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Airpower, baby! How Air Force can unlock latent workforce capability

It’s no secret that people are the principal capability that keeps any organisation functioning and competitive. Ben Gray looks at Air Force’s flexible employment practices and how these options are vital in retaining and expanding the experienced and talented workforce the Royal Australian Air Force possesses. As a new father (congratulations!), Gray examines structural and cultural changes decision-makers can make to enhance retention and members’ willingness to return to their Air Force careers after starting a family. Gray also highlights where flexible employment options can benefit any member in maximising their professional and personal lives. Although not always feasible, genuine consideration by decision-makers allows for structural problems to be identified, possible compromises to be found, and most importantly, for members to be heard.


The flexible employment system offered in Air Force can be thought of much like a travel guide. It is unhelpful if left unread. It is somewhat helpful if only a few pages are read. It offers maximum value when you can talk about it with someone else who has been where you want to go. With that in mind, this post will offer a few of my musings. There are plenty of reasons why an Air Force member would want to access flexible employment, however, I’m going to focus on the most common: children.


Ask any parent about their experiences with a newborn child and you will get a range of responses mainly centred on sleep, food, and tips for surviving the first few months. They are (mostly) fun experiences, but unique to each person and their family. In integrating another person into your life, you will eventually have to consider how you accommodate this newcomer into your career plans and vice versa. Flexibility, opportunity, and the way we work all influence how a new parent returns to their Air Force career. These are big, determining factors on whether our people with valuable skills and training come back to us or seek employment elsewhere.


The term Fifth Generation often conjures visions of technology, engineering or a scientific edge. Yet ask someone what a fifth generation workforce looks like and you’re often met with silence. In my experience, the other side of that silence produces phrases like ‘flexibility,’ ‘different opportunities’, and ‘doing things smarter.’


The Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Force Strategy (AFSTRAT) guidance on workforce centres on education and training, posting members for influence and effect, and resilience. None of these goals are incompatible with flexibility, finding different opportunities, or doing things smarter. Therefore, it begs the question - why aren’t we there already?


Barriers to re-engagement

Our people are valuable assets. They take a lot of time to train and have skills that aren’t easily replaced by someone off the street. Sometimes those skills and organisational background aren’t replicable by a contractor. And yes, our preparedness to reintegrate new parents and primary carers is at times inhibited by the way we structure our work. As our platforms and roles become more complex, this problem will compound.


My experience has been shaped by the decision to take on the primary carer role for my then 6-month-old son at the start of the working year in 2021. This decision offered me the opportunity to experience what a number of my (mainly female) colleagues have been experiencing from the point that they decide to have a child and continue to serve. A new parent returning to their old job has vastly different needs from just 12 months’ prior: the need to be able to start and finish work around childcare availability; perhaps a need to work a reduced working week to balance the availability of childcare; longer notice to go away on tasks or exercises so that they can organise a family member to provide care, and my personal hurdle this year, the need to drop everything and look after a sick child when required. As children get older, the challenges centre around supervision during school holidays.


Some positions are already inherently compatible with this level of flexibility. Governance and headquarters-based staff roles are often more flexible in work hours due to the longer-term nature of their deliverables. Flying an aircraft, maintaining an aircraft, or working on a secure system that supports one of our platforms offer less flexibility, and often require the Air Force member to be away from home for extended periods. These barriers can limit how members, particularly women, re-engage with their career following the birth of a child.


Yet, it needn’t be a limitation.


The career model for generating aircrew for example has options which can be conducive to flexibly employing a workforce, with the express intent of returning to flying or finding a future career path. After gaining wings, converting to a platform and completing a first tour, a member has the option of pursuing a ground posting, be that in aviation safety, capability management and assurance, executive support, or career management or recruiting, regardless of gender. Air Force is already offering this long-term planning through the Career Development Plan. This is an opportunity to get ideas on paper and have an honest chat with a career manager and the member’s supervisor about how realistic they are, and how to make them happen. A member can explore options to find a job that provides flexibility, career progression, and the all-important access to family support. For a variety of reasons, children won’t always arrive on a timeline that neatly fits in a career plan. While your plans may be overtaken by life, planning is indispensable. Many Air Force women were doing this before it became an application form.


While working in career management for officer aircrew, I have observed more and more men take this up, reflecting the social and cultural shifts in wider Australian society. When they do, families where both parents are serving members can decide for themselves which parent will return to work. This offers Air Force both a pathway for a faster re-engagement into the workforce for women, should the member desire it, and for men to have the option to plan for being in more stable and predictable posting, if they desire. This isn’t just limited to parents - members wanting to take an extended break for travel or study can also use the system to plan in this way.


Leaders at all levels must be aware of the policy in place that can enable them to support their subordinates. We need to recognise it is all of our responsibility to assist in positively influencing members’ decisions to remain in Air Force. Increasing re-engagement and retention of a large segment of the current workforce by enabling Air Force to achieve postings of influence and effect for its people is necessary for Air Force to balance the highly specialised and limited workforce it has.


Keeping the family in the family

Once our people come back, we then need to consider how we encourage them to stay. Throughout their careers, Air Force members have a number of training, education and readiness requirements to meet. Sometimes, these can be barriers to longer term employment and retention. Some are structural, and some come down to the familiarity and confidence a supervisor has with the flexible employment system – knowing that the travel guide exists and who to talk to about it.


For as long as I have been in the Air Force, Physical Fitness Tests on RAAF bases have started at 7.30am. This is fine for someone who doesn’t need to drop off a child at daycare, and is a fresh source of anxiety for someone who does. Particularly when that daycare centre opens at 7am and is 30 minutes from base. In my own case, I’ve been waiting for three months for my wife’s work roster and fitness testing to align after Covid restrictions have eased in NSW so that I can meet this obligation. When mentioning this to some colleagues with small children recently I was partially comforted to hear that I wasn’t alone in juggling an early start with finding someone to watch my child, if not surprised that no one had solved this problem yet.


I saw another way of doing business whilst posted to southern NSW a few years ago. During the winter months the PTI’s ran fitness testing in the afternoon to avoid the harshest of the cold and blanketing morning fog. It’s certainly worth considering for a portion of the year at all of our bases to provide our people with greater flexibility. I’ve noticed this has already happened with the weapons component of readiness requirements at the last two bases I’ve been posted to – weapons training has either been straight after lunch or closer to 9am. A structural solution to making retention an easier consideration. Perfect!


Looking further into a member’s career, Professional Military Education courses allow us to grow and shape air and space power practitioners who can contribute to the joint force, and are a requirement for promotion and progression. Air Force has used the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic to covert most PME courses to online delivery, facilitating remote attendance for the first time. In the point PME realm the foundational Introduction to Joint Operations course was also offered online and will continue to do so on a permanent basis going forward. Some courses such as initial employment training require residential attendance, and to an extent always will – military members will always answer the call when required. Yet the success of PME’s delivery in 2020 and 2021 should encourage us to pull apart every course we currently offer and determine if it can be delivered via online or remote means. For many parents, and even those with older children, offering the opportunity to complete PME and professional development courses from our posted locations, without disrupting the family routine, is the difference between gaining a skill or experience that can enhance their knowledge and advance their career. The higher skilled our workforce is, the more we can do with it.


Creating a culture of flexibility

There is also a question of cultural fit. The benefits to capability of a diverse workforce are well-documented and thoroughly understood in Air Force and the broader Defence department. As Defence faces stronger competition in the labour market to attract and recruit people, our employment conditions will only increase in importance as part of the overall value proposition for potential candidates.


When you talk to the next generation joining Air Force, it’s clear they have big expectations of what work can offer, both men and women, parents and those without children. Why can’t an expectant mother who is also aircrew, with her half a decade or more experience in flying, remain posted to her flying squadron whilst on maternity leave and return to it afterwards if she chooses to continue flying? Creating a workplace that is accommodating and flexible within the bounds of our capability requirements is not only achievable but necessary if we are to attract and retain our people.


The above suggestions for accommodating greater flexibility rely on a decision-maker recognising a way of doing things differently and implementing it. In some cases, this is as simple as changing our mindset. A supervisor who considers an application for flexible work from a starting position of ‘yes’ and working backwards to align the member’s desires with capability requirements may still arrive at the same outcome as having started from a rigid adherence to promulgated working hours. Sometimes, the answer won’t favour the member, yet a person will remember the path they took to get there, if not the destination itself. At the very least, they’ll feel heard. In the future competition for talent, micro interactions with the flexible employment system can often be the aspect that influences a person’s decision to return to Air Force, and to stay on for a longer period thereafter.


Closing thoughts

For my part, I feel like I’m a better supervisor now having had first-hand experience of the challenges faced by (until recently, mainly female) members in continuing their Air Force career after the birth of a child. I’ve had the enthusiastic support of a chain of command across two jobs who have supported my variable working hours and substantial working from home.


The system that can deliver our cultural change and provide an attractive employment offer to support the future Air Force is already available. It’s time to inquisitively pick up that travel guide and find out where it can take us.


Ben Gray has a long career in military HR, including on operational deployment and in career management positions. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.