There is no more striking demonstration of the degree to which AUKUS has seeped into the national consciousness than its starring role in the annual Australian lamb ad.
Though incorrectly nailing the decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines to the baby boomers — former prime minister Scott Morrison hails from Generation X — the ad draws down into a now pervasive national mythology that AUKUS was an “impulse buy” and that the public must now live with the consequences.
AUKUS has become a case study in generational politics. Public opinion polling reveals only 33 per cent of Gen Z and millennial voters believe it’s a good idea for Australia to have nuclear-powered submarines, compared with 66 per cent of voters aged 65 and over.
Still, on some things, all generations agree: a plurality of Australian voters feel nuclear-powered submarines are not worth the cost to Australian taxpayers. Only 21 per cent of voters believe the submarines warrant their $368bn price tag.
These apprehensions, especially among young people, should alarm our policymakers. The people who are expected to staff Australia’s new submarine enterprise as of now don’t support it. This is only the tip of the iceberg for Australia’s workforce challenge.
Obstacles abound. Australia ranks last in manufacturing self-sufficiency among the world’s developed countries. Australia’s manufacturing industry is small and overburdened. Taken together with record low unemployment, a dearth of STEM graduates and acute shortages of trades workers and technicians, we are facing a perfect storm.
The government’s announcement of scores of commonwealth-supported places at Australian universities and the establishment of a skills academy in South Australia are commendable. But Australian unions and industry agree these initiatives won’t be enough to prepare 20,000 workers to deliver, sustain and maintain nuclear-powered submarines on the tight timelines specified by government.
Australia has neither the number of people nor the amount of time to allow for mistakes. But it’s not all bad news. Though shortages of workers at home mean the United Kingdom and United States can’t just fill the gaps, in the absence of simple fixes for its workforce problems, Australia can look to its AUKUS partners for guidance. A recent United States Studies Centre report, AUKUS inflection point: Building the ecosystem for workforce development, canvassed US and UK workforce development efforts to search for solutions.
The first problem, of which the lamb ad is the latest of many examples, is Australia’s workers’ reservations about the venture. That successive governments have agreed the partnership is in our national interests hasn’t resonated with voters. Australians remain concerned with AUKUS’ cost, the uncertainty baked into the project’s multi-decade timeline, and the implications for Australian sovereignty. The strategic case for AUKUS must be continuously made if the government expects to recruit Australia’s workers en masse into the enterprise.
Our AUKUS partners’ recruitment efforts in shipbuilding depend on public acceptance, or “social licence”. This social licence cannot be confined to Australia’s shipbuilding hubs in South Australia and Western Australia. AUKUS is a whole-of-nation endeavour.
Accordingly, the government must run and win the strategic argument for this capability in the national public writ large. Public support will not be generated from a single speech. It will require a national conversation from the Prime Minister down.
Another lesson from the United Kingdom and the United States is the need to proceed with cautious haste. In the US case, underestimating the maintenance requirements of concurrent projects left the labour force exhausted and overextended.
In the United Kingdom, boom-and-bust cycles of work led to worker attrition and a subsequent over-reliance on new recruits to staff half the workforce. If AUKUS began as an “impulse buy”, it must now be a story of prudence and foresight if Australia’s officials are going to avoid costly mistakes.
The final, critical warning from our partners is that a failure to think strategically about all segments of the labour market artificially constrains your labour supply.
Australia’s National Skills Commission has found that women make up less than 20 per cent of the total workforce for more than half of the occupations currently experiencing shortages.
At the outset, equity targets need to be set across the AUKUS enterprise to ensure under-represented groups have input into the design process. Their involvement must be demonstrated to prospective recruits. Adopting an innovative approach to workplace safety that encompasses psychosocial risks will help avoid the harmful workplace cultures that have constrained other Australian industries.
Twenty-seven per cent of Australian university graduates come from overseas, compared with roughly five per cent in the US. More than 50 per cent of engineers working in Australia were born overseas.
Our migrant workforce is just as strategically necessary as a strong citizen labour pool to Australia’s AUKUS enterprise. Rigid security requirements around this highly sensitive project must be respected. Nevertheless, migrant workers’ contributions across the whole supply chain and for infrastructure construction must be considered.
To get bang for its buck out of a far smaller population, Australia will have to think even more creatively than its partners about workforce productivity. Workers must be seamlessly transitioned from infrastructure work to maintenance and sustainment to shipbuilding roles.
The greenfield nature of our enterprise should be seen as an opportunity to build in technological solutions that increase productivity and efficiency.
There is no one solution to the workforce challenges AUKUS will face over its lifetime. The industrial workforce is only one piece of the puzzle; recruiting workers in sufficient numbers to the public service and the defence force stand to be equally difficult fixes. This is the start of a larger conversation every level of government must prosecute with Australian industry and its workers.
In the absence of that conversation, voters’ suspicion that AUKUS was a mistake to the tune of $368bn is here to stay.