Boeing Australia - Working with RDA Hunter to Build its Workforce

Boeing Australia is working with RDA Hunter's and its STEM Workforce Initiative to build its workforce for the future - a case study

by Kate O’Mara

According to the Foundation for Young Australians’ (FYA) report series, The New Work Order, employers are paying a premium for people with skills in digital literacy, critical thinking, creativity and teamwork. These so-called enterprise skills are quickly becoming the ‘new basics’ and will soon be essential for securing employment.

Jan Owen AM, CEO of FYA, reinforced this idea at the recent RDA Hunter STEM Workforce Conference, talking about a need in the workplace for cultural intelligence. She said we need to equip, inform and inspire young people to navigate the future of work by thinking about how their skills are portable for other jobs.

 Providing a workforce with both technical and enterprise skills has long been on the agenda of RDA Hunter’s STEM Workforce initiatives.

 “Since 2009, we have been working in close partnership with Hunter industry to make sure students have skills in specific areas of competence.  Enterprise skills, or what we used to call ‘soft skills’, are absolutely essential to succeed in the current workplace,” said Trevor John RDA Hunter’s Director of Regional Development.

RDA Hunter’s STEM Workforce Manager, Rick Evans, observes that, “On-the-job training is increasingly prevalent in the Hunter because of the highly technical, niche projects currently underway here. Companies are looking for young people with the right combination of skills – people that have STEM knowledge, but that are also able to adapt, work in teams and think critically about solutions to problems we haven’t had to solve before. Our programs are focused on building these skills in addition to technical knowledge.” 

Launched in 2017 as part of RDA Hunter’s most mature STEM program, ME, STEM-Ex was established to funnel students who show the right combination of skills into Hunter industries that need them. It exposes students to the role enterprise skills play in successful project delivery by embedding them in real project teams.

“STEM-Ex presents a unique opportunity to engage students at a pivotal point in their lives and inspires them to pursue STEM based careers. Industry partners are absolutely critical to the success of this program. The quality companies we partner with has increased the activity’s popularity with students and is the reason we’ve had to introduce a competitive entry system.” Rick Evans said.

Global aerospace giant Boeing has a strong but unassuming presence in the Hunter sustaining and upgrading the Royal Australian Air Force’s fleet of F/A-18A/B Classic Hornets and E-7A Wedgetail aircraft, and training the Airforce crew to fly the E-7A and Mission System crew to operate the E-7A. Boeing is a vital ME Program partner and a supportive participant in STEM-Ex.

According to Mr Matt Sprakel, Boeing Defence Australia’s (BDA) Classic Hornet Chief Engineer and Boeing’s STEM-Ex lead in Hunter, the aerospace industry will be highly active for at least 50 years in the Hunter Region and companies like Boeing will continue to have a requirement for skilled people.

“We maintain a large workforce in the Hunter that has a diverse range of skills and qualifications. For the foreseeable future we’ll need people with the technical and non-technical skills to work in teams on some of the most challenging and complex sustainment and development programs for the Australian Defence Force.

“STEM-Ex is a cost effective and reliable option for us to inspire students to pursue a career in one of the most exciting industries in the world. It also helps us to identify and encourage a local talent pipeline of young people with the interest and drive to succeed in the aerospace sector,” he said

In 2018, STEM-Ex is connecting 35 students in years 11 and 12 from Hunter high schools with Defence prime contractors and defence industry in the Hunter.

Students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in years 11 and 12 are invited to nominate for week-long placements at participating Hunter companies. Host companies embed students in their ‘real’ project teams and immerse them in actual project work.

Boeing Defence Australia hosted students from Cessnock High School and Hunter River High School last month. Students were placed with Boeing’s Wedgetail In-Service Support team and the FA-18 Classic Hornet Sustainment Support team at RAAF Base Williamtown to gain an introduction to the world of aerospace.

They were also exposed to the Engineering Development Environment and Software Verification and Validation Environment that supports the E-7A Wedgetail aircraft.  Over 130 engineers with various specialties work to upgrade the mission system of E-7A Wedgetail aircraft. The highly secure facility develops new technologies and systems and tests them in exact aircraft simulation ‘rooms’. Students were ‘blown away’ to see that Boeing encourages its engineers to innovate by setting and monitoring ‘what if’ scenarios in a specially-designed facility where environments can be simulated and hypotheses tested.

Additionally, and excitingly for them, students were each allowed 30 minutes access to Australia’s only E-7A Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) flight simulator. Used to train Wedgetail pilots and aircrew in an intense two-year program, the simulator is in constant use at Boeing’s Williamtown facility. Students took simulated flights across Newcastle, under Sydney Harbour Bridge and from Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. Their time on board the simulator counts towards ‘real’ flying hours.

“The simulator was awesome,” said Kyle Gosper from Cessnock High School. “I’m an Airforce Cadet so flying it was a thrill and topped off a great week at Boeing. Work experience has shown me that direct contact with aircraft is what I really want to do. Seeing real jobs and doing them eight hours a day really helped me decide if I want to do it forever – and I do!”

Students were surprised to learn that an engineering job at Boeing doesn’t necessarily mean a university qualification.

“We’re very keen to let students know that university isn’t the only path to engineering jobs. Not all Boeing employees begin their career holding a university degree – many of them have taken non-Engineering pathways. They’ve honed their skills across many projects, they’ve added qualifications based on their interests and they’ve re-trained along the way,” said Mr Sprakel.

“I think it’s a great takeaway message for students visiting us. Boeing is an exciting place to work - we’re delivering internationally significant projects and there are so many opportunities. But it’s important that young people understand that a career with Boeing is flexible – there are options and often where you start with the company can be very different to where you end up.”

The Hunter has a long list of important long-term defence contracts currently underway. With projects slated to continue until at least 2070, the ongoing demand for good staff is high. Defence primes and downstream industry are competing for the small pool of skilled people available in the region - which isn’t ideal. 

“We’re working on an industry-wide, collective approach to getting the right people into the sector as a whole. Jobs are available at all levels so we’re banding together and working with RDA Hunter and local schools on activities like STEM-Ex to help build the workforce we need.” Mr Sprakel said.

For more information contact RDA Hunter, or Rick Evans on 0434 489 609.