Developing, retaining and re-investing talent in the Defence workforce

In her first post, Flight Lieutenant Samantha Hewitt delved into the merits a break in service can offer, and how to choose if this is the right path for you. Samantha also described the thought process she found beneficial when making her choice to return to service. In this post, Samantha highlights how her external experiences improved her understanding of the term ‘Whole-of-Australian-Government’ and how an understanding of other agencies contributes to achieving Australian National Security objectives.


Workforce Generation and Australian Defence Force (ADF) Entry Surveys are showing:


National Service, Career Development Opportunities and Career Prospects

are amongst the top 5 reasons why people join the ADF [1].


It makes sense then that these motivations should inform how we motivate and retain our people against an increasingly competitive labour market. The implementation of the Service Category (SERCAT) scheme incorporating greater provisions for flexible working arrangements, in concert with increased career development opportunities available to the total workforce are certainly attractive. Further, the value now being placed upon individualised career management, most evident within the Air Force Enhanced Career Management system, is another promising prospect. To capitalise on this momentum, the Air Force, and ADF more widely, should further encourage and support its workforce to pursue professional breadth. A key method would be the introduction of a formal placement and secondment program which delivers opportunities to acquire external experience and build networks across industry and other government agencies.

Going beyond ‘Joint’ to ‘Whole of Australian Government’

As the ADF refines how we operate as a ‘Joint Force’, the need to rapidly and seamlessly assimilate with Other Government Agencies (OGAs) has fast become essential. The recently released Defence Strategic Update, Force Structure Plan and Air Force Strategy (AFSTRAT) rely heavily on inter-agency integration to achieve ‘Whole of Australian Government’ (WoAG) effects. For Air Force to fully realise and implement the AFSTRAT, we need to better understand that through working together, and exchanging information and experience, we will more effectively deliver the mutual objective of Australian National Security.


The ADF have a long history of working closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Australian Federal Police (AFP) to provide emergency assistance and security to civil communities abroad. Recent ADF contributions to WoAG activities are extensive. We need only look at 2020 to recall ADF support to the Rural Fire Service throughout the catastrophic bushfire season and the enduring contribution to state and territory governments through COVID-19 Assist. This vast array of interagency support has helped to increase knowledge in parts, but is still limited to pockets of the ADF.


As inter-agency work only continues to increase, Air Force must do more to optimise interoperability and inter-agency outcomes through actively pursuing placements, as well as increase personnel experience with, and build understanding of, OGA functions. Likewise, as Defence collaboration with industry matures, our understanding must grow in the multilateral space; including organisations such as the United Nations (UN), International and Australian Red Cross Movements, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and foreign militaries. Such open engagement and networking help realise potential through the exchange of information and shared experiences. This need not be resource-intensive, but rather short in duration and low in cost for big gains.


Many of these organisations offer internships and exchanges, as well as training courses.


I offer the following personal experience as a practical example, and to provoke thought on what other opportunities might be out there to help develop and retain our people, whilst optimising ADF workforce capability:


  • I have been employed in the Solomon Islands with DFAT, the AFP and the Forum Fisheries Agency (linked to the International Policy Division-funded Pacific Maritime Security Program). These experiences provided invaluable understanding of the geo-strategic challenges and opportunities referred to in our most recent strategic policies.

  • I was embedded with a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) in Timor Leste working with women affected by violence, via the Government-funded program, Australian Volunteers International. I gained insight into the development sector, its relationship with government, and specifically the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.

  • Through training in humanitarian practice with RedR Australia and subsequent membership on their emergency roster system, I was able to attend the UN Civil Military Coordination Course in The Hague and complete a six week internship offered by the NATO Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC) Centre of Excellence.

  • As part of this internship, I was provided the opportunity to attend the NATO CIMIC Higher Command Course and the European Security and Defence College Gender in Operations Course.

  • I am presently registered on the emergency deployment roster for RedR Australia (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and UN deployments), Palladium and Red Cross. These organisations offer opportunities to deploy on humanitarian and development missions nationally and internationally.


Through a little networking, research and flexibility from Air Force, these opportunities have provided essential knowledge, skills, experience and networks across government and other agencies that have been directly reinvested back into Defence on multiple occasions within Joint and operationally-focussed environments.


As a result of hands-on experience within other agencies and sectors, I have gained a deepened understanding of the humanitarian and development sectors and how regional engagement and Australian foreign aid is vital to our national security and the prevention of conflict. Combined with the extensive networks created through these opportunities, I now better understand roles, relationships and capabilities. On my return to service I was posted to a position where I was able to apply some of the knowledge acquired externally. I have been entrusted to provide informed advice to the chain of command and am able to influence productive working relationships with, or alongside, OGAs to enhance Defence mission outcomes. Such was the case during my involvement with Enhanced Regional Engagement planning, on deployment during ADF Assistance to the Pacific Island Forum, and in the conduct of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief exercise planning in Fiji.


Whilst the global pandemic has temporarily reduced opportunities to gain experience in international settings, the Australian Bushfires and COVID-19 have highlighted the importance of collaboration between Defence, industry, the public and private sectors, NGOs and academia. Now more than ever the ADF needs to embrace the enterprise approach by developing, recognising, and valuing diverse experience sets. This will be key to succeeding in increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous environments.


Defence has both an opportunity, and a need, to use the networks and experience that personnel across the workforce hold to optimise mission outcomes. A better understanding of the need for and value of this information could mean that these people are best used across the organisation within military planning, Contingency Response Operations, Defence Aid to the Civil Community and other Defence settings.


Capturing acquired skills, experience and networks

How Defence as an organisation can capture and exploit the valuable skills and networks of people returning to Defence is a frequently discussed topic by senior ADF leaders.

The recently introduced Air Force Enhanced Career Management System is helping to identify and develop talented members via career pathways, planning, differentiated management, and medium to long-term succession planning. The Career Development Plan provides personnel with the opportunity to formally record skills acquired in industry, and the public and private sectors. It also forms a key source from which to centrally capture the data, give Air Force insight to the full range of talents that its people have, and who can be employed in response to contingency operations, which usually require unique skills and experience. While an excellent concept in theory, the challenge will be having adequate flexibility and resources to enable career managers to interpret the data and capitilise on personnel capability for Air Force whilst tempering this with the passion and ambitions of the individual. Time will tell if these initiatives have the buy-in at all levels to innovate the current system.



Progress and opportunities

The SERCAT system affords excellent flexibility for individuals to go out and seek opportunities through flexible working arrangements such as full-time, part-time and reserve service. However, more can be done. Air Force currently sponsors attendance at the RedR Humanitarian Logistics course, and has started a pilot program delivering Humanitarian Protection training from the Humanitarian Advisory Group. Regrettably, many of these courses are limited in availability and still viewed as non-essential. This seems somewhat out of step with regional national security and climate change developments. It would be beneficial to start recognising these types of courses as a key to developing contemporary and relevant combat mastery. It should be noted that while I have referred to the humanitarian and development sphere, opportunities for training and experience are available in a myriad of sectors that will provide skills and networks complementary to the core capabilities of Defence.


Short-term placements can provide a cost-neutral means from which to provide experience and exposure in lieu of secondments, which can be complicated and costly to implement. The recent release of the Air Force Strategy provides some confidence that the importance in having such arrangements are starting to be realised. Commanders, managers and leaders alike play a vital role in advocating for this development and creating a culture which values these skills and networks as core to mission success.

Air Force personnel must be air-minded and strategic; practical experience and exposure to a broad range of organisations and sectors will develop professionals who are dynamic and strategic in their thinking. Compared to other large organisations, Defence is on a positive path and is by and large making the most of the limited resources available. Through implementing mechanisms for greater utilisation of external experience, and developing a supportive framework to seek opportunities for professional breadth, the Air Force can better develop, retain and re-invest it’s personnel capability.


Flight Lieutenant Samantha Hewitt is a Logistics Officer currently posted to Combat Support Division. While on Leave Without Pay, she worked with various Government and Non-Government agencies in Australia, the Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, and the Netherlands. Her focus has primarily been in the Humanitarian and Development Sectors; where she has a strong interest in Civil Military Cooperation training and education. In her current role within Operations Support, she hopes to support Combat Support Group and broader RAAF using the experiences she has gained with Government, Non-Government, International and Joint environments.

[1] DPIR-CR-036/2020 Air Force – Enhance Career Management – Summary Report 2020

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