The human resource challenges facing our organisation are well known. The most recent figures reveal a 12-month rolling separation rate of 13% within the full-time Army, while Defence Force Recruiting achieved an average of just 75% of targets for enlistments into the permanent force (Defence Annual Report 2021-2022). This has resulted in an annual net loss of personnel in Army and the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

However, workforce pressures are also being felt externally to Defence. In 2022, the job vacancy rate (the percentage of unfilled job positions) hit an all-time high – double pre-pandemic levels – while unemployment remains at record-low levels not seen since the 1970s. Put simply, for the first time on record in Australia’s history, there are more job openings than unemployed people.

However, one key group is not included in these extreme workforce statistics: students (who are considered neither ‘employed’ nor unemployed). With an unemployment rate that’s almost impossible to further reduce, and more Australians attending university than ever before, employers are increasingly targeting university students before they graduate and enter the workforce.

In other words, employers are generating their own jobseekers because there aren’t enough in the official workforce. Students are being poached and starting work earlier through a range of pre-graduate programs (such as paid internships, traineeships, cadetships, and summer/vacationer programs). Recruiters are visiting university campuses and offering part-time jobs to first-year undergraduate students, just months out of high school, in the hopes of retaining them on graduation.

A host of sign-on, retention, and peer recruitment bonuses are being offered to graduates as corporate Australia fights for talent in a hostile labour market. Defence – specifically Army – must do the same, or else remain uncompetitive in a market that shows little sign of easing.

In addition to the changing nature of the labour market, the type of capability – and workforce – being demanded of the Army Reserve is also changing. A key recommendation (11.5) from the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) is that the Reserves “must not just complement the total Defence workforce but also provide the expansion base for the ADF in times of crisis.” To achieve this, it recommends Defence “investigate innovative ways to adapt the structure, shape and role of the Reserves, as well as reconsider past programs…”

In order to transition from providing a complementary capability, to providing an expansionary capability, the Reserves must grow its workforce. It must recruit, train, and retain people on a scale not seen for decades. But where will this new workforce come from? Over its history, the Army Reserve’s workforce has grown many times in response to strategic circumstances: in 1938, the Citizen Military Forces (a precursor to today’s Army Reserve) doubled from 35,000 to 70,000 in less than a year.

However, at no time in its history has the Army Reserve had to contend with labour market conditions as difficult as today’s. Almost a decade into the Great Depression and with unemployment at a “low” of 11%, the labour market conditions of Australia in 1938 were starkly different to today.

But providing capability is more than just filling position numbers. The workforce must be continually trained, drilled, and refined. To complement the ADF, we must have adequate levels of skills, training, and experience to reinforce gaps in the fulltime force when required. To provide an expansionary base, we must maintain a large pool of already trained assets.

The key factor limiting both of these roles is workforce availability. The recruitment difficulties being faced in the civilian workforce mean existing employees are having to take on extra workloads and are working longer than before, with less workplace flexibility for staff absences or leave – meaning reservists can devote less of their time to Army. Short-notice or reactive taskings are even more problematic for Service Category (SERCAT) 5 members, due to the part-time and voluntary nature of their service.

The commitments of civilian jobs, families, and lives often cannot be rearranged or cancelled at very short notice. The Reserve Service (Protection) Act (2001) isn’t a ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’ that immediately nullifies that project deliverable, that important meeting, that wedding, or that specialist appointment. This constraint has been brought to the fore in recent times by years of bushfires, floods, and a pandemic leading to multiple Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC) tasks.

Not only were many reservists unable to contribute to disaster relief efforts due to their short-notice nature, but many also held roles in state governments as emergency service personnel or essential workers, who were already contributing in a higher-value civilian role.

Although the ADF’s provision of DACC will change over the coming years, as the DSR notes it must be “the force of last resort for domestic aid to the civil community” (5.5), the role of the Army Reserve in providing short-notice contingency capability is unlikely to fade. On the contrary, the DSR specifically recommends the reconsideration of the Ready Reserve Scheme (11.5) – where mostly 17-25 year-olds completed 12-months full-time service before returning to the Reserves, in the effort to provide enhanced skills and short-notice capability to the Army Reserve.

University students are in unique positions to provide both short-notice capability and a greater time commitment than the average employed reservist. University today is more flexible than ever before: lectures are recorded and available online for students to watch at their leisure, while most assessments and exams are completed online.

Under the Reserve Service Act, universities are legally required to support students who render Reserve service, typically through granting extensions and deferrals of assignments and assessments. The typical university student has no dependents to care for; no civilian employer to irritate with short-notice reserve service; and fewer personal, financial, or lifestyle commitments. Hence, a short-notice task doesn’t require life rearrangement or pleading with civilian bosses (and spouses) to be released – it merely requires a Notice of Reserve Service to be provided to the university.

Along with superior flexibility and greater agility to respond to short-notice taskings, university students are also relatively time-rich. The typical academic year is around 28 weeks long, with semester breaks ideal for the completion of career courses, or participation in field exercises. Even longer commitments such the end-of-year Rifle Company Butterworth rotation conveniently fall outside of semester. Instead of taking a semester off to go backpacking in Europe, students could nominate for a 6-month Transit Security Element rotation.

This article has outlined two issues being faced by the Army Reserve: a tight labour market making recruitment, retention, and workforce availability difficult; and the need to vastly grow the workforce while retaining a short-notice capability. It has also presented a largely untapped, high-yield labour resource: university students. Yes, Defence Force Recruiting could (and should) just increase their recruitment efforts amongst students. But this paper argues that Army must also restructure if it is to harness this labour resource most efficiently.

Today, Army’s six university regiments are largely training organisations, running most of the training for reserve soldiers and officers. There is little affiliation with the universities they are each named after, beyond a historical and ceremonial association. Previously, university regiments were infantry units, providing military training to students, maintaining rifle and support platoons, and running training activities just as regular reserve units do today. However, cuts to funding and personnel in Defence’s 1991 Force Structure Review ultimately saw the regiments reoriented from university students to focus on training reservists.

This paper proposes restructuring to a hybrid model – where the university regiments maintain their current training role, but also return to their original purpose. Already present in every state and territory, university regiments could raise “University Platoons/Companies” manned by reservists from tertiary educations (including TAFEs) in the area.

Regiments could return to maintaining active working relationships with universities, liaising to support their members, and conducting community engagement activities within the student body. Longer training activities, courses, periods, and weekends could be planned alongside the academic calendar – with increases in tempo over semester breaks – all in the effort to maximise the ability of members to render reserve service. An internal university company could be drawn upon by university regiments to support their own training activities and courses, reducing the burden of Training Support Requests (TSRs) often borne by external reserve units.

The Chief of Army has noted “our people are our greatest asset and the key to unlocking our potential”, and our people equally represent our greatest recruiting asset. Studies have consistently found referral recruitment (where current employees refer people from their social networks) to be highly effective – generating more applicants, more hires, and better-performing employees than other recruitment methods such as job advertisements. A platoon of students at a university could generate referral recruitment momentum – where other students are encouraged (and referred) by their peers to join, in the same fashion that clubs or sporting teams recruit members on campus.

Specific academic and financial measures to support reservists, similar to ones already offered in American universities could be considered. For example, the completion of a certain amount of Army Reserve Training Days (ARTDs) within a financial quarter could equate to an academic credit towards your degree (incentivising and enabling students to provide greater capability). A financial incentive similar to the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme (DHOAS) could also be considered – where completion of an amount of ARTDs or years of service equates to a dollar-value reduction in students’ HECS debts.

The return of university students to university regiments could also support the re-introduction of the Ready Reserves Scheme (which was originally focused at university students). On completion of 12 months of fulltime service they could be posted to a university regiment, allowing them to complete study while fulfilling their obligation to provide higher capability and shorter-notice service than traditional reservists.

The DSR (11) also calls for more recruitment in key technical and specialist trades such as cyber, engineering, and space. With STEM degrees comprising over 20% of university enrolments, Army could not only increase short-term capability by employing STEM students as reservists in university regiments while studying, but guarantee longer-term specialist capability through their retention once graduated, and subsequent employment in technical fields.

This could diversify and broaden the ADF’s specialist skills pipeline, which is currently largely dependent on the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) – offering a narrower range of degrees and research opportunities compared to public universities.

This article doesn’t propose an all-out militarisation of university campuses, nor does it suggest a return to national service. It also doesn’t propose the demolition of our current university regiments. Rather, it proposes we move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to Reserve capability in order to efficiently target specific populations. The success of this tailored approach is already evident in Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Group (RFSG), which employs large numbers of Indigenous Australians as reservists to harness their intimate local knowledge in remote Northern and Western Australia. Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSUs) have tailored their structure to best support their members – offering pre-recruit programs, a tailored RFSU Recruit Course, an RFSG-specific Employment Category Number (ECN), and running local community engagement programs.

The success of RFSUs lies in their ability to harness an underutilised population with unique capabilities to increase and diversify Army’s capability. In the same vein, university students represent an underutilised population with a unique capability. They may not have intimate local land knowledge, but they do offer unique short-notice flexibility, increased availability to serve, and significant potential for incentivisation and future retention through tertiary institutions.

The DSR has established a clear mandate for the the revisiting of past programs, and the adoption of an “innovative and bold approach” (11.2) to recruitment. Faced with serious internal and external labour force pressures, Army is presented with an underutilised population of potential workers, with greater availability and flexibility than employed reservists. Facing similar issues, corporate Australia has seen the same opportunity, and adapted to harness it. We must do the same, or risk being left in their dust.