New competition launched to spruik one of government’s hardest-to-fill jobs

Imagine HR as an extreme sport — that’s what it’s like to fill Navy’s Collins Class submarines and keep those few with the right aptitude who are also willing to spend months on board each year for decades of their life.

New recruitment techniques are constantly being rolled out in the Defence space, but few are as critical as those of Australia’s submariners. Today, Minister for Defence Personnel Darren Chester is launching a competition giving Australians the chance to experience life as a submariner.

Each of the Collins Class submarines — they’re called boats, not ships — is intended to hold a crew of 38 sailors and 10 officers. Because of the need for a continual pipeline they nearly always have trainees on board when they’re at sea.

In public forums you’re much more likely to hear a minister from the Defence portfolio talking about the civilian jobs created in sustainable or building of Future Submarines than those of the sailors who operate them. But it would be a big mistake to think that is reflect of where their attention always lies.

Keeping sailors in the submarine program has long been a challenge, especially during the dark years when Australia could only operate one of its six Collins Class submarines at a time.

Past ministers have taken it as an unofficial duty to personally write to each submariner when their term of obligation is up, asking them to stay on.

At recruitment the enticement includes special allowances, such as the submariner allowance of $18,309 per year, on top of the standard $14,410 allowance for enlisted personnel, housing subsidy, free lifetime healthcare, and fitness facilities available to all Defence personnel.

The recruitment website even highlight the role allows for “plenty of time off” and the quality of the free meals.

Satirised and lampooned, but they know what works

The task of keeping the Australian Defence Force recruits coming is outsourced to an external body, Defence Force Recruiting, while retention is managed by the largest HR bureaucracy in any Australian government, Defence People Group.

Because so much research and testing has gone into these two aspects, it sometimes comes into conflict with an elected government’s own ideas about what’s appropriate. That was satirised in the ABC’s The Hollowmen series, which devoted one episode to a high-energy youth-focused ADF recruitment campaign, featuring young women and men having fun, playing sports and partying, only to be replaced with traditional TV campaign focusing on the ANZAC legend by an out-of-touch prime minister.

Governments interfering with the terms of conditions of employment in Defence, known as PACMAN, the pay and conditions manual, has also led to at least one Department of Defence secretary retiring early in protest.

The lowest point for many in the space, was former minister David Johnston’s comments about not trusting Australia’s shipbuilder to build a canoe. It caused great concern inside the portfolio for what damage that comment could do submariner recruitment.

Free tours and the VIP treatment

The latest pitch is to let people sample before buying. Like listening to a timeshare offer in exchange for a free weekend at a resort — but the resort is under the sea.

The department says this offer is open to Australians aged 18 to 35. Entrants need to explain in 50 words or less which submariner role (Maritime Warfare Officer Submariner, Acoustic Analyst Submariner, Electronic Engineer Submariner, and Marine Technician Submariner) they would choose and why.

A winner from each state and territory will take part in a three-day, two-night trip to Australia’s largest navy base, HMAS Stirling at Garden Island, Western Australia.

They’ll receive the full VIP tour, including return flights to Perth, two nights’ accommodation, food and travel costs. Once there, they’ll have a chance to tackle challenging obstacle sources and have one-on-one time with current serving submariners to learn more about their lives in the Royal Australian Navy.

Chester says they’re looking for people with the right combination of intelligence, resilience, discipline and teamwork to fill these roles.

“On a submarine, developing a breadth of skills is an essential part of the job. Every submariner has multiple responsibilities and everyone’s contribution matters,” Mr Chester said.

“Being a submariner in the Royal Australian Navy is a career which redefines comfort zones and shows someone what they’re truly capable of.

“The competition allows Australians the opportunity to discover the extraordinary variety of trades and technical professions on offer, with a career option in the Navy suiting a broad range of backgrounds, skills levels, expertise and interest.”