Shaping a Next Gen Workforce for Airpower: The Australian Case


By Andrew McLaughlin

The equipment is here or on the way, but what is the RAAF doing to develop a next gen workforce?

The Royal Australian Air Force is undergoing arguably the biggest transformation in its 98-year history. Not only has almost every platform in its inventory been recapitalised in the past decade and a half, the service is also having to re-skill and upskill much of its workforce to adapt to a whole new generation of capabilities.

Air Commodore Geoff Harland joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1985. During his career, he has flown as an Air Combat Officer on P-3C Orion, F-111C and F/A-18F Super Hornet.

He has commanded 1SQN, 82WG, and Air Force Training Group as well as deploying as an Air Planner for INTERFET (East Timor), Director Air Operations Centre and Air Component Commander for Operation Sumatra Assist, and Director of the US Central Command’s 609th Combined Air Operations Centre in the Middle East.

Outside Air Force, AIRCDRE Harland spent 18 months working for the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) in aviation safety culminating in roles including Australian Safety Oversight Branch Manager. He was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross in 2001, appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia and awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 2017. He is currently the Director General Personnel – Air Force.

AIRCDRE Harland is clearly an experienced operator with a clear focus on human resource management, and his role as Director General Personnel – Air Force is to oversee the transformation of the RAAF’s workforce to be able to safely and effectively operate the next generation of systems entering service.

“We’re in a phase now where we are really reconsidering what works for Air Force in terms of workforce,” AIRCDRE Harland told ADBR. “Looking forward, we’re trying to understand and anticipate the future nature of work and emerging demographics to determine how we might better prepare ourselves and continue to generate good workforce outcomes now and into the future and in doing so stay ahead of the game.”

Two of the key challenges of building a next gen workforce are the changing demographics of and demands for different skill-sets in Air Force and society in general.

“The question we asked ourselves was, ‘what would a 5th generation air force mean from a workforce point of view?’,” he said. “We asked that question against the backdrop of the changing nature of work in the wider community, given that Air Force is drawn from the wider community. We are importantly an all-volunteer force, so the way we work and the way we operate needs to make sense to the wider community, we also need to ensure we remain viable and perform as an Air Force.”

One of the opportunities Air Force has used to begin to re-shape was provided by Project Suakin which formalised the notion of a total workforce model. Launched in November 2013 by then VCDF AIRMSHL Mark Binskin, Project Suakin’s aim was to “improve the ADF’s ability to respond to future workforce challenges and changes in the security environment and the economy by giving it a more flexible workforce structure.”

By using the Total Workforce Model (TWM) the Project Suakin aimed to “provide flexible career pathways, matching remuneration and benefits with capability delivered, enhanced workforce flexibility, simplified processes and helping to build an organisational culture that is more accepting of flexibility”.

“What we’re looking at in the Air Force’s adoption of the TWM is the creation of a total workforce system which takes into account uniformed Air Force people who engage in a career in more flexible modes than in the past and may work in a casual, part-time or full-time way rather than the previous binary permanent or reserve Air Force construct,” AIRCDRE Harland explained.

“We are now realising opportunities with casual workforce, readiness part-time work force, and standard part-time workforce which allow us to leverage off previous education, training and experience,” he added. “Add Public Service, industry and contractors and we have a more flexible Air Force total workforce system”.

“We’re also exploring ways that we can consider the use of automation and artificial intelligence to deliver traditional workforce outcomes for Air Force. What we’re trying to do is basically move away from the management of a permanent workforce which has a little bit of reserve helping out, to the idea of a workforce system that has more flexibility for the people who we engage with, considers emerging technology and allows us to adapt as we look forward.”

AIRCDRE Harland says he envisions the RAAF’s workforce model operating across three key time frames. “The first frame is what we call the ‘force-in-being’, which is operating the current force in that zero to three years frame and delivering the ‘now’,” he explained.

“The second time frame is what is known as the ‘objective force’ in which the period nominally three to 10 years from now and drives the future workforce structure and development of our people to allow Air Force to realise the new capabilities that are generated through the capability life cycle.

“The third time frame is beyond 10 years from now as we look at the aspirational future force which is really very difficult to define in the current context because the environment is rapidly changing, what we’re doing is looking and saying, ‘here are the things that we might need to anticipate’.”

The RAAF has also increased its engagement and outreach to educational institutions to develop that future workforce. “In the cyber domain in particular we’re looking at generating a cyber workforce – cyber warfare officers and cyber warfare specialists as well as looking at electronics engineers who are network specialists, and also network technicians who will maintain our infrastructure.

Another consideration is personnel retention and recruitment rates. Whereas Air Force has, in the past, struggled to retain key personnel such as pilots when civilian organisations are in an expansion phase and are hiring. Air Force maintains a close watch on external markets and has recently introduced a strategy to manage aircrew in a way to improve return on investment and increase resilience.

“So right now, the macro level Air Force level doesn’t have a retention problem,” AIRCDRE Harland said. “We’re at around about seven per cent separation which is healthy, because we do need to refresh and regenerate.

“There are pockets of Air Force which we’re seeing competition for talent outside,” he added. “And in those areas I think it’s really about what we can offer as a force, and how we can differentiate ourselves from an experience that an individual might get in industry.

“We’re now allowing people to flow in and out of Air Force more than previously and in doing so we are able to access intellect and capacity of Air Force people as they’re moving in and out of uniform. So acknowledging the experience that they get outside in wider industry is actually really important to us, and it can bring some different perspectives back to Air Force which can really improve our performance.”

AIRCDRE Harland added that Air Force doesn’t currently have any trouble with recruitment. “Right now, it’s exceptionally positive,” he said. “We don’t typically have trouble getting talent in the door, but we acknowledge that as we look forward into STEM related industry there’s going to be increasing competition for talent. So we need to be very clear on what the offer is for Air Force, have a system that makes sense to people, and also have some flexibility in the way that we engage with people.

“While also considering workforce structure and policy, we’re also looking at the kind of behaviours that we would see successful people exhibiting in the future Air Force,” he added. “We’re exploring that area because, you can change structures and you can change policies, but until you actually really tap into cultural change and behavioural change, you can really end up returning to where you are now. So we’re doing work in terms of trying to understand and influence culture and behaviours.”

He said recruiters were generally looking for candidates who have good communication skills, are critical thinkers, and who are good at collaborating. “With those three things as a baseline, they will be good contributors to their joint force. Provided they have the baseline technical skills and qualifications, we can teach the skills the Air Force needs, it’s much harder to influence soft skills and attitude.”

I asked AIRCDRE Harland if, by looking for more flexibility in its workforce, was Air Force in danger of losing or degrading its technical mastery in specific trades and skill-sets.

“Air Force by its nature has always been a technical force,” he said. “The way we describe professional mastery in Air Force is that it’s comprised of three elements: technical mastery, combat mastery and social mastery. In the early part of an individual’s career, they typically concentrate on getting good technical skills and generating technical mastery, whether it be in aviation, cyber, engineering et cetera.

“Then as they move through their career they will work on their combat mastery, which is how they will apply their specialisation to generate air power effects,” he added. “And foundational to that is increasing social mastery, which is really about the ability to be able to communicate and influence in a really positive way across the ADF.

“So to answer your question, the way that we structure an individual’s career will typically build them on a big pillar of technical mastery, and then we’ll broaden their skills in combat and social so they become more broadly adaptable across the force.

“An important bottom line to our plans is that, as we look forward to increased flexibility to enable Air Force to continue to remain relevant in the future and access the talent and workforce capacity it requires, we must equally ensure that we remain fully viable as a military force. So as ever, it’s a careful balancing act.” AIRCDRE Harland stated.

“The Chief (of Air Force) and Air Force’s senior leadership are very focused on the Air Force workforce, and I think we have an opportunity to further challenge ourselves with the difficult questions and improve and prevail in the future.”

This article was published by ADBR on January 7, 2020.