Growing Your Own

Growing Your Own

It can be hard enough in civilian life to recruit and retain people with high-level technical skills, but how do you secure the skills you need in a rapidly evolving technological world when you can’t laterally recruit?

The Department of Defence makes heavy use of civilians with obscure technical skills, like the ability to dynamically patch radios into Wide Area Networks to allow communication from ships, and it doesn’t have any more difficulty than the rest of Australia in finding and retraining such people, particularly since the downturn.

“My view always has been that within the civilian world, with few exceptions — and there are a couple of very specialist areas like satellite coordination or so forth — that it’s a marketplace where we will always be able to acquire skills even if it’s at cost,” says Defence CIO Patrick Hannan. “So that’s an issue for us, but it is not a strategic issue within the organisation.

But you can’t send a civilian into a war zone, so Defence needs to “grow” plenty of military personnel with IT skills too, be they high level architectural skills, high level technical skills in relation to network management or skills ranging from systems development through acquisition and maintenance.

“The problem is that of course in the military you can’t laterally recruit,” Hannan says. “You have to grow your own, and you have to retain your own, and that’s where the problem comes. It’s because there is a market, and so we put a lot of investment into our personnel to train them, and of course they become a very attractive commodity.

“So the issue is how do you grow your own skills for people in uniform? Well we do that, we have career streams for people to bring them in, in both officer and other ranks: we develop them, we give them training, in a range of things, and the issue is that some of these skills are hard to retain, in uniform.”

Defence needs IT military specialists in a vast array of areas, ranging from advanced, safety-critical, specialist military equipment and decision-support systems, to logistics and corporate systems capable of supporting an extremely complex organisation, both in the office and in the field.

And here it is facing critical skills shortages, as identified by a recent Australian National Audit Office report. And it’s not just the need to recruit and train these people that is giving Defence a headache — it’s trying to stop business from stealing them as soon as they have been adequately trained up.

Defence’s answer has been the new Defence Workforce Plan, an outcome of the Defence Strategic Workforce Planning Review which is using analytical and modelling techniques to help improve Defence’s recruitment and retention decision-support projections, risk analysis and solutions.

Hannan says after at least an eight-year effort the ADF has a “wealth” of longitudinal information about it’s recruiting processes, about morale and attitude of personnel across ADF (thanks to routine testing) and other HR issues. More recently its organisational psychologists and other HR specialists have been working hard to turn that data into models to help it resolve those critical skills shortages. Significantly the models prove remuneration is far from the be all and end all when it comes to attraction and retention.

“We’ve run a few issues of trying to resolve critical skills shortages, and they have worked. They have actually had a better effect,” Hannan says. “For instance the model might say, well if you increase salaries by 10 per cent you’re going to get a retention increase from 50 per cent to 64 per cent, but if you actually give them a five per cent rise, plus this and plus that, you actually end up getting an even greater retention. And running those over a couple of years, we’ve found that the models are pretty accurate in what they’re predicting.

“And the models are not just about ubiquitous work in the ADF, they are about specific skills categories in the ADF. Air traffic controllers versus pilots, versus helicopter pilots, versus communication technologists. . .

“And that’s giving us a capacity, and it’s been used already in a couple of cases for the ADF before the Remuneration Tribunal, to help us package arrangements that are attractive for retention and attraction,” Hannan says

Hannan says the work has proved so valuable he plans to demonstrate it at the next meeting of the Commonwealth’s Chief Information Officer Committee (CIOC).

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