A $50k bonus,cheap uni,extra healthcare:the 4400 navy jobs no one wants

Senior economics correspondent

Last week,Defence Minister Richard Marles used a speech to outline a huge increase in spending across our military. The real takeaway to anyone listening,though,was the major staffing problems facing Australia’s defence forces.

It’s a problem that is going to weigh heavily on the government’s ambitions – in areas from security to energy transition to aged care – while also putting huge question marks over the opposition’s own plans.

Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis arrives at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. Australia is a long way from having enough people to crew our planned AUKUS submarines.

Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis arrives at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. Australia is a long way from having enough people to crew our planned AUKUS submarines.Royal Australian Navy

Both sides of politics want to increase the number of men and women in uniform.Marles and his predecessors,Peter Dutton and Marise Payne,have been vocal on the issue.

In his speech last week,Marles confirmed that between 2020-21 and 2022-23,the Defence Departmenthad met only 80 per cent of its recruitment targets. The shortfall was 4400 personnel.

Currently,Australia has about 60,000 people in uniform. To be 4400 people short over a three-year period,amid a concerted campaign to increase the number of soldiers,sailors and aviators,highlights the difficulty in attracting new personnel.

Even before this shortfall,it had been years since Defence reached its recruitment targets and maintained them for more than one year at a time.

In the pre-COVID year of 2018-19,Defence took in more than 7000 new personnel – the highest number in a decade. But it was still 6 per cent short of its annual target.

The government is throwing money at the issue,trying to woo people with cash – namely a $50,000 “continuation” bonus to those who have already served four years and will commit to staying another three.

It’s also upgrading assisted study (giving personnel finance assistance or time off for educational pursuits) and expanding its health program to cover extra services,and Marles was upfront in saying Australia will look torecruit non-citizens from neighbouring countries (the Pacific Islands appear the most likely to be targeted).

Meanwhile,the Coalition is talking about not moving defence personnel around the country (or the world) on postings as often as another way of enticing people to sign up and to stay.

Extra money,better healthcare,guaranteed work and opportunities for study all seem reasonable ways to bring in new recruits. But as military strategy expert William Lebenrecently noted, wooing young Australians into the armed services is not easy.

“If you ask a lot of people in their early 20s,they will,for good reason,tell you that the biggest security problems facing the country have to do with climate change,” he told a national security conference. “They’re not particularly interested in geopolitics.”

The recruitment targets Marles was talking about are what Defence needs to meet the government’s – and the opposition’s – goal of increasing the number of people in uniform by a third by 2040.

This includes specialists,such as those who will be required to deal with the nuclear-powered submarines at the heart of the AUKUS agreement.

By one estimate,Australia will need 8000 people with nuclear training to build and service the new submarines that are scheduled to hit our waters some time in the 2040s. But at present,there’s only a tiny number of people with those skills and requisite background.

This at a time when the Coalition is proposing a network of nuclear power plants across the country. Putting to one side the construction costs (there’s not one being built in the developed world that’s on cost and on schedule),the biggest problem is that Australia simply doesn’t have the nuclear workforce to service the industry. Even if we were to begin training up people now,that is still a long,long way down the track. Not to mention the market competition that would develop between the power industry and the naval forces for these specialists.

And that’s just in the defence space. Both the government and the opposition know the aged care and health sectors need tens of thousands of extra staff with special skills,while manufacturing and teaching staff are also falling well behind what’s needed.

There are relatively few options available to the government to boost Defence enlistment rates bar conscription (which,given Australia’s history with conscription in the 1910s or the 1960s-70s,would splinter the community). The Coalition’s idea of not moving personnel around from base-to-base across the country has merit,but it is not the kind of change that will draw in 8000 nuclear engineers.

Both sides know there is a problem and both are on the right path – pay,conditions,taking in non-citizens – in terms of options to boost overall personnel numbers. But still,it’s not enough.

Ever since AUKUS was first announced back in 2021,the focus has been on the years it will take before Australia has a nuclear-powered submarine prowling the Indian or Pacific oceans.

But there’s no use worrying about these boats when the immediate problem is having enough people to build or operate them.

Shane Wright is a senior economic correspondent.

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Shane is a senior economics correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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