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Defence Force Summit

Defence workforce is not just the Defence Force

STEM skills strategy as national endeavour, says Department of Defence.

Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, Minister of Defence implored Australians to ‘let loose their inner geek’ at the inaugural STEM in Defence, co-presented by the Australian Defence Magazine and Informa, held in Canberra on 30th of November.

“It’s not possible to overstate the level of challenge we are faced with,” the Senator said when talking about the critical need to rapidly drive a STEM-skilled workforce, a concept echoed across the day by representatives from the Department of Defence, Defence Science Technology group (DST) and industry partners including Boeing, BAE Systems and Navantia Australia.

“We are changing the shape of our workforce and our recruitment messages needs to reflect that,” she continued, advising a broad, cross-agency approach to avoid inter-departmental ‘cannibalization’ of talent.

Matt Ramage, Assistant Secretary, Defence Industry, Department of Defence also recognised that a Defence STEM strategy is a national endeavor rather than a Defence endeavor. The Department of Defence, he believes, will play a critical role but will need to work with other parts of industry to raise the broader level of STEM skills in all Australians.

“With the continuous shipbuilding program in South Australia, specific skills will be required,” Mr Ramage said. “And more advertising and promoting of the Defence Industry as a career path for young Australians is needed.”

The common perception remains that a career in Defence involves front-line combat and uniforms. However the sophistication and breadth of skills required over the next 40 years is staggering. The DST has $1.6 billion allocated to innovation initiatives over the next ten years, including $730 million for the Next Generation Technology Fund.

The Defence STEM strategy will reference five domains. The domains of land, sea and air have been included since World War One. Newly added are cyber and space.

“Scientists will be just as important as our front line soldiers and their ability to cut code quickly will be critical,” said Army Drones Programs Brigadier, Chris Mills, Director General Modernisation – Army. Unmanned aerial systems including drones that use swarm mentality will shape the future of Defence. Soldiers at all levels will need to understand and engage comfortably with these technologies.

The future Defence workforce is not confined to the Defence Force. The Defence Industry includes thousands of businesses, men and women across the country who aren’t in the Defence Force but they use their skills to supply and support it. It’s equally important to companies in the Defence industry that Australia builds its STEM capacity.

Shelley Willsmore from BAE Systems explained that 60% of their workforce is STEM related but 35% of their workers are already aged over 50 years.

“Looking at the growth that’s about to hit us, we see the challenges” she said. With the increase in shipbuilding, BAE Systems plans to recruit 2000 STEM graduates by 2018 and they need to look at new avenues to attract people at all levels of their careers.

The challenge is to communicate the full breadth of high tech jobs in the Defence force, added Pauline Richards, Director – Human Resources at Navantia Australia. “Australia will be at the forefront of the shipbuilding industry. We need to sell our industry as an industry where you can gain more than you ever thought possible.”

– Karen Taylor-Brown

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national security

National security relies on STEM

For Australia to be a prosperous, healthy and sustainable country it must be safe and secure. We expect our defence forces and national security agencies to be at the leading edge in their capabilities. Increasingly, this edge is underpinned by science and technology, which requires recruiting and developing our country’s most gifted scientists and engineers.

These talented professionals do not emerge by accident. They must be encouraged in our schools and tertiary institutions and then nurtured and supported through dedicated programs to achieve fulfilling careers. Australian institutions, including the Department of Defence, must be deeply committed to developing a future workforce with skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).


“In this age of digital disruption, the most secure countries will rely on platforms that are powered by STEM knowledge.”


STEM skills will underpin effective national security as Australia acquires sophisticated, multi-billion dollar platforms, including Future Submarine, Future Frigate, Joint Strike Fighter, Air Warfare Destroyer, Unmanned Aircraft and Cyber capabilities. All of these platforms will require STEM support during acquisition and throughout their service life.

Australia’s defence and national security sectors need to stay ahead of the technology curve to both create and prevent strategic surprise. Autonomous systems, cyber technology, electronic warfare, quantum computing and space exploitation are potentially game-changing technologies. In this age of digital disruption, the most secure countries will rely on platforms that are powered by STEM knowledge.

It is vital that our nation builds a ’talent pipeline’ to ensure a steady flow of highly trained scientists, technologists and engineers who can develop innovative solutions for future national security challenges.

A model for fostering talent in STEM 

The Department of Defence is actively engaged in a wide variety of STEM-focused initiatives, ranging from a ‘Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools’ program through to undergraduate and PhD scholarships.

We support further education by offering our employees generous study leave, and encourage diversity in STEM through scholarships and cadetships dedicated to women and Indigenous Australians.

We also encourage undergraduate university students to undertake summer vacation work and other paid work placements with Defence, both short-term and long-term.

In 2015–16, Defence provided over 100 STEM scholarships, cadetships and work placements. A number of sponsored students went on to win awards such as the South Australian Early Career STEM Professional Award (Mark McKenzie, 2013 and Tristan Goss, 2015), the South Australian Apprentice of the Year  (Dale Goldfinch, 2012), the inaugural Aerospace Australia Defence Innovation Scholarship (Luke Vandewater, 2012) and Materials Australia’s Ray Reynoldson Award for research (Genevieve Hart, 2013).

These success stories are testament to the promising rewards reaped by investing in Australia’s future STEM workforce.

Dr Alex Zelinsky

Chief Defence Scientist and Head of the Defence Science and Technology Group

Read next: Vish Nandlall, Chief Technology Officer of Telstra on To code or not to code?

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