Australian Veterans Employment Coalition to ease transition into civilian life

Snowy Hydro Murray area manager Drew Twigg was an SAS member in the Defence Force. Picture: Rohan Thomson
Snowy Hydro Murray area manager Drew Twigg was an SAS member in the Defence Force. Picture: Rohan Thomson

High-profile Australian companies are helping ex-ADF personnel ease the transition from uniform to civilian life.

The rate of unemployment of ex-defence force personnel is under scrutiny in Australia for the first time.

About 5500 military members leave the ranks of the Australian Defence Force each year, but there is no record of how many of those seek or retain employment in other industries.

However, the Department of Defence and a coalition of high profile Australian companies has committed to change that.

The Veterans Employment Program was launched in November 2016 to address the issue. Twelve months on, the foundations have been laid to help ease the transition from uniform to civilian life.

As part of the program, about 18 companies have committed to giving veterans a fair chance at employment in their ranks, by providing a pathway into the workforce and ensuring the goal is retention, not just recruitment.

JP Morgan is championing the Australian Veterans Employment Coalition, which is modelled on a successful program the company runs in the US. The initiative is looking to increase merit-based veteran employment across the private sector over the coming years.

The [defence] experiences aren’t something everybody is familiar with.

JP Morgan executive director Luke Palmerlee said many of the businesses involved in the coalition use programmatic hiring, meaning veterans could miss out simply because of the “different language” used in their resumes.

“The [defence] experiences aren’t something everybody is familiar with,” Mr Palmerlee said.

“When a resume like that comes in, we take advantage of the people in the firm to translate, if you will.”

Mr Palmerlee said JP Morgan had also found veterans tended to play down their individual accomplishments and instead focus on their work in a team.

“It’s not preferential hiring, it’s not at the expense of anybody else. It’s just being better able to understand what they’ve done, and how to translate that.”

Other corporations and companies that have joined the coalition include Westpac, Australia Post, Qantas, Boral, AGL, Wesfarmers, Fairfax Media, Snowy Hydro and Incitec Pivot.

Snowy Hydro Murray region area manager Drew Twigg left the military about 10 years ago to pursue a corporate career. He interviewed for the job via satellite phone from his post in Afghanistan, where he was part of the elite Special Air Services team.

He now lives with his young family in Khancoban, a small town about four hours south-west of Canberra. It’s a place he describes as a safe environment in the hills he loves.

“I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve [in the military],” Mr Twigg said. 

“But there is always anxiety with leaving something that you’ve enjoyed.”

As part of the Veterans Employment Coalition, Snowy Hydro is helping veterans make that transition. Mr Twigg is assisting with the technicalities. 

“I now have this unique position that I can translate a lot of the military acronyms,” he said.

“Being a manager in Snowy Hydro, I know what types of those transferrable skills I’m looking for [in people I recruit] so if I can help them represent that, that’s a good thing.”

For the 350,000 veterans living in the community, Defence head of people capability Rear Admiral Brett Wolski is committed to discovering how many of them are employed to their full potential. 

Former military members were an untapped area of expertise, he said.

“Not untapped by choice, it is simply that industry doesn’t fully understand the skills and attributes veterans bring to another workforce,” Rear Admiral Wolski said.

“Employment is one of those facets of life for a veteran that can assist greatly, not only with mental health but with financial well being, with feeling connected, and continuing that social connectedness that work gives us.”

Drew Twigg, in his new uniform. Picture: Rohan Thompson

Drew Twigg, in his new uniform. Picture: Rohan Thompson

A newly implemented transition model will see a cultural shift in the way Defence approaches that transition. The new model focuses not only on the transition out, but what’s on the other side.

It complements an expanded $31 million mental health initiative announced earlier this year as a response to the Senate inquiry into veterans suicide.

This week, a government roundtable group agreed to a raft of issues supporting ex-service men and women, including having veterans addressed in the Census to better understand services and supports required.

Minister for veterans affairs Dan Tehan praised the coalition of businesses for developing strategies to retain veterans in employment.

He assured businesses they weren’t being asked to employ veterans as “an act of charity”.

“It’s about encouraging businesses to make smart business decisions,” Mr Tehan said.

“This program is about highlighting the unique skills and talents former ADF personnel can bring to a workplace as well as developing tools and best-practice for businesses to support veterans and their partners in the workplace.”

Job security into the unknown


Victorian mum Kelly Walter served for 13 years in the Navy, including in the middle east and Sudan. Picture: Jason South

Victorian mum Kelly Walter served for 13 years in the Navy, including in the middle east and Sudan. Picture: Jason South

“It can be quite daunting to figure out what you want to be in the real world,” Mornington Peninsula mother-of-two Kelly Walter says.

After spending 13 years in the Navy as a maritime logistics officer, it was during her second pregnancy that Kelly decided to transition into something else to spend more time at home with her children. 

In 2014 she started her own small business selling a range of planning boards, initially something she needed in her own home to keep track of her family’s busy schedule. The business name, Daily Orders, a nod to her time in the military.

Kelly says at the time, the biggest challenge was jumping from secure employment into the unknown.

“When you leave Defence, you’re a bit lost I guess. Whilst Defence does give you some support for restarting - you might get a resume or career training - more often than not your skills don’t transfer easily to a civilian job.”

Kelly says any assistance transitioning out of Defence would be gratefully received by people like her.

“To be able to recognise that a veteran is nowadays not just a man you might meet at the RSL who served in the Vietnam War. 

“It’s people like me, women in their mid-30s who are mothers, fathers in their 20s. It’s a whole range.”

When you walk out the door, you don’t know what you can do in the real world, in the civilian world. That was the biggest thing for me.

Part-way through the interview, Kelly is interrupted by her youngest, aged two, who has just woken up from a nap.

“Come here for cuddles,” she coos to him.

“Thank you for having a sleep.”

Back to it, she says being at home means she can do things like that. 

“I can put my son down for a sleep and he can wake up and we can play together,” Kelly says.

“But the certainty that comes with being in Defence, it is very secure employment. You’re trained to do a job and you can do it. 

“When you walk out the door, you don’t know what you can do in the real world, in the civilian world. That was the biggest thing for me.”

A transferable attitude

Defence Force veteran and Tech 2 founder and managing director Glen Powys with Project Resolve team member Michael Webeck. Picture: Supplied

Defence Force veteran and Tech 2 founder and managing director Glen Powys with Project Resolve team member Michael Webeck. Picture: Supplied

Reliability and punctuality are two of the best traits of ex-service men and women, and while their specific skills might not be transferable, their attitude certainly is.

That’s how Glen Powys feels about fellow former defence personnel, and it’s why he has started an arm of his business dedicated to help these workers find their feet.

Glen is the founder and managing director of Tech 2. He’s also a former infantry officer in the Australian Army. After 12 years in the Defence Force, Glen decided to make the transition to civilian life in 1997. He started a technology company which now has people based in almost every state of Australia. Tech 2 is currently helping deliver the NBN.

Of his 700 staff and contractors, about 77 of those are part of his new push to encourage former defence employees to join the ranks.

Project Resolve started in May, and essentially, Glen says, it’s an initiative to “try and get underemployed and unemployed veterans into a meaningful career and employment”.

“It’s just an opportunity to give back,” he says.

“It seemed to me to be a disengaged part of our community that didn't deserve to be. We figured we would create a program that trained them up and got them up and going.”

Glen says it’s not an “inexpensive exercise”, but he felt there was a valuable long term return on his investment.

I think a systematic program that gives the veterans a kick start is absolutely needed.

He says the drawcard for employing former defence personnel was the quality of the people and their willingness to learn.

“It is a reflection of their attitude that had them in the military in the first place,” he says.

“They’re reliable and punctual, and all the things the military brings. As far as skills go, they don’t necessarily have the skills for a telecommunications role, so we’ve taught them that.”

Glen hesitates when he describes it as a “trainee program”, because he believes people who have previously earned a good wage can not survive in an apprentice-style scheme.

His is a 12-week training program, including both classroom and on the job training, that sets them up for working in the industry.

The program is something Glen would like to see rolled out more widely, and said he hoped the Veterans Employment Coalition would achieve that.

“I think a systematic program that gives the veterans a kick start is absolutely needed. I think it’s a great initiative,” he said.

A different high-flying career

Former fighter jet engineer, Westpac chief executive consumer bank George Frazis. Picture: Louise Kennerley/AFR

Former fighter jet engineer, Westpac chief executive consumer bank George Frazis. Picture: Louise Kennerley/AFR

From maintaining Australia’s fleet of F/A-18 fighter jets to becoming Westpac’s chief executive consumer bank, George Frazis has had a colourful working life.

Mr Frazis served in the air force for nine years, and was responsible for the engineering and maintenance of the fighter jets.

“It was an incredible experience. I loved my time there,” Mr Frazis says.

“Looking after my aircraft and leading teams was a very rewarding experience and the lessons I learnt have stayed with me throughout my career.”

Mr Frazis says while he had skills and training from his career in the air force that set him up for life, it was often the first steps of the transition out of the Defence Force that were the hardest.

“One of the biggest challenges veterans face is knowing whether a job description is applicable to their skill set due to differences in terminology and recruitment processes,” he says.

Mr Frazis is chair of the industry advisory committee for the Veterans Employment Coalition, which aims to ease that transition.

He says the coalition is working hard to build awareness about the skills and expertise that veterans possess, which are highly valuable to businesses.

“We want to … encourage other organisations to find suitable employment opportunities in their workplaces.”

Westpac in particular has employed a dedicated recruiter specifically for veterans. 

The company also offers employment to spouses of veterans.

“Typically those serving in the Defence Force move locations every two to three years, which poses a challenge for spouses trying to find employment. Where possible, we try to transfer our spouses to a role in their new location, giving them more certainty and stability.”

Mr Frazis encouraged businesses to nominate for the inaugural Veterans Employment Program awards to help raise awareness of the program more widely.

“The awards are a fantastic opportunity to recognise the unique skills veterans bring to our workplaces and the exciting opportunities that are out there for serving members hoping to make the transition,” he says.

Is the grass greener?


Downer executive general manager, defence engineering, construction and maintenance Brett Sangster was a legal officer in the ADF. Picture: Supplied

Downer executive general manager, defence engineering, construction and maintenance Brett Sangster was a legal officer in the ADF. Picture: Supplied

Every now and then, Brett Sangster reminds himself that while his day might be stressful a mistake no longer means life or death.

The father of four says he wouldn’t swap his 12-year career in the military for anything. He says at the time he was thinking of transitioning out, he held the “best and most honourable legal job in Australia”.

Mr Sangster graduated from Duntroon in 1999 into the Australian Intelligence Corp. He spent eight years “bouncing” between the commandos and the intelligence battalion and undertaking numerous deployments.

He then used his legal degree to become an Army legal officer, where he spent six years “primarily with special ops command”.

His job entailed sitting next to commanders on the ground, providing legal advice including anything from rules of engagement to disciplinary law.

“I had a really fortunate career with Defence. I was very lucky with the opportunities that were afforded to me.”

But when Mr Sangster tried to move away from the military to spend more time with his family, the transition was anything but easy.

Mr Sangster says when he left Defence, there was “scant consideration” from the institution for the transition. 

“It was very poorly managed. Woefully managed.”

“It’s a huge decision because there's a good deal of trepidation about the greener pasture on the other side.

“I felt like at my time of life, with young children and my age, it was just about right [to get out].”

Mr Sangster initially joined a legal firm in Brisbane who helped him with the transition. He is now executive general manager, defence engineering, construction and maintenance at Downer.

Mr Sangster says he’s proud to work for a company that recognises the benefits of employing ex-defence personnel. The skills and attitudes he learnt in the military is something he applies every day in the corporate environment.

Through the introduction of the Veterans Employment Program, Mr Sangster says it’s a great step forward for Defence to acknowledge that the former transition process was flawed.

He says he would love for his children to follow in similar footsteps.

“All of the values that Defence brings and inculcates in people are brilliant foundations for any person in any endeavour or pursuit in life.”

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