The Defence Strategic Review says we need ‘creative and flexible responses’ to recruit and retain highly skilled people for the new integrated force. We have one of those flexible responses already in Defence – the ADF Military Salary Table. There are 10 pay grades per rank for most soldiers and officers; however, advancement through them depends on corps specific skills managed by Career Management Agencies.

Promotion, and certainly increments, tend to come quicker than movement from left to right along the pay grades. The average difference between pay grade 1 and pay grade 10 for lieutenant – lieutenant colonel is $50,222. From corporal – warrant officer class two it is $42,278. Either way, that gives rank cohorts considerable movement for upskilling – but is it happening?

The ADF Pay and Conditions website says “your skill grade reflects your training and experience. If your skill grade changes and results in an increase to your pay grade, your salary will also increase.”  Recognising the skill upgrade, however, is a subjective business, and Recognition of Prior Learning is almost impossible to realise.

Unlike the technically focused Air Force, and specialist focused Navy, Army increasingly prefers the generalist. We are all ‘soldiers first’. The way Army manages pay grades, which appear to be designed for specialising, rewards success as a generalist, often as a prerequisite for pay upgrades and specialist opportunities. That’s not to say we don’t accommodate professional specialists joining Army under the Specialist Service Officer or Technical/Qualified Entry scheme, but we no longer incentivise specialisation from within.

As the technology and roles that support emerging capability and military innovation evolve, the speed of rapid iteration is continuing to increase. Where stability and the long-term investment of an individual into an institution used to be a basis for career planning, ADF members are now watching their old-school peers advance in their careers, while they themselves continue in a holding pattern.

There should be no disadvantage to becoming a master of your trade or a subject matter expert; in fact, the ADF should be proud of the expertise among our serving members. But we are not upskilling them at the appropriate speed, we aren’t migrating them to appropriate roles that extract all their experience to effect change and policy, nor are we recognising their existing specialisations and qualifications, which are often gained in their own time.

Instead, we present a plethora of ‘Hail Mary’ incentives, which often fail due to defective administration; or make promises of deployments, promotions, and transfers which are not realised within a posting cycle.

As with foreign languages, there are now technical ‘languages’ that we need in Defence, and which should attract a higher pay grade. Industry pays for experience and expertise – for instance, a qualified data scientist in the private sector can attract a starting salary $130,000 without corporate knowledge. The APS recruits data analysts at a starting rate of $125,000 without Defence experience. A corporal clerk qualified and using the same skills described in these job advertisements plus Defence experience, could potentially be earning pay grade 10 ($122,778) but is more likely sitting at pay grade five ($95,000). We are not aware of any corporal clerks at pay grade 10.

A force which integrates the environmental domains, as the Defence Strategic Review announced, is a gift for balancing the specialist/generalist workforce. The integration will come through ‘like’ capabilities. Capabilities such as surveillance, targeting, logistics and missile defence, have the potential to cut through service and rank categories, bringing together ADF members who can become deeply skilled and experienced in that area. These cross-cutting capabilities will also allow ADF members to take over some of the roles currently outsourced to consultants.

Some Army members, finding that specialisation is a detriment to their career, may hide their skill development from their workplace. Alternatively, unable to fulfil their specialist interests in the Army, they get out and become consultants, giving back their enhanced knowledge and skill base to Defence, who pay handsomely for it. Industry has begun to realise that experience plus skill is a valuable commodity.

All a company needs to do to access talent at a minimal cost, is pay ten percent above a soldier’s wage and provide study avenues. To avoid this, the ADF has to start recognising and paying for the skills and qualifications and take specialist advice from within the ranks.

Surely the Good Soldiering intent of “Potential” which recognises the need for “continuous improvement” means that at every rank level, we capitalise and extend the skills of that cohort. Not everyone wants or needs to get promoted but enabling the pay rise structure within a rank across services ensures ADF members have career security, purposeful work, and a career path ahead of them. Surely a simple pay-for-skills realignment such as this would make a significant boost to retention.


Cove Team Note

Army Personnel Capability Branch was invited to provide a response to this article, it can be found below:

"I would like to thank the author of the article ‘Time to Specialise in Army’ for taking the time to write in. We acknowledge that Australians are facing some tough economic conditions at the moment. In the face of unprecedentedly high inflation rates, consistent upward ticks to interests rates as well as a general housing shortage in major cities, it is not surprising that remuneration is at the centre of many workplace discussions.

The ADF’s 10 pay group structures (known respectively as Graded Officer Pay Scale and Graded Other Rank Pay Scale) was introduced between 2007 and 2008. The Army employment category system primarily develops ‘generalist’ officers, and they are remunerated accordingly. Soldier employment (and consequently, remuneration) is primarily specialised, with a ‘component’ of generalisation recognising increased responsibility, accountability, ADF experience and other factors that are gained with increases in rank. The recognition of this ‘rank value’ ensures sufficient incentive for quality people to seek and accept those higher ranks. The system has served Army well for the last 15 years, being a two axis pay system able to remunerate for people advancing in skill grade, as well as incentivising promotion. The ADF’s pay is set, through legislation, by an external, independent tribunal called the Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal (DFRT).

The DFRT system presents many advantages. Pay rates are determined by an independent tribunal which takes into account various factors such as qualifications, range of skills, depth of knowledge, job complexity, and range of actions. Progression is clearly defined and predictable through Employment Specifications. The serving member knows exactly what gates they need to meet in order to progress through the pay system. The obvious downside is that the deliberate and well-considered nature of changes to the ADF pay systems means that responses to changes in the labour market or economic conditions can be slower than the private sector. As a result, there will be instances where pay rates do not fully align with prevailing market rates, or where specialisations such as data science are not yet being accounted for in our remuneration system.

The Army is aware of the changes to the labour market. We are tracking employers and are seeing the value of STEM orientated jobs and the market shifts around this. Army is always in the process of introducing changes to the pay system. Workforce segments are regularly reviewed, and remuneration is often a large part of the discussion. However, we do need to strike a balance between accommodating for changing market conditions, whilst also ensuring that changes don’t create 2nd or 3rd order effects, such as dissuading members from joining combat corps or from seeking promotion.

Outside of reviewing pay scales for employment segments, we are also exploring general initiatives to help all members such as a future Workplace Remuneration Arrangement later this year, that takes into account recent economic conditions. Whilst there is still plenty more lines of effort being explored, we still believe that Army salaries coupled with ADF’s other generous conditions of service packages such as superannuation, leave benefits, housing, and medical form an overall competitive total remuneration package for our members."

– LTCOL Dan Chen & LTCOL Narayan, APCB.