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Graduate careers in the Australian defence industry

Team Prosple

It may not be what you think it is – find out what exactly is the defence industry and what the career prospects are for graduates.

Overview of the defence industry

How big is the Australian defence industry? To answer that question, it’s necessary to first make a distinction between the Australian defence industry and the Australian Defence Force. The former describes those companies which design, manufacture and maintain quality military equipment, while the latter describes the 60,000 military personnel who put that equipment to use. This section will focus on jobs in the defence industry.

Many people employed by the Australian defence industry have an ambiguous role, which can make it difficult to assess the sector’s size and contributions. This is largely because many of the same firms that often service the military are engaged in important civilian work. However, the general consensus reached by the Australian Trade and Investment Commission is that the Australian defence industry employs approximately 27,000 people. They work chiefly for military contractors, such as BAE Systems, ASC, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon.

There are also 3,000 small-to-medium enterprises, comprising about half of the Australian defence industry. All must apply for membership to the Defence Industry Security Program, which maintains ‘the integrity of Australia’s Defence capability by ensuring [the] Defence Industry maintains its security responsibilities and safeguards the supply chain’.

What’s involved in the defence industry?

The defence industry supports the Australian Defence Force by designing, manufacturing, and maintaining military equipment, as well as by providing a range of services, such as transport and secure data storage. Australian defence industry organisations also export about $750 million worth of defence products and services each year says the Australian Trade and Investment Commission. Numerous professionals contribute to the defence industry, from civil engineers and physicists to accountants and shipbuilders. Their responsibilities are equally varied, ranging from the development of new information technology systems to the construction of military transport.

A survey of recent military contracts found that the Australian defence industry is involved in a range of projects. These include the development of vehicles to detect and neutralise improvised explosive devices, the provision of emergency airborne rescue services to support the ADF, and the maintenance of critical infrastructure at various military facilities.

While success in the defence industry can be lucrative – Australia’s largest military contractor, BAE Systems, has global annual revenue of approximately $30.5 billion – it also depends a lot on competitiveness and the ability to adapt quickly to new circumstances. After all, there are only so many contracts to go around.

Where do people in this sector work?

The Australian defence industry is confined to no one city or state – it is, instead, found across the country in both urban and regional areas. For example, the primary shipbuilding areas are found in Osborne (South Australia), Henderson (Western Australia), as well as Cairns (Queensland). Major military contractors are equally dispersed, with head offices in Queensland (Raytheon and Airbus), New South Wales (Rockwell Collins and Thales), the Australian Capital Territory (Lockheed Martin) and South Australia (BAE Systems and ASC).

As an employee of the defence industry, your work environment may vary from a corporate office (for example, while preparing bids and tenders for an engineering firm) to rugged terrain (for example, while participating in the assessment of new military hardware). Several of Australia’s largest military contractors – for example, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon – are foreign-owned, which means that they can offer careers with significant scope for international transfers and work abroad.

Entering the defence industry as a graduate

To win contracts, companies that do business in the defence industry rely on the ability to attract and retain talented graduates from various disciplines. Consequently, several of them offer internships and graduate positions to students and graduates who possess desirable skills, technical or otherwise.

For example, Raytheon offers internships to, and regularly goes on to hire, students with ‘with strong academic grades’ and the ‘ability to work in a team environment’. Airbus, an aviation company that is also Australia’s fifth-largest military contractor, recruits graduates for a two-year program that includes work experience in the Airbus, Airbus Defence & Space and Airbus Helicopters divisions.

Generally, defence industry organisations recruit high-achieving students with STEM backgrounds, with a particular emphasis on those from engineering and maths. Positions are also available in the public bodies that regulate and issue contracts to the defence industry. For example, the Department of Defence employs more than 20,000 Australian Public Service (APS) employees who aim to defend Australia and its national interests. The Department of Defence has its own graduate program that offers multiple career paths. Engineering graduates, for instance, complete four rotations, focusing on policy and intelligence, science and technology, defence capability, and corporate activities (such as procurement and contracting, accounting, and human resources).

Career prospects in the defence industry

The future of the Australian defence industry is a contentious issue. The industry benefits from large amounts of investment from the Federal government, which is eager to ensure that jobs (and wealth) are created domestically, and not abroad. 

The Australian government recently committed to investing $200 billion, over the next decade, into upgrading and modernising Australia’s defence capabilities. The investment includes an ongoing naval shipbuilding program, specific projects to engage, attract, train and retain a highly capable STEM workforce, improving Australia’s cybersecurity capabilities and support for small and medium enterprises delivering defence capabilities.

How can I take advantage of my STEM background?

STEM graduates are highly valued in the defence industry. With a STEM degree, you can compete for roles at private organisations, such as engineering and construction firms, or apply directly for jobs at the Department of Defence. Importantly, while your technical skills will be tested as part of the application process, you will also be expected to demonstrate certain personal attributes.

To quote the Department, ‘just as important as your qualifications are the personal qualities you can bring to the role – particularly integrity, curiosity, objectivity and your ability to think critically.’

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