Future Defence

This HR professional's award-winning workforce planning method helped her understand the present and what needed to change in the next 15 years.

When you think of the Australian Defence Force, you probably picture amphibious assault ships, Chinook helicopters and personnel clad in military gear rushing towards danger. But a huge part of the ADF is made up of people who have crucial roles away from the frontline. Jacci Sharkey CPHR is one of them. Sharkey joined the Department of Defence in 2017 after two years with the Department of Human Services. Now, as deputy director, workforce planning, she is passionate about ensuring workforces are set up to adapt and thrive in all future circumstances. So when a colleague asked her to create a bespoke workforce plan for the submarine domain, she jumped at the chance.

Looking ahead
The submarine project wasn’t just about resource allocation. It was about taking a strategic approach to the longevity of 200-300 employees’ career paths. It was no easy task, but one Sharkey was prepared for. At the beginning of the project, Sharkey analysed the existing workforce by speaking with directors to get a sense of where each team was at. She asked questions such as, ‘How does your team contribute?’, ‘How do you help the Future Submarine Program achieve its goals?’ and ‘What do you see as your workforce risks and challenges?’

She then took this data and used predictive analysis to forecast the needs of the future workforce and used this information to identify any crucial gaps in-between.

“Reviewing our current workforce is pretty simple. That's just data analytics. The future workforce stuff is the tricky bit,” she says. This forecasting was part of Sharkey’s workforce planning methodology that saw her take home the Ram Charan APC award at AHRI’s 2019 HR awards night.

“There is no right way to forecast your future workforce. There’s no model in place because every organisation has a different level of maturity. I wanted to get an accurate understanding of the demand element right from the outset, because that was going to be the basis of everything we did moving forward,” she says.

She presented her initial findings to the head of the program, making sure to outline how her project would benefit the department in the long run. It’s a common narrative to hear that HR struggles to get executive buy-in when taking on projects outside their usual wheelhouse, but that wasn’t Sharkey’s experience.

“Don’t underestimate the business,” she says. “If you engage with the executives directly and are open and transparent about what you’re trying to do and how it will benefit them – as well as translating HR talk into business talk – they’re going to be really engaged with what you have to say. “They care about their workforce. And having this depth of understanding helps them make informed decisions about options for its management.”


Seeing it through
After five months, all the data collection and creation of the methodology was completed and it was time to put the plans into action. “A lot of organisations probably stop the workforce planning process at the plan,” she says. “This often occurs because implementation feels like a massive piece of work and they don’t know where to start.”

“I wanted to take a detailed look and identify all the critical positions in a business area and understand their impact on the business.” Sharkey says knowing which roles are business-critical and where you can leave gaps is key to having a sustainable organisation – especially during uncertain times.

In some roles, she says, you won’t see any impacts until around six weeks of vacancy. The loss of other positions can hurt immediately. A lot of the defence workforce is made up of highly skilled workers with very technical skills, such as engineers. For roles like this, Sharkey created a criticality matrix around a couple of different factors.

“Say I had a really technical position. [The matrix would show me that] it couldn’t be vacant for six weeks and they needed 10 years’ experience. I’d call that a really high risk for the program. In that case, we'd need to make sure we were succession planning and developing our people. Of course, we’re already doing that, but it’s good to have evidence around why.

“Then we could overlay that information with what we expected the labor markets to be doing in the future. So that’s about saying, ‘This role just became vacant. What do we think the labour market will be doing? And would we be able to fill it quickly?’”

Up to 2035
Using her methodology, Sharkey was able to create a baseline for what the submarine workforce of the ADF should look like for the next 15 years. "We are now able to create really tangible career development pathways for our people using that baseline, and continue to upskill them in line with project  requirements. As well as where they see their future career sitting within the broader program.”

Her approach has been sought after by others in the department who see its value. But it’s also helping with the department’s retention efforts. “If people can’t see a career for themselves, they’re probably not going to stay. This is providing that avenue for our people,” she says.

“A challenge for me coming into this project was trying to describe the difference between resource planning and workforce planning. So to have a really solid document and methodology that backs that up has helped to communicate why we undertake strategic workforce management in the organisation.

“It’s about making sure you know what you need and when you need it, so you can plan ahead of time. You want to avoid being reactive. You want to harness the workforce you’ve already got.

“We have really highly skilled people here in subs. We just needed strategies to maintain that into the future.”

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This article was originally published in HRM Magazine May 2020 Edition, written by Kate Neilson.

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