JESSICA NAUNTON: No matter where you are in the country right now, workforce shortages are a problem across multiple sectors and industries. And it appears our Defence Force is not immune with concerns this could threaten our national security. A submission by Universities Australia to the federal Defence Strategic Review has uncovered the need for more workers in areas like weaponry, military systems, engineering and cybersecurity and, of course, intelligence just to name a few. Catriona Jackson is the chief executive of Universities Australia and is here to unpack this a bit more. Good morning, Catriona.
CATRIONA JACKSON: G’day, Jess.
JESSICA NAUNTON: What got the peak body for universities interested in the defence space to start with?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Our universities do an awful lot of research work with defence all around the country, including up there where you are in North Queensland. There’s also big discussions around the substantial boost in investment from the government, the real increasing capacity we need to have to deal with substantial, let’s call them strategic rearrangements globally. But we mustn’t neglect the people. We can talk about kit all we like – terrific, big new submarines, all sorts of things – but we need to have the skilled individuals to be able to go into those jobs. And as you know, defence is not just about boots on the ground, it’s people from almost every walk of life. Defence is suffering from skill shortages, just like the rest of the community. Universities are here to help.
JESSICA NAUNTON: Just how many people or positions do we need right now? I mentioned a couple of the areas that were highlighted in the study, but how many people are we talking about here?
CATRIONA JACKSON: One of the things we want to do is sit down with Defence and really plot out numbers, but if you just look at cybersecurity alone – 30,000 unfilled spots over the next four years. We all know that cybersecurity is, every single day, becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Who hasn’t been hacked or phished or one of those awful things? We know that there’s a really serious skill shortage and that’s just in cyber. We’re talking numbers in the tens of thousands, at least.
JESSICA NAUNTON: 30,000 positions seems like quite a number to be able to fill right now when we are in a worker shortage at the moment, Catriona. How do we fix this problem? What do we do to fill the gaps?
CATRIONA JACKSON: The first thing we do is we continue really good, deep conversations and we construct better relations with Defence. Already great relationships, but we just sit down, really nut out what we need and work out what policies we need in place to make sure we can actually fill these great big gaps because it’s not just us looking for people, not just Defence, it’s private industry, the public service, but also it’s people overseas. Everybody wants these skilled people. We need to make sure we keep up with the country and that the university sector is in the right place with the right policies to be able to provide those really valuable individuals.
JESSICA NAUNTON: Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has suggested a return to national service. Do you think this could play a role in addressing the issue as well?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I’ll leave government to make judgments about pronouncements from former prime ministers about national service. We just think our job as universities is to continue producing those really skilled individuals to go into those really important jobs to keep the nation safe.
JESSICA NAUNTON: What would you need to be able to achieve closing the skill shortage gap?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We’ve put a number of very practical hands-on solutions in our submission to Angus Houston’s big review. We’re looking forward to having further conversations with Defence. We’ve already had a number of them as we prepare this review, but there are a range of things you could do. You could explore new sorts of ways of financially supporting students to go into Defence jobs. You could have a look at the fact that at the moment, international students aren’t really eligible for all those arrangements, we can have a look at students coming from trusted allies and work out whether we want to change arrangements in Defence. Defence would have to decide to do that, but that’s another source of really high skilled individuals. We’ve been arguing for some time that across the board, not just in Defence, we need to take better advantage of the fact that we have these great graduates who have already made a really big investment in Australia. We want to keep more of them here. Other countries are outstripping us on this measure and these people are really valuable, really smart, very keen to be valuable Australian citizens. There’s a whole range of things we can do.
JESSICA NAUNTON: This was a submission put to the strategic review that will be released early next year, and we’ll stay across this but for now, Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia, thank you for sharing your insights this morning.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Thanks, Jess, and listeners.