Australian Signals Directorate will need to be flexible to staff its REDSPICE program
24 Aug 2022|

In July, the Australian Signals Directorate launched REDSPICE, a $10 billion initiative to grow its workforce by 1,900 people over the next decade across the range of the agency’s capabilities and supporting functions. To meet this aspiration, however, ASD will have to contend with many of the workforce challenges that face all defence sector employers, and most employers of technology focused workforces nationally.

There aren’t any silver bullets that will wholly solve the workforce access and retention challenge, but taking the work to the workers is a step in the right direction. In answer to the chronic worker shortages in Canberra, REDSPICE also aims to have 40% of ASD’s workforce located outside of the nation’s capital.

Distributing this workforce outside of Canberra is an excellent idea, and is likely inspired by past experience. Back in 2015, ASD launched the innovative strategic industry partnership (SIP) program, whereby it engaged industry partners to develop workforces outside of Canberra, namely, in Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane. I often point to this model as an example not only of taking the work to the workers, but also of not insisting that technology workforces be wholly conjured up in Canberra.

ASD will no doubt have good insight from its SIP providers as to the efficacy of a ‘take the work to the workers’ approach and, where it has worked well, should look to supercharge those results in those locations, as well as explore opportunities to replicate successes in other places.

Unfortunately, this is against the backdrop of a broader problem; Australia has a skills shortage in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields. Employers in defence and adjacent sectors are finding it very difficult to attract workers with STEM skills across the experience spectrum. For example, software engineering, a critical skillset for the defence sector, including ASD, is in short supply and has a strong demand forecast.

A two-week coding bootcamp doesn’t create a capable developer, but some industry employers are adopting innovative partnerships with training providers to focus and truncate formal study programs, and to integrate the learning experience into on-the-job environments. Such approaches may create a capable software engineer within 18 months, or half the time it currently takes to create a graduate engineer. ASD would do well to explore such programs should its demand for specific skills warrant.

The good news is that ASD has an edge: it’s attractive. Anecdotally, ASD hasn’t had a significant problem getting graduates because of a perception that it offers exciting and meaningful work in a field that will provide excellent future employment opportunities.

ASD’s reported experience with graduates is good news, but it’s yet to be seen if it can offer the same pull factors to the experienced professionals that it will undoubtedly need to scale up its workforce. And it’s here that there needs to be a hard-nosed look at how ASD will compete with other employers, especially with those in the banking, information technology and consulting sectors that may not require drawn-out and invasive security vetting processes.

Offering interesting and fulfilling work is a great advantage, but ASD must also offer a comprehensive employer value proposition to attract and retain staff, and that will mean paying top salaries.

One of the greatest barriers to ASD quickly accessing talent has been the imperative for its people to hold the highest level security clearance, top secret—positive vetting. Under REDSPICE, ASD has stated an intent to create physical spaces where work of lower classification may be undertaken, with the commensurate lower level clearance requirements for staff. Still, there will probably be no escaping the requirement for a large part of the workforce to hold high-level clearances, and perhaps over the longer term the new top secret—privileged access clearance will provide ASD and its partners access to a wider pool of potential workers. Where prospective workers are required to undergo the lengthy high-level vetting processes, ASD must provide sufficient candidate-management resources to reduce drop-out rates due to recruitment process fatigue.

Finding workers is one thing; keeping them is another, especially in a highly competitive labour market. According to ASD’s 2020–21 annual report, this time last year the agency employed around 2,150 staff. It had a separation rate of 9.2%, which is considered fairly healthy for most organisations and is half that of many defence industry businesses.

Allowing for the current workforce size and an annual separation rate of 10%, and assuming that the workforce would need to grow by 210 people per year, ASD will have to recruit 425 people in 2022 and up to 615 in 2031. Those are not small numbers for an organisation unaccustomed to such growth. The size of the challenge will be exacerbated by the security clearance requirements and long recruitment process, which may see high drop-out rates.

ASD must also have a strategic plan to utilise SIP and service provider workforces as a hedge against supply and market forces that may hamper its ability to hire permanent public service staff, as well as to obtain maximum exposure and access to the desired pool of workers through alternative employment arrangements and conditions. The reality is that certain technology workforce cohorts will only take jobs as contracted staff because of the higher remuneration and work–life and program flexibility that this model offers. These cohorts won’t be accessible through public service employment; hence the need for industry partners.

The REDSPICE program is an ambitious plan to enable ASD to double in size and strengthen its vital role in our national security, and must be applauded for its intent. However, great care must be taken to properly resource recruitment and retention enablers, as well as invest in ways to ensure a reliable supply of talent through the education and private sectors.