforce Register, about 500 of whom are already job-ready for the industry roles they are seeking, and the momentum is building.

“That’s a powerful portal for us, it enables us to engage with these people and determine what kind of training they would need to undertake, we’ll counsel them on what we think is the most appropriate way for them to gain those skills. I’m hoping within a few months we’ll have a jobs portal and they’ll be able to access those jobs directly and enter the sector,” Irving said.

In the short-term ASC Shipbuilding is recruiting external candidates, mainly from Australia, for its Hunter-class frigate program, transferring skilled resources from programs completed by its owner BAE Systems, and partnering with other defence companies to deliver the design and prototyping capability, says Human Resources Director Matthew Double.

Medium-term the company has 100 knowledge transfer assignments to the UK and within Australia to gain critical experience in the UK on the Type 26 reference ship, as well as defining capability hubs in cities other than Adelaide where the large number of critical skills may not be available. Williamstown will be a key hub.

Longer term the company will grow capability through its early career programs as well as providing professional development for recent starters.

The demand in the sector for operational personnel is expected to accelerate around 2025, providing time to generate bulk trades skills through the training system although some corporate initiatives are already in place.

The first three submarine apprentices for the Future Submarine program joined NGA recently following a competitive recruitment process involving more than 400 candidates.

After completing a four-year fabrication program with ASC working on the Collins-class they will transfer back to NGA and form part of the core Attack-class hull section qualification team.

The first 18 apprentices recruited by ASC Shipbuilding for the Hunter-class program will start work in June, and 25 graduates have already joined the company in a variety of disciplines.

In a new initiative, the naval shipbuilding primes and NSC are now looking to develop and implement training secondments for SMEs into primes to enable industry to take new skills, experience and knowledge back into their environments, creating a new eco-system of skills development.

The primes are also considering the steps they can take as an enterprise to establish a naval shipbuilding graduate scheme.
“This would not only encompass the primes but also SMEs within our supply chains as they play an integral role in supporting prime contractors by designing, manufacturing and assembling components,” disclosed NGA CEO John Davis.

This article first appeared in the April 2020 edition of ADM.

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