Ever wondered what it's like working on some of Australia's largest shipbuilding and sustainment programs?
Go behind the scenes in the BAE Systems Australia podcast 'Beneath the Deck', and listen to the stories of the people helping to keep Australia secure.
Episode Three: Dancing into the Hunter program
Sonja, Technical Governance Lead
Describing her current job as being the "glue" within the Engineering function of the Hunter Class Frigate Program, Sonja has not had a linear career path.
Beginning her career in contemporary dance choreography, Sonja draws a lot of parallels between communicating issues through dance and communicating between different Engineering disciplines.
For Sonja, 'why' has been a big driver in her career — and her 'why' is to help protect the people of Australia, and help people in times of need.
Listen to Sonja's story.
Drew: Careers often end up in a different place from where they started. Few though, would be as tangential as going from years in a dance studio to working on the Hunter Class Frigate Program. G’day, I’m Drew Radford and this is actually the career of Sonja, whose job as Technical Governance Lead actually depends heavily on skills she developed as an artist. To discuss this unique crossover, she joins us for this Beneath the Deck podcast. Sonja, thanks for your time.
Sonja: Thanks for having me.
Drew: Sonja, you’ve got a really varied career – you’ve worked in the oil and gas industry, and now BAE Systems Australia. But when you left school to go to uni, you studied in an area that was totally unrelated. What was that?
Sonja: Yeah, so I did a Bachelor of Performance Arts, and I was majoring in contemporary choreography.
Drew: A dancer by trade, for want of a better description.
Sonja: Yes, yeah.
Drew: I would imagine that’s quite a demanding course on your body, to say the least.
Sonja: Yeah, it was very physically and psychologically demanding, but worth every minute of it. Three years of a very hard slog, but loved it.
Drew: Loved it and the hard slog, and then out of it though I’d imagine it’s a pretty competitive space to try and find a career following on from that.
Sonja: Yeah, especially in Australia it is a very specialised area, and you have to be the best of the best to have a consistent career in that industry, so it was very difficult to try and make a mark post getting my Bachelor’s degree, but I learnt a lot from it and I wouldn’t trade that degree for the world.
Drew: In terms of learning a lot from it, you work in a very technical area now – it says it in your job title – but doing that degree and what you focused on, you mentioned there “psychologically demanding” and also, I’m guessing, about communication as well. So, there’s a lot of intensity going on there – focus.
Sonja: Yeah, yeah, so from a psychological perspective, one of my aims as a contemporary choreographer was to try and communicate issues and I guess, more taboo things that the human experience goes through. So, researching issues that some people face, like drug addiction and the like, it can be quite confronting, and trying to work out a way to communicate that through choreography, through music, through costuming, lighting, staging, anything and everything that goes into a show. Trying to communicate that so people would understand and connect with it on a different level that what they normally would if it was just brought up in conversation. It was very rewarding, but it was a lot of effort that goes into communicate and express things. I think that’s the most beautiful thing about art is that that’s what, at its core, it’s trying to do.
Drew: It is, and you’ve described that really, really well. And in terms of that communication, I’m guessing that’s something that’s been central to your career from then on. But also, that attention to detail.
Sonja: Yeah, so absolutely. Communication and attention to detail are probably the most valuable skills I have, and I’ve taken those through every role that I’ve had since leaving uni, and they’ve served me extremely well.
Drew: Well, they have served you extremely well. And I want to talk about that career path a little bit, because there’s those two themes that are central to what you’ve been doing. The other one seems to be water. You’ve worked organisations around water but when you worked out that, maybe, you couldn’t pursue a future in dance, you seemed to leave the water behind in a fairly drastic way – where did you go?
Sonja: Yeah, I, through a series of events, landed in Tenant Creek in the middle of the Northern Territory, so it was quite the sea change from the coast of Australia to the middle. But, it turned out that that was a great move for me and my career, because I landed working in an organisation called Julalikari Council Aboriginal Corporation, and there was a gentleman there who was the director of community services, and he took me under his wing and he let me learn quite a bit from him with regards to what was happening in that space and I assisted him with pulling together some events around some of the Indigenous community. It was really eye-opening.
Drew: I imagine, too, that there was again a lot of attention to detail and administrative stuff that you started to learn that you’ve carried forward.
Sonja: Yes, that’s kind of when I started dabbling in the administrative side of things – sitting in an office. Very different to choreographing and being under a lot of physical demand, but I found that very intellectually interesting, and that kind of started to spark an interest in the business world.
Drew: It did, because from there you headed north.
Drew: To a diving company.
Drew: But this wasn’t recreational diving by any stretch of the imagination from what I understand.
Sonja: No, recreational diving in Darwin is a little bit hazardous, given that you’ve got a lot of crocodiles up there.
Drew: Fairly dangerous.
Sonja: Yeah, it was for a commercial diving company.
Drew: What do they do?
Sonja: They do a lot of hull inspections for vessels, they also did quite a bit on clearing unexploded ordinance that’s in the harbour in Darwin. I guess the bulk of it was doing inspections on hulls and anodes and the like on vessels that were docked in Darwin getting their maintenance done.
Drew: The maritime journey begins really, for you.
Sonja: Absolutely, I fell in love with it and a lot of the team up there, they started to teach me about all the different things, deshackles and anodes and what happens and stuff like that. And I started helping them with writing reports and I went on to become the document controller for the whole business unit, which is across the country, there’s a few bases for them. Onshore works only though, I wasn’t part of the offshore works. And they also invested in me and helped me get my Cert IV in Workplace Health and Safety, and became the Darwin site Health Safety Environment and Quality representative.
Drew: I’d imagine throughout your career you’ve had to do quite a bit of up-skilling, to say the least.
Sonja: Yeah, but I think that’s great – I think that’s something people should do their entire career, is continue to grow and learn, and push themselves.
Drew: I’m going to follow the maritime theme for you because you ended up in Adelaide with the submarine corporation, so I’m imaging that there’s a whole lot of stuff that you learnt in Darwin that gave you some sort of insight and understanding that was transferrable.
Sonja: Yeah, I think that was kind of my 'in', if I can put it like that. When I first started, I took a role as a document controller in the CM/DM team, which is configuration management/data management. And fortunately for me, they saw that because I had previous history with the marine oil and gas industry, and document control history, that I could transfer those skills over and become a valued part of the team. And luckily for me, CM/DM was actually part of the engineering department, so it was a great introduction.
Drew: Okay, so you’re sort of moving upwards and sideways along the way, and getting closer and closer to engineering – does that require more education?
Sonja: Yeah, it does, and once again I was very blessed to be taken under the wing of an engineering manager in platform systems on the Air Warfare Destroyer program. And he asked me if I wanted to become a back-up for the cataloguing officer in engineering, and I jumped at the opportunity, and was fascinated with NATO stock numbers, which is a bit geeky, I guess. But whilst I was there, there were a couple of key engineers that I was working with and helping out, that just tried to impart as much knowledge as possible to me, because they could see that I wanted to learn. And they taught me things about how to read diagrams and engineering drawings, and they taught me about system readiness reviews, and the background and foundations of what I was actually doing, as opposed to just giving me a task and saying “just do this, don’t worry about what it means” – I was very blessed.
Drew: In terms of what it means, I’m guessing you’re saying ‘right, well this job is important because you’re keeping people safe or that piece of equipment won’t fail’. Is that kind of what you were being given insight into?
Sonja: Yeah, absolutely. I wasn’t just being taught about mechanics of the equipment that we were designing and building. I was also being taught about how that fits into the bigger picture. The fact that the company isn’t just providing a piece of equipment to a company and that’s it – we’re actually helping to provide the best equipment possible for the men and women that serve our country and enable them to do their best job. They literally put their life on the line for us, and it’s important that we are providing them with equipment that works properly and is safe and allows them to focus on the job at hand and not worry about the equipment that they’re having to use.
Drew: I think that’s a remarkable description that really encapsulates the role of so many people that support the pointy end.
Sonja: Yes, yeah absolutely. I think people sometimes lose focus of that. Work gets really bust and you get really down in the weeds of the tasks that you’ve got to do, but I think it’s important to, every now and then, take a step back and look at the bigger picture – the fact that you’re part of something bigger than yourself.
Drew: You think that helps make you good at your job? In terms of seeing the bigger picture, or is it the fine detail or is it both?
Sonja: It’s both. Absolutely it’s both, you have to be able to get into the weeds, but you have to also remember to take a step back and look at how your piece fits into the puzzle. You can’t have a full picture without everybody putting in their piece, but if you’re only focusing on your piece and you don’t take into account that you’re one piece in a thousand piece puzzle, then you run the risk of not working very well with others and not actually providing what is needed.
Drew: That’s a good description, because you are working in a thousand piece puzzle and we’ll get to that in a moment. I’d say it’s probably about a 30-40 thousand piece puzzle. It’s very, very big. But you’re very positive about your career today. There must have been some challenges along the way. And I’d imagine leaving the performing arts would have been the first and biggest hurdle.
Sonja: That was very challenging, I had a bit of a crisis of personality I guess. It made me question who I am and my place in the world and my passions and that was very tough. But over time, I came to realise that you can be more than one thing, and change is inevitable – every life goes through change and morphs and grows, and coming to accept that and enjoy it, really, enjoy the fact that you kind of morph through your experiences. Coming to that place was really helpful.
Drew: Morphing is a good way of describing your career path, I’d argue, because now you’re Technical Governance Lead on the Hunter program with BAE Systems Australia. I’ve got to be honest: what does the title of ‘Technical Governance Lead’ mean?
Sonja: Yeah, when I first got the job – when I was hired by this incredible man named Robin, he explained my role to me as the ‘glue’ and I was like “okay, what do you mean?” I’m the glue? And he expressed the role as one that brings people together and helps translate the information that is needing to be passed between departments and the like. He also explained to me that what is needed when you’re building something so complex and has quite a lot of risks around it, and needing to make sure that it’s safe, legal, and compliant – whether it be compliant with the requirements of the design, or compliant with legislation, regulation, that sort of thing, is we have to make sure we check ourselves at the appropriate times and we’re honest and take a good look at what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and if it is the most efficient, effective, valuable way of designing and building a ship. And so, I kind of took that and went “alright, I’m glue and I make sure that we are having the right checks in place at the right time”. I guess you can kind of sum up my role like that. It’s much more complicated and technical, but you can kind of sum it in that way.
Drew: I think you summed it up pretty well, and I’ve got a reasonable idea of what’s going on there and the ‘glue’ role sounds like you’re drawing heavily, again, on communication and technical skills.
Sonja: Yes, yeah I have to be able to sit down with a software engineer or a weapons engineer and listen to them, listen to understand is key, and then be able to take that information and explain it to someone in, say, supply chain, or someone in quality, or HR, or even our Customer, and vice versa. So, it’s really about listening to understand and then being able to translate that information to whichever stakeholder I happen to be needing to engage with.
Drew: I reckon my head would explode at the end of the day. You’re constantly learning and trying to be on top of something totally new quite often, I’d imagine.
Sonja: Yeah, but that’s the beauty of it – I’m never bored!
Drew: No, I’d imagine not, but again you’re having to up-skill and re-skill I mean you’re talking to software engineers a second ago and you’ve been talking about, you know, marine engineers and whoever else. They’re different languages.
Sonja: Absolutely, I am doing a Diploma of Digital Technology, but aside from formal education, I find one of the best ways to learn is asking questions to the people that are subject matter experts. So, I ask and sometimes people can get a little bit annoyed, but they know it’s all in good spirit. I ask a lot of questions, and I try very hard to listen to what they’re saying and if I don’t understand something, I ask and I don’t worry about whether it’s perceived to be a dumb question or not, the only way you’re going to learn is by asking questions and engaging with people and watching them do what they do, and when you get the opportunity to do something you jump at it.
Drew: You said there a second ago, people sometimes get a bit annoyed because of constantly asking questions – is that part of maybe a misconception about your role, that they don’t fully understand where you fit, or is it just people are busy?
Sonja: I think it could sometimes be a little bit of both. When I’m starting a relationship with someone at work, they generally don’t too much of an idea about what a Technical Governance Lead does and I don’t hold that against them at all. It can be a bit confusing and the title doesn’t exactly say ‘this is what I do’ so it can be a little bit confusing straight off the bat, but once you generate that relationship and you have conversations and you get to know each other and you get to know what each other does, it more comes down to being busy. But at the end of the day, everybody just has patience with each other. We all understand that we’re all just trying to do our best and do the job that we’ve got and we all need to work together in order for the big picture to come together.
Drew: What do you like about working with Defence?
Sonja: I like the fact that it is something bigger than me. There’s a motivational speaker – his name’s Simon Sinek – I find him extremely knowledgeable and something that he talks about is having a ‘just cause’ and a ‘why’ that you work towards. And for me, I love working in Defence because the Defence industry is made up of people that risk their lives and they do everything they can to, not only protect the people of this country, but also help people in times of need. It’s a good reason ‘why’ it’s a ‘just cause’, it’s something that I feel I can get behind and is worth the sacrifice of my time, or whatever it may be, but it’s worthy. Does that make sense?
Drew: It makes perfect sense. You’ve mentioned a few times you’ve had, been fortunate to have people take you under their wing and that’s been really important in your career path. What do you reckon the best career advice is you’ve received along the way?
Sonja: One would be ‘listen to understand’, not listen to respond. It sounds logical, but you find that a lot of people in everyday life will just be listening to what you’re saying just to respond and keep the conversation going as opposed to listening to understand what you are genuinely trying to say. So, I think that’s probably one piece of advice that I would offer everybody. And I think the other thing is it’s okay to ask for help. Don’t try and solve everything yourself. Surround yourself with people that are smarter than you, know different things to you, and build that intellectual diversity so that you’re constantly intellectually challenging yourself and others.
Drew: Lastly Sonja, what advice would you have for anyone considering a career in Defence?
Sonja: Do it. You will love it. I have never looked back, I think it’s the most rewarding job I’ve had because it’s not really a job – you’re part of a team, you’re part of a family, and at the end of the day you’re helping.
Drew: Well Sonja, it sounds like you are doing a remarkable job of helping and your career just seems to go from strength to strength. You gave me some amazing insights and all the best through your career from here on in. But Sonja, Technical Governance Lead on the Hunter program, thank you for joining me for this Beneath the Deck podcast.
Sonja: Thank you so much for having me, it’s been wonderful.
Episode Two: From maintaining aircraft to sustaining warships
Peter, Anzac Delivery Manager
Career paths are not always clear, and that is especially the case for Peter, who has — in his own words — has had three different careers.
Beginning his working life in the Royal Australian Air Force at just 17 years old, Peter spent more than two decades servicing and maintaining military aircraft before moving to the Defence Materiel Organisation, and then finally to BAE Systems Australia.
Now onto the second upgrade program for the Anzac class frigates since he moved to Peth, Peter has helped deliver significant upgrades to the ships.
Listen to Peter's story.
Drew: Career paths are not always clear. Especially at the beginning. Indeed, starting working life as an apprentice maintaining military aircraft and then eventually ending up overseeing the refurbishment of Navy ships might seem an unimaginable progression to most. G’day, I’m Drew Radford and such a varied career was indeed unimaginable to Peter when he started his working life as an RAAF apprentice. However, it’s not now. Indeed, he views the Defence sector as a world of limitless career opportunities. These days, Peter works in Perth as a Project Manager for BAE Systems Australia. To discuss how he got to this point and the opportunities he sees for others, he joins us for this Beneath the Deck podcast. Peter, thanks for your time.
Peter: G’day Drew, thank you very much for having me on the podcast today.
Drew: Peter, you work with ships these days, but that’s not where you started your career, in fact you’re a long way from that, from what I understand. Where did you begin?
Peter: Yeah, I joined the Royal Australian Air Force at the ripe old age of 17 years old and spent 22 years servicing and maintaining military aircraft basically, for the Air Force. Worked across various places such as the C-130 Hercules over in Sydney, through to various different types of aircraft in the aircraft research and development unit in Adelaide, and then finally ended my career in Canberra working on the VIP jets that the Prime Minister flies around on.
Drew: Yeah, I was curious about the fact that you worked on the Prime Minister’s airplane, but I assumed that’s more of a technical side as opposed to actually knowing more about what goes on.
Peter: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. Our job was to keep the aircraft flying and make sure that they were in a safe and serviceable state when we sent them off.
Drew: Peter, you said you started working in Defence at age 17, is there a family background there? It’s quite a young age to step out and get stuck straight into it.
Peter: Yeah, my father joined the Air Force when I was 5 years old, and he travelled around the country and spent a couple of years in Malaysia on one of his postings and yeah he took me along to all the different air shows that the Air Force put on, and he also taught me to fly and build line control airplanes. So right from a very early age, I guess, I have a lot exposure to the military and in particular the Air Force and as I developed I grew even fonder of the idea of fixing and maintaining aircraft. It was just a natural progression for me into the Air Force.
Drew: Was your dad in a maintenance kind of role?
Peter: No, he was in a supply chain management role actually, providing all the parts and equipment and so on that kept the aircraft flying.
Drew: But you gained a really good insight that there is so much involved in terms of what it actually takes to run the Air Force. It’s not just people flying planes.
Peter: Oh no, there’s thousands of jobs in the Air Force, all types of different careers and opportunities – not just in the Air Force, but in the military as a whole. Actually I was fortunate to spend three years working in the recruitment centre in Adelaide, and I probably recruited more people into the Army than I did into the Air Force whilst I was there. But certainly, any one of the services provides a unique opportunity to get some fantastic experience, but also some awesome skills that are transitionable into civilian life.
Drew: In terms of that transition Peter, you obviously did that, because you said you worked in the Air Force for 22 years. Where did you go from there?
Peter: I didn’t go very far away from the military. I joined what was then known as the Defence Materiel Organisation, which is responsible for the purchasing and upgrade of military technologies, so I actually moved into, I guess, an Air Force related area where I was responsible as an engineer to help the procurement of guided weapons systems for the F/A-18 aircraft. I also helped with the procurement of some weapons systems for the Anzac class ships which is what I work on today. But also, later on in my time in the Defence Materiel Organisation in Canberra, I was responsible for delivering some of the satellite communications technologies that’s not only on the ships, but is also used by the Army as well.
Drew: Peter, you dealt with some phenomenal technology in your time, so obviously you’re on a constant learning curve, I guess. Is there constantly studying and requalifying?
Peter: I wasn’t the best student at school, I have found that I do have a thirst for knowledge and especially when it comes to technology, so I have spent a lot of my career doing training, getting my skills upgraded, my knowledge improved, in order for me to then take the next steps and become more effective in what I am able to achieve and do for the organisation that I am working with at the time. So whether it’s learning about a new aircraft system and how to maintain it, or whether it’s learning about a new weapons systems and how to introduce it into military service, they’re all things which have always appealed to me and learning is just such a critical part of that. When you’re learning to do something that has a practical application, I think that’s really important from my perspective at least.
Drew: Well fortunately you do have that thirst for knowledge and that desire to learn, so that’s obviously not a challenge to overcome, but I imagine moving around could be a bit of a challenge or was that just in your DNA from growing up in a Defence family?
Peter: I never really called anywhere home – we started off as a family in South Australia and then moved up to Queensland and then to Canberra, then to Malaysia and down to Melbourne again. So, that’s just as a kid growing up. So moving up and across different places and living in different places is just almost like where the work is where I go. I don’t have those deep-rooted connections to any specific location. But I do enjoy everywhere that I’ve been and I make the most of it by travelling, I enjoy four-wheel driving and getting out camping and so on. Seeing and experiencing new places is, I think, one of those thirst for knowledge type things that we’ve talked about, in order for me to continue to grow and mature.
Drew: Peter, you’ve worked on some pretty amazing projects and planes as well, such as the F/A 18 team, do you get to those points and think ‘wow, this is the pinnacle of what I’m doing’, or do you think ‘this is just another step on this pretty amazing career path that I’m on’?
Peter: I’ve had three careers essentially, if I look at my initial career in the Royal Australian Air Force, there was a lot of things I did there that I can look back on with a lot of pride and say ‘I did that’ or ‘I made that happen’, but likewise when I was in the Defence Materiel Organisation, I think one of the best things that I got to do and really felt like a sense of achievement was delivering a capability onto a platform be it an F/A-18 or whether it was deploying a satellite communications capability to the Army.
Drew: You said you’ve had basically three careers – you now work for BAE Systems Australia, so you’ve gone from, I guess, working on the Government side to working on the supplier side.
Peter: I joined BAE Systems Australia, worked in Canberra for a little while supporting some of the contracts that they had there, and then the opportunity to come over to Perth – which we’d had never been to Perth before, we’d not lived on this side of the country, and the opportunity to come over here and work on the Anzac class ships supporting a very, very significant upgrade to the ships. The ASMD upgrade to the ships introduced the new radar capability into the platform, which had a significant capability improvement for the Royal Australian Navy that made the ships more lethal than what they had previously been, and that was an exciting opportunity for me and the family was open to the opportunity to go to Perth and experience a new place and new location, and for me it was another opportunity to learn and grow. Obviously my background had never been with Navy ships, and I had to learn a whole new language and a whole new culture, but also I had to learn about the technologies of the ship – how they worked and why they worked and what we needed to make them work. The ships would be up on the hard-stand for essentially a couple of years whilst we did the upgrade, and so we needed to maintain the ships, keep them in a serviceable state, and when we put them back in the water we’d then take another 3-4 months to get them ready to then go back out to sea and hand them back over to the Navy for them to take away and use that capability.
Drew: Peter, it sounds like a fairly capable ship to say the least and you said this is an upgrade project, and you’re working primarily on the radar kind of side of it. I was reading somewhere it was a mast upgrade. Now when people think of masts they think of fairly simple things, but this is a complex piece of equipment I’m guessing.
Peter: Yes, we’re currently in the second upgrade program since I first arrived over here. The first program introduced a radar capability into a mast and when we talk about a mast, we’re talking about something that’s about 20 metres tall, and about 6-7 metres wide. So it’s not a small construction, and we build it from scratch. The second upgrade program is another radar upgrade, but the upgrade program itself is quite significant and the second upgrade program which we’re currently ¾ of the way through, not only is upgrading the radar capability but also upgrading a lot of the service systems on board the ship as well. We’re talking about things that you wouldn’t even think about when it comes to a ship – but things like the sewage treatment system, the air conditioning and heating systems, the refrigeration systems for food and supplies, those kinds of things are all part of what we’re upgrading on the ships at the moment. So if you can imagine a large military warship up on the hard-stand, with several large holes cut out the side of it, with its mast being removed, the paint gets stripped off it and a new coat of paint gets put on it. And just that activity on its own is many hundreds of thousands of hours. Building the mast starts about 18 months before the ship even arrives for us, and we build it from scratch in the construction hall using something like around 40 or small to medium enterprises in the local area that do a lot of the work for us and then we consolidate the mast, put in all the pipe work and electrical work, and all the equipment and stuff inside the mast. And then we roll it out of our construction hall, and we have a very big crane that then lifts the mast up onto the ship. The ship is 14 metres above the ground so it’s quite large. And we then have to locate the mast on the ship within a very, very small tolerance because otherwise the radars won’t work correctly.
Drew: The logistics are making my head explode a little bit, Peter, to be perfectly honest. And you’ve got a very broad title in terms of Project Manager. Just give me a bit of an idea of what that really means – because I’m guessing you’re pulling a lot of threads together and a lot of people together to try and deliver this on time and importantly on budget.
Peter: I have a team that works for me of Project Managers, so we currently have three ships on the go and at any one time, and I have three Project managers who are looking after each of those ships as well as a team of Ship Managers, Zone Managers, Supervisors, all the way down to the trades. On an average day here on the site, we have something like 600 people, the majority of those are trades, and even some of the Project Managers that I’ve got working for me have had a similar sort of career to me in that they’ve come up from a trade background, they’ve gone through some of the education systems and processes which BAE Systems has available to all of our employees, so that they can continue to grow and develop their careers. And some of them now working for me as Project Managers.
Drew: That’s quite a remarkable career progression when you think about it. I mean if you think back at young 17 year old Peter and tried to tell him that you were going to be looking after the re-fit of three warships, how do you reckon that would have resonated?
Peter: It never would have crossed my mind. No, for me all I ever thought about as a 17 year old was working on military aircraft and getting into the Air Force. And it wasn’t until, I guess, much later in my career as I sort of gone past that 20 year point in the Air Force where I started to think about what’s next. Because there wasn’t a lot more that I could learn and grow into within the Air Force that I could see anyway, so I started to turn my attention to these other things and this is where Project Management started to loom on the horizon for me. Once I’d left the Air Force and saw all of these other opportunities which exist, and this is, I guess, the great thing about organisations like BAE Systems is you might get into a position where you could be an Admin Assistant as an example, and become a Project Controller – just through the education processes which are readily available and if you’ve got the drive and the determination, and the willingness to apply that then just about anything is available to you.
Drew: Peter, you’re working in a big organisation, and there’s so many people involved. Are there misconceptions like a role like yours?
Peter: There can be, and in particular, I guess, where my level influence and control perhaps starts and finishes. So I’m often asked to do things which I don’t necessarily have the expertise or the management control over that part, but the great thing about my job and the fact that I’ve been here working at Henderson for the last 10 years is that I probably might not be the person who does the job, but I know who is the person to do that, and so I’m able to either point someone in the right direction or go and seek that advise or input from the right person, and that’s one of the advantages of a large organisation is that you do have the subject matter experts that you can then turn to, to help you achieve the outcomes you’re looking to achieve.
Drew: What do you reckon motivates you and your team on a daily basis, particularly you?
Peter: For me in particular, it’s actually teaching the young Project Managers and the team that we’ve got, basically to do my job. I always have seen my job as to teach others how to do my job and that’s probably a legacy of my training in the Air Force. Watching them grow and watching them develop and seeing them learn and mature as Project Managers – probably one of the key aspects that I have and the pleasures that I get out of my job. For my team though, I think it’s them being able to deliver these upgraded ships back to the Navy and watch them sail away knowing full well exactly what their capability is that they’ve now delivered back to the Navy that’s going to make the ships’ crews life much better through the upgrades of communications systems, air conditioning systems, and refrigerators for example, but also knowing that technology which we’ve done to this ship is going to make them safer and make them more effective when they are put into harm’s way.
Drew: You’ve had three different careers as you’ve described them in the Defence sector, what do you reckon the best career advice you’ve received is?
Peter: Whatever it is that’s presented to you, you need to go and fact-check – you need to make sure that it’s correct, so I think that’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned across the whole of my career, has been don’t take anything at face value, always go and check and double-check to make sure that what you’re getting and what you’re being told is true and an accurate reflection of the situation that might be presented.
Drew: You’ve worked in a few different environments –what skills do you think are the most important in a modern workplace?
Peter: I think communication skills are probably one of the keys to any career opportunity that you have, whether you’re a plumber, you need to be able to communicate with your clients with somebody who doesn’t understand your trade and be able to communicate effectively with them in order to gain acceptance of what you’re proposing, or whether you’re a Project Manager having to sit in front of some very senior leaders within the Customer organisation or, in my case, the Navy, and be able to communicate them the status of the project, the upgrades that you’re undertaking and some of the challenges that you need to be able to overcome in order to be able deliver on the outcome. So I think that’s probably one of those key pieces of advice, is communication is key. Open, honest, clear communication whether it’s in writing or whether it’s face-to-face, I think that’s probably one of the most important things.
Drew: Lastly Peter, you’ve got Defence in your blood, your dad was in the game, you’ve been in the game for all of your career – what advice would you have for anyone considering a career in Defence?
Peter: I think it’s a fabulous career opportunity for anybody, whether it’s in the military itself – be it the Army, Navy, Air Force – or whether it’s in Defence industry, there is so much opportunity going now within the Defence sector. You don’t have to be a person in uniform in order to be able to effect a significant outcome for the Australian people and for the Australian Government, and I think that would be my key message: you don’t have to be in uniform to be an effective member of Defence. You can be a Defence contractor, you can be somebody who worked in the public service within Defence – there are so my career opportunities that can start small and grow to something big. All you have to do it look, because the opportunities are there, and they’re growing over the coming years across most of the states of Australia.
Drew: Peter, you’re a great example of someone who has certainly looked and grown with all those opportunities. You’ve got a great career story, thank you for talking the time and sharing your career story with me and those listening to this Beneath the Deck podcast, and all the best for the road ahead and the ongoing important work that you are doing. Peter Ridley, Project Manager with BAE Systems Australia, thanks for your time.
Peter: Thank you Drew.
Episode One: Kickstarting careers
Ashleigh, Early Careers Lead
What's it like guiding and shaping the careers of people embarking on their journey into the Defence industry?
Ashleigh, the Early Careers Lead at BAE Systems Australia — Maritime, uses his wealth of experience and his own unique career path to help people get the most out of their job.
Ashleigh started off his working life as an apprentice in the automotive industry before moving into teaching at high schools, focusing on STEM subjects, and he brings a different perspective to the pathways a career can take.
Listen to Ashleigh's story.
Drew: To build the largest ever surface ship project in Australia’s defence history requires a huge workforce with skills ranging from welders right through to computer programmers. Hello, I’m Drew Radford and finding these people, employing them and keeping them is easier said than done. It requires careers people with unique insights and experience. And that pretty much describes Ashleigh, who heads up early careers at BAE Systems Australia. His own career has seen him move from fitter-and-turner to science teacher to schools career counsellor and a range of other roles in between. To discuss how this has moulded his approach in helping others achieve their own career potential at BAE Systems Australia, he joins us for this Beneath the Deck podcast. Ashleigh, thanks for your time.
Ashleigh: No problems, thanks very much for having me Drew.
Drew: Ashleigh, we’re going to talk about the important work that you do in early careers and get people engaged in careers. I’m really fascinated with your background, because for want of a better description, you’ve got metal running through your veins, you’ve got grease under your nails because you were a teacher, now you work in careers but you were doing something vastly different originally when you got out of school.
Ashleigh: Yes, certainly I had a couple of different career changes, you know if I go right back to the beginning and talk about school – I enjoyed it, it was okay, I was looking forward to the end of it but I didn’t have any idea as to what it is that I really wanted to do. So I went down to the local car manufacturer at Mitsubishi Motors and put my name down for an apprenticeship. It was sort of that easy back in the day. But yes, I undertook my apprenticeship at Mitsubishi Motors as a fitter and turner, spent probably 8 or 9 years working predominantly in the trades space and in the last few years of my time at Mitsubishi I was in the apprentice trades training centre, so training a lot of apprentices, which I really enjoyed. As you know Mitsubishi closed down, and so I saw that as a bit of an opportunity to go off onto another career path.
Drew: Somewhat aligned, it sounds like a stepping process – you understand the importance of manufacturing, but then your next step was actually solidly into education I understand.
Ashleigh: Yeah, so I went into education, I went in as a teacher. Like I said, I really enjoyed working with the apprentices and young people, and sort of saw that as a bit of a stepping stone for myself. I remember going back home and telling the folks what I was about to do, and I think they flipped over backwards and said well you never really enjoyed school, so why would you want to be a teacher. I guess that was part of my motivation because I didn’t really enjoy school but I could really see the value and importance of it once I had been out there in that work environment. So four years of a teaching degree, and then I found myself having 10-12 years teaching in the STEM based areas, so maths, science and technology.
Drew: So was that important in terms of you were in the STEM area, but I imagine the students who would be able to refer to real-world examples like when you were on the manufacturing floor – that bit of maths that we’re talking about now actually had this application.
Ashleigh: Yeah exactly. My teaching was all around my previous career that I’d had, and I tried to always use real-world examples within my teaching to make those connections with what it is we’re teaching, so they can actually see where it’s being used, they can see some real-life application to it. I think that was sort of what informed my teaching but I think the other thing that I really enjoyed and I found quite useful was to just be able to have conversations with the students – you know, just to be able to talk to them about what careers were like, what it was like to be in a working environment, what it was like to be a tradesperson, and to experience all that and all those opportunities that that offers, because I think those conversations that you can have with the students is where the real learning begins. We’re in an age now where you can find out all the knowledge you want it’s in your hip pocket sitting on your phone – but how do you actually go and use that information. And I think that was really important to have with young people.
Drew: You’ve clearly put your money where your mouth is for want of a better description, because in your last school-based environment you had the title of Director of Learning Pathways – what did that actually mean, it sounds like you were connecting those dots.
Ashleigh: Yeah that was a really good opportunity that came up. So it’s all about working with the students at the school to develop a pathway through school – so looking at their subject selections and having a real understanding about what they wanted to achieve when they were starting to leave school. It was looking at all the vocational educational opportunities which are available, you know school-based apprenticeships or traineeships, it was looking at all the university programs which are available for school students to begin while they are at school so they can get that head-start on their career. With the conversations that I’d had, and I’d had a lot of conversations about student pathways, and one of the things students often get asked, or we ask our own kids ‘what do you want to do when you grow up or what do you want to be’, and I always tried to avoid asking that, because I think a better question to ask is ‘what are you interested in and what do you like doing’ because that can then really sort form that career you may like to pursue. If you’re actually doing something that you enjoy, there’s an old saying that you won’t work a day in your life, but you’ll also be better at it as well.
Drew: Ashleigh, it very much sounds like you’re living by that mantra yourself – I also get the impression that your role is very rewarding.
Ashleigh: Yeah it is rewarding when you can look back and see what students have been able to achieve and what they have picked up from those conversations that you have. I think that is one of the really rewarding parts of my role at the moment at BAE and the early careers section. I now start to see apprentices and I see graduates and so when you’re working in the school setting you work with the students for a couple of years and then graduation night happens and you generally don’t see them again. You might see them walking down the street and they’ll say ‘hello’ and ‘how are you going’. Now that I’m in the career that I’m in I actually see I guess the fruits of everybody’s labour because I see the students coming through, and how they’ve developed, and they’re taking that first step on their career journey.
Drew: You are a great illustration of someone who has gone through one in terms of re-skilling, but you’re passionate about the transferable skills, and maybe that’s better language than re-skilling.
Ashleigh: The reason why I like the term transferrable skills is really whatever it is you’re doing, you’re learning something and you’re developing a skills within it. You could be playing in a football team or a school sport team, you can be part of a dance group or drama club. You could maybe be a carer or maybe volunteering somewhere, but you’re always developing skills while you’re doing that. A lot of young people’s first job is working at a takeaway outlet and if you think about the skills that you’re developing there, you know you’re developing your communications skills, your problem solving, you’re multitasking, you’re developing some conflict resolution skills and all of that adds up, and I think it’s really important to be able to recognise that, so that when you are applying for a job somewhere that you highlight them, because these really are the employability skills and the soft skills that we keep talking about that you know, employers are looking for.
Drew: Well in terms of that, how did you make the step from, you’ve gone from fitter and turner to school teacher, to now working in early careers with BAE Systems. What was the motivation to make that move?
Ashleigh: I’m a bit of an advocate for life-long learning, and I sort of did the 10-15 years as a tradesperson, I was sort of coming up to that 15 year or so as a school teacher, and I was just starting to think what’s next for me and then I saw the job advertised at BAE leading the early careers program, and knowing that was all about the apprenticeship pathways and graduate pathways and everything in between, I thought I’ve got something that I can offer there, and that was the next opportunity for me to go away and learn something. You know, I’ve never worked in the defence industry, although I have worked in manufacturing so I felt as though I had quite a good background there, but for me it was to take that next step and learn something new again.
Drew: You’ve painted a bit of a picture of what you’re doing in that space – it sounds quite broad though, it sounds like everything from school leavers through to university graduates, and I understand even adults who are wanting to change career.
Ashleigh: I guess everybody, you look at your job description you probably think I do 50% of that and everything else sort of comes in on top of it. But yes, certainly early careers the way I see it, an early career doesn’t need to necessarily be for a young person, it can be someone starting out in a new career and it’s early for them. I guess the thing is, it’s a bit of an employee’s market at the moment isn’t it when we’re talking about the skills shortage and everybody is after someone to come and work for them, whether that’s at a café or a defence business like us. So it’s really looking, how can we look away from those traditional areas of attracting people to the business. You know, graduates have been the traditional pathway for someone to enter into that non-trade area, apprentices have been that traditional pathway to enter into a trade, but I think we’re sort of at a time now where we really need to start to look outside the square, if you like, to start to attract people into the business, people into employment and so we’re looking at things like adult apprentices, reskilling current workers, how do we connect earlier with our university graduates, through you know, internship programs, you know we’ve also got traineeships through vocational education which is I think an untapped market when we’re starting to look at those non-trade areas as well. And so, just being able to look at all the different opportunities that there are around to develop a workforce.
Drew: What do you enjoy most about your current role?
Ashleigh: Probably what I really enjoy most is well I work with a fantastic team to begin with – the team is really skilled in what they do – as I’ve sort of mentioned, we have a team that work in that vocational education pathway, and another on the other side of the team is looking at the tertiary education side of things. So that’s great ,I’ve got an awesome team, but I think the other part that I really like is seeing that we can actually provide opportunity for young people, you know for some of them it could be their first job and starting their career, for others it could be that shift in a career that perhaps they’ve been looking for, or it might be somebody that’s sort of been floating around the employment market for a little while, and now we can actually provide them with stable employment and a job for life essentially. We’ve sort of used the term ‘generational employment’ where potentially some of our apprentice’s kids could be working on the same project.
Drew: Well somebody might start at BAE Systems Australia doing one particular job, but because it’s such a big organisation they can have a career path like you that’s more through many different avenues along the way.
Ashleigh: Yeah that’s right, you know we’re always considering how we can I guess improve the pathways through our workforce. Some people are really happy to be working in that same role, they come in day in day out, and that’s what they want to do, and that’s fine but we might have some other people that are always looking for that next challenge or that next learning opportunity. So I think as a business and someone of our size it’s really important that we can offer those opportunities for our workforce, because there’s this whole transferrable skill and transferrable knowledge, you know you’re going to bring that with you. You consider someone that’s been working as a tradesperson out on the shopfloor for you know 10, 15 years and they then decide that it’s time for them to move into maybe a bit more of an engineering detail design sort of pathway, then they’re going to bring all of that knowledge with them and that’s not going to be lost. So it’s looking at providing those opportunities for everyone.
Drew: It sounds like you and your team have a really important role within the business – you’re feeding the belly of the beast for want of a better description. You’ve got the labour force to build these amazing ships, what do you wish others in the organisation knew about what you and your team do?
Ashleigh: I think it’s about we’re there to work with everybody in the organisation. Obviously we’re the early careers team and we can provide graduates and interns and trainees etc. but the other thing that we can really do is to work with other teams or other functions as we call them within the business, to help them develop their own early careers programs. They know what type of skill they need, the type of person that they need to operate within their function, and so we can help them, we can support that to develop those pathways within those functions. You know, I think if we can sort of work more as a bigger team than working in isolation then that’s only going to benefit the company and you know, like I’ve said, and everyone keeps talking about the skills shortage – once again it’s about how you can actually provide an opportunity for someone that perhaps is a little bit different to traditional pathways.
Drew: Ashleigh, you’ve mentioned at the moment things are particularly tight in terms of there’s a smaller number of potential employees, is that the greatest challenge you and your team are facing at the moment, or are there other things?
Ashleigh: It is a great challenge, I think the other challenge for us is, if you consider the life and time of this project, you know generational employment, that’s mean that people that are of quite a young age, we’re going to be looking at them to come and work for us and get into the manufacturing space. And you know, with Mitsubishi and Holden closing down, we did lose quite a bit of that manufacturing capability and so I think it’s really important that all businesses get out into the school systems and actually really start to promote what’s out there for the young people, because we’re really going to rely on the young people – and when I say young people I’m talking about those that are in sort of years 5 and 6 to have an understanding about the job opportunities that are out there. I’m not saying that they need to know what they want to do, but they just need to know what work is all about, that South Australia has some great opportunities ahead in the defence sector, you know you can talk about others areas as well – hydrogen is going to be huge for South Australia, you know we’ve got some great projects which are happening, North-South corridor, we’ve got new hospitals being built and so there is a great deal of opportunity out there and we’re all going to be vying for the same person really, and so getting out there and promoting this within our young people I think is really, really important.
Drew: Is that what’s motivating you a little bit, too? It sounds almost competitive to some extent.
Ashleigh: What’s motivating me is to getting out there to actually show these opportunities, and promote these opportunities and see young people actually start to consider these STEM based careers and STEM based learning. School was okay for me, but did I really enjoy the whole STEM side of things? No, not really, but that’s where the opportunities are and I think that is really what we need to be promoting within our young people, and I guess that’s what motivates me is to be able to get out there and say ‘hey, look perhaps it wasn’t really for me, but look what you can actually achieve when you do see that as the opportunity’. Tuesday I was out there with one of our engineers and she was presenting to a group of young girls from the area, and she mentioned exactly the same thing that she wanted to be an engineer but her mathematics skills were not where they needed to be, but she pursued it and she kept working and taking up opportunities to learn more, and now she’s an engineer and listening to some of the projects she’s worked on, she’s had a fantastic career so far and you know it’s only going to get better for her.
Drew: Ashleigh, you’ve been through a few different sectors in your career, you’re now with defence – what do you like about working with defence?
Ashleigh: Opportunity. Opportunity for employment, but to just do some different things when you consider the vast range of jobs that actually need to be undertaken to get these ships in the water and for people to live on them, there’s lots of opportunities and lots of different things people can do to get involved.
Drew: Well there are lots of opportunities, what skills do you reckon are most important then in a modern workplace?
Ashleigh: I’m a bit advocate in employing for potential and I think in order to be able to do that, young people really need to consider those employability skills and those soft skills that I’ve spoke about before – you know being able to problem solve, to communicate, to work in a team, to critically and creatively be able to think, those are the skills that are going to be needed now and into the future. Knowledge is readily available but it’s how you go about using that knowledge and what you use it for and how do you decipher that knowledge and information, I really do think that the employability skills, although it’s not exciting, people do often say to me look what do I need to do to get a job there, and I start talking about the soft skills and the employability skills and like I said it’s not exciting, but it really is important and I think anybody can develop those skills. You know, some people are naturally quite gifted at the mathematics side of things, but I think that everybody can develop those employability skills.
Drew: Ashleigh, that’s great insight and you’ve been very generous with your time and talking about what you’ve learnt throughout your career and how you’re helping the next generation develop. What’s the best career advice you’ve received?
Ashleigh: Continue learning. Continue learning and take opportunity, you know if you see that there’s an opportunity there and you sort of feel as though you’d like to take it up, just take the plunge and step in and have a go at it, you don’t want to look back, you don’t want to die wondering. The great thing about where we are at the moment as a state and as a country, is that we have opportunity to change career, you know we’ve got some great educational systems which can pick you up at any time to change careers, to continue learning, if it doesn’t turn out, you haven’t lost anything – you’ve learnt something and then you grab that next opportunity as it comes along.
Drew: Ashleigh, you’ve been really generous with your time and great with your insights, and it sounds like you have a really satisfying career in terms of helping people find a path and career. Ashleigh, Program Lead – Early Careers, thank you for joining us in BAE Systems studio for this Beneath the Deck podcast.
Ashleigh: No problems at all, thank you very much for having me and I’ve enjoyed the conversation.
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