This is a copy of the speech I presented as guest speaker at the Defence Families of Australia annual dinner in August 2018. Note it is not a transcript and I may have ad-libbed on the night!
My main message that evening was that supporting the career development of ADF partners benefits families AND Defence. It is about working together to create a healthy, thriving ADF community and the benefits that stem from that to the wider community.
Thank you Maree and good evening everyone. This Churchill Fellowship was an incredible opportunity to engage with and learn from those involved in spouse employment policy, advocacy and program delivery in the UK, USA and Canada. I was thrilled to be awarded the Fellowship, not just because of the opportunities it presented, but because to be successful in obtaining a Churchill Fellowship you must demonstrate a benefit to Australia. I’m extremely grateful to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for recognising the importance of military spouse employment.
Partner employment is a complex issue involving many factors. There are many reasons for addressing it and many widespread benefits from doing so – these include improved individual and family health and wellbeing, facilitating a successful transition from the ADF, increased Australian labour force participation, and progress toward gender equality goals.
Tonight I’d like to focus on one aspect that I think is of interest to everyone in this room – the opportunity to create a healthy, thriving ADF community and to enhance Defence capability via the recruitment and retention of the people it needs.
The 2016 White Paper states that the quality of Defence’s people is the foundation of its capability, effectiveness and reputation. Defence doesn’t just need any people– it needs theright people. The White Paper states:
“Attracting and retaining the future Defence workforce will be a major challenge. Being an employer of choice for Australians in a more competitive labour market will require fundamental changes to how Defence plans, manages, and supports its people. A concerted program of recruitment, training, and targeted retention will be required to support this growth” (p146)
Defence have outlined a number of target areas in terms of the people and skills it is seeking. But in order to attract the right talent it is important to understand the context that this search is occurring in – to understand what a good job offer looks like to job seekers and what informs their decision to choose one job or employer over another.
As Maree has illustrated this evening the challenges of spouse employment haven’t changed much over 30 years but the context in which they are occurring certainly has. According to AIFS one of the most significant changes over recent decades has been the considerable growth of mothers in the workforce. Most Australian families today either need to and/or expect to be dual income to live comfortably. Our population is aging and many families care for parents as well as children. The millennial workforce highly values work life balance. Families come in all shapes and sizes, many from collective culture backgrounds. A lack of workers is a bigger challenge for our nation than a lack of jobs, and competition for skilled workers is fierce.
Employment is a quality of life issue for all Australians. It’s pretty simple. People in meaningful work are happier and healthier than those who aren’t. A good job is good for your health and wellbeing. Conversely, no job, or even worse a bad job, is bad for you. It is clear from the surveys and anecdotal evidence that partner employment (more specifically unemployment and underemployment) is a significant quality of life issue for ADF families. Given that over half of all permanent ADF personnel are married, family quality of life is an important issue for the Defence community and one I think is going to increasingly influence the attractiveness of Defence as an employer.
How competitive will Defence be in recruiting and retaining talent if partner careers are compromised? If partner careers are given up, put on hold or at best play second fiddle? How attractive is a salary package that is seen as a single family wage? Can ADF personnel perform optimally if family wellbeing is compromised? Can Defence position itself as an employer of choice if it is not seen as contemporary and family-friendly?
Researchers from RAND Corporation state:
“In the all volunteer military force, successful recruiting and retention of active duty personnel rely on the ability of the military to afford both service members and their spouses job satisfaction and contentment with all facets of life”.
As an example, the USAF’s Air Mobility Command is facing an ongoing critical shortage of pilots and competes with the commercial sector for talent (a problem the ADF has also been tackling for many years). It’s Commander, General Everhart, states “one thing is increasingly clear: if Airmen stay or elect to depart the service, it is usually a family decision”. He has identified military spouse employment as one of two key family factors influencing retention.
You’ve probably heard the saying ‘you recruit the member but retain the family’. But I suspect that is changing. By seeking diversity with respect to age, experience, gender, and cultural backgrounds Defence will essentially be recruiting families. Defence wants and needs the ‘best and brightest’, but it is very likely that those people will be attracted to, and attract, other ‘best and brightest’ – so Defence’s employment and lifestyle offer needs to be attractive to couples, not just the individual.
Increasing recognition of, and support for, ADF partner career development is one of the fundamental changes that Defence can make to become an employer of choice and recruit and retain the people it needs.
Support for spouse employment in the UK, US and Canada is based on recognition that 1) family readiness contributes to operational readiness, and 2) that family quality of life is an important factor in the recruitment and retention of personnel.
The UK Armed Forces Families’ Strategy outlines seven areas that make up the ‘offer’ to Service Families – the first of these is spouse employment. The policy states:
“evidence suggests that one of the key ‘push’ factors for Service personnel deciding to leave the Services is the difficulty experienced by their partner in finding employment. In line with our commitment to recruit and retain capable and motivated Service personnel, we will work to ensure partners are able to draw on the appropriate and necessary support to find employment, upskill or become self-employed.”
Defence currently provides posted ADF partners with valuable support via PEAP funding to access professional career services. But this is only one piece of the puzzle and doesn’t address the complex range of factors such as job alignment in regional areas or the influence of absences from home on partner employment.
I realize the ADF is not just any employer. There’s no other career lifestyle like this and that should be a selling point. But Defence cannot afford to assume or accept that the partner employment challenges that have been outlined for the last 30 years are just part and parcel of the job. Not if it wants to be an employer of choice.
To quote former US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter when talking about support for military families:
“always, always, the mission effectiveness of our force comes first. We are not Google. We are not Walmart. We’re warfighters. But that doesn’t mean we should not be challenging ourselves just like the private sector. To modernize our workplace and workforce, to retain and attract the top talent we need, so that our force can remain the best for future generations”.
He went on to say
“what we do to strengthen quality of life for our military families today, and what we do to demonstrate that we’re a family-friendly force to the people we want to recruit is absolutely— absolutely essential to our future strength”.
Just this week the US President signed the 2019 Defense Authorization Bill which includes further support for US military spouse employment.
Shining a spotlight on partner employment, acknowledging it as an area of concern in its own right, enhancing support by removing it from beneath ‘mobility support’ and providing more comprehensive support, is an opportunity for us to not only improve quality of life for ADF families but in doing so to create opportunity for our Defence Force to be more competitive in the war for talent.
Finally, on a personal note. As well as a career development practitioner I’m a RAAF spouse and a mum of two boys. It would not have been possible for me to undertake the travel component of this Fellowship without the extraordinary amount of flexibility afforded to my husband by his boss here in Canberra and those responsible for his Force Prep training ahead of his deployment to Afghanistan. I thank them for their support of our family’s priorities and my career.
To reference this work please use:
McCue A. (2018). Speech to Defence Families of Australia Annual Dinner. RMC Duntroon. August 2018.