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A Novel Approach to Growing Australia’s Shipbuilding Workforce

Updated: Jun 12, 2019

KEY ENABLERS | 20 MAY 2019 By: BMT Defence and Security Australia

Promoted by BMT Defence and Security Australia.

It’s an exciting time to be in Defence, and particularly interesting for those involved with the shipbuilding industry.

However, with this opportunity comes challenges that need to be overcome, and there is no greater challenge than building up an appropriately skilled defence industry workforce.  

The size and skill levels of the naval shipbuilding workforce will need to increase substantially over the next 10 to 15 years. By 2026, the industry will require over 5,200 staff employed in construction activities, and over 10,000 staff will be employed in sustainment and supply chain activities.

How then do we begin to tackle this problem?  We suggest that an alternative additional workforce strategy is needed to ensure we have the people needed for Australia’s growing naval shipbuilding industry.

The Federal Government’s Naval Shipbuilding Plan identified the following as sources of skilled workers:

  • Former naval shipbuilding workers

  • Govt. or Navy personnel with naval engineering or trade qualifications

  • Foreign workers with shipbuilding experience

  • Qualified workers from interstate

  • New entrants: School leavers, mature age students and Graduates with relevant university degrees.

The naval shipbuilding industry intends to source its workers from more traditional avenues, as outlined above. These are legitimate and critical sources and the unique technical demands of naval vessels can require technical skillsets that are not always transferable from other industries.

However, this only further stresses the need for Government and defence industry to explore alternative additional strategies to build this highly-skilled workforce. Substantial time will be needed to build up the required skills.

Here we advocate for a multi-pronged approach to recruitment.  Industry ought to look at recruiting people from unrelated occupations and industries who have skills that can be translated to the specific needs of shipbuilding. For example, it is entirely possible for an aviation inspector or biologist who possesses a high attention to detail to become an effective quality inspector in the shipbuilding domain, provided they are given sufficient training.  

The Navy, Air Force and Army must already identify the hidden aptitude in an individual, and there is little point selecting someone unless your data suggests there is a high probability that individual can be successful in a set of skills that you need to be filled. This is already what selection centres attempt to identify. The basis is therefore already there, but the remains an opportunity to pursue scientific inquiry into this approach and to get ahead of the game.

This approach goes further than skill and competency mapping.  It also raises fundamental questions with regard to the psychological implications of career identity and transitioning.  

How can we attract people to these roles, help them to identify with their new role and career, and ensure they find meaning in the work that they do? Ultimately, how can we get people with analogous skills from other lines of work to want to play a vital role in this significant nation building project?

A job is more than a source of income, it is a fundamental social role and source of identity.

If we start with that, then this novel approach poses many questions with regard to whether and how people can depart from their original/intended career pathway and re-establish a new career identity and achieve career satisfaction in a different line of work?

This article cannot definitively answer such questions (and the myriad of other questions that emerge!), however a quick review of the literature provides some promising findings.  

Firstly, let’s move away from career identity and move towards skill identity; our future workforce needs to decouple career or professional identify from skill identity.

Secondly, Let’s embrace the new world order. Research conducted by the FYA, has revealed that “traditional, linear career trajectories are rapidly becoming an antiquated notion.  It's more likely that a 15-year-old today will experience a portfolio career, potentially having 17 different jobs over 5 careers in their lifetime."

For younger and future generations, the acquisition of portable skills may become more important than career or professional identity, and hence industries and organisations that promote diversity and inclusion in their recruitment pools may be more attractive.

This ties in well with the concept that it is the skills, competencies and other aptitudes that a person brings to a career that marks their success in it; the trick is to enable the recognition of those skills within a wider qualification and formal licencing process. If that can be done then the world is that individual’s oyster, and the pearls provide benefit to Australia as a whole.

Australia also needs to rebrand the naval shipbuilding enterprise as an employer of choice.  

This novel approach requires that Defence Industry markets itself as an employer of choice and an industry that embraces diversity and inclusion.  In addition, the naval shipbuilding enterprise must communicate its commitment to long-term sustainability and the offer of long-term career paths, essentially differentiating itself from the ‘push-pull’ and instable nature of boom-bust industries.

In summary, it is important to start asking the question now as to where the Australian shipbuilding workforce will come from.  How the workforce of the future is trained and qualified is a debate we look forward to. With luck the right question will be asked, and Australia will reap the reward of not only world-class and regionally superior Navy assets, but also a flexible and dynamic workforce that sees the value in the skills they have rather than simply the career they chose.

Written by; Chris Greenbank, Human Factors Specialist, BMT in conjunction with Karina Jorritsma, Associate Professor and Katrina Hosszu, Research Officer, Future of Work Institute, Curtin University, Perth Australia.

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