Rank short­cut a win­ner

There’s a fast track for late­com­ers want­ing to be an of­fi­cer in the defence forces, writes Amy Byrne

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Career One -

EAR­LIER this year Lisa Mansell found her­self on the precipice of a cliff, peer­ing down and con­tem­plat­ing a sym­bolic and phys­i­cal leap that was to change her life in many ways. The 45-year-old sin­gle mother of two sons, 14 and 20, was ab­seil­ing on the first week­end of her train­ing as an air force of­fi­cer.

Mansell had felt an urge to ‘‘ do some­thing dif­fer­ent with my life be­fore it was too late’’, and hasn’t looked back. On Au­gust 3 the for­mer ed­u­ca­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion and sup­port worker grad­u­ated as a fly­ing of­fi­cer in the Royal Aus­tralian Air Force af­ter a 17-week course at the Point Cook base, near Melbourne. She now has her first post­ing, as a lo­gis­tics of­fi­cer at the Ed­in­burgh RAAF base in her home state of South Aus­tralia, and is rel­ish­ing the ca­reer change.

‘‘ I’m ac­tu­ally lov­ing it, I only wish I could have done it ear­lier,’’ Mansell said. ‘‘ There is a real sense of achieve­ment in get­ting through the course, plus there is a sense of pur­pose when you come out at the other end. You feel you re­ally are con­tribut­ing to Aus­tralia.

‘‘ I have had some in­ter­est­ing re­ac­tions, though. The last one was from a stu­dent of a school I used to be at, who said: ‘ Aren’t you too old for that?’ I don’t think age should be a bar­rier. If you have the right at­ti­tude, you can do it.’’

Mansell en­tered the RAAF through the Di­rect En­try Of­fi­cer (DEO) pro­gram, a short al­ter­na­tive to the Aus­tralian Defence Force Academy course and one that doesn’t re­quire ter­tiary study.

The pro­grams com­bine mil­i­tary and aca­demic study. Air force can­di­dates grad­u­ate from ini­tial train­ing af­ter 17 weeks at Point Cook, navy stu­dents af­ter 22 weeks at HMAS Creswell, Jervis Bay, and then move into spe­cial­i­sa­tions. The equiv­a­lent army course at Dun­troon is a more in­tense 18-month pro­gram that equips grad­u­ates to move straight into a pla­toon. There are also part-time study and work op­tions.

Full-time stu­dents live in while train­ing and are paid a salary of about $31,000 a year, in­creas­ing to about $43,500 on grad­u­a­tion.

Bri­gadier Si­mon Gould, di­rec­tor-gen­eral of defence force re­cruit­ment, says the pro­gram is geared to­wards peo­ple with a min­i­mum Year 12 or sim­i­lar ed­u­ca­tion in­ter­ested in a lead­er­ship role, but who don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to go down the path of ter­tiary study.

‘‘ Peo­ple think the only route is to do a uni de­gree that is go­ing to take three years. But with the di­rect-en­try pro­gram we are say­ing come and do one of th­ese cour­ses and we will teach you the ba­sics in lead­er­ship, we’ll con­tinue to de­velop those skills over your ca­reer, and we will pay you while you train,’’ he said.

‘‘ The dif­fer­ence be­tween di­rect en­try as an of­fi­cer and di­rect en­try into the forces as a sailor, sol­dier or air­man is that those in the lat­ter group are com­ing in to be tech­ni­cally trained in a spe­cial­ist skill, whereas the DEOs are com­ing in to learn lead­er­ship and man­age­ment.’’

Di­rect en­try of­fi­cers still have a de­mand­ing phys­i­cal com­po­nent in their pro­gram, al­though Gould says it is ‘‘ not be­yond any­one who sets their mind to it’’.

The prac­ti­cal com­po­nents dif­fer be­tween the forces, but cour­ses typ­i­cally teach skills such as weapons train­ing, nav­i­ga­tion, field craft, drill, rules of en­gage­ment, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and or­gan­i­sa­tional man­age­ment. Aca­dem­i­cally, it is chal­leng­ing but within the reach of any­one who has han­dled a Higher School Cer­tifi­cate or sim­i­lar leav­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

‘‘ It is small ‘ a’ aca­demic com­pared to ter­tiary study, but you have to write pa­pers on mil­i­tary his­tory and con­tem­po­rary cur­rent af­fairs,’’ Gould says. ‘‘ We teach mil­i­tary pro­cesses so you need to be able to com­mit them to pa­per, peo­ple need to be able to fol­low your logic, and you need to be able to make an ar­gu­ment.’’

The ma­jor­ity of can­di­dates who go through the di­rect-en­try scheme have a Year 12 ed­u­ca­tion but it also ap­peals to univer­sity grad­u­ates. Pilot Michael Jancek, 23, a re­cent DEO grad­u­ate, had com­pleted a bach­e­lor of en­gi­neer­ing and was work­ing in the pro­fes­sion be­fore he signed up for the air force this year.

‘‘ I had al­ways dreamed of be­ing a pilot and ap­plied to the defence force when I was in my fi­nal year of high school, but failed the ap­ti­tude tests,’’ he said. ‘‘ I thought I might not be el­i­gi­ble to reap­ply, but while search­ing on the in­ter­net I found out I could en­ter the RAAF through the Di­rect En­try Of­fi­cer pro­gram, and was de­lighted when I was ac­cepted. As a means of en­try it was great for me, be­cause I wasn’t in­ter­ested in study­ing for an­other four or five years.’’

Grad­u­ate of­fi­cers are en­cour­aged to con­tinue their pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment and have to make a min­i­mum com­mit­ment to the force of one year for ev­ery year of study, plus an ex­tra 12 months.

Bri­gadier Gould says those who later left the forces de­parted with skills highly re­garded in the civil­ian job mar­ket. ‘‘ It’s not the weapon han­dling or the abil­ity to put up a tent or dig a hole that is at­trac­tive, it’s the soft skills like lead­ing and man­ag­ing peo­ple, plan­ning, ex­e­cut­ing, de­ci­sion mak­ing and all those other things gen­er­ally at­trib­ut­able to sol­diers, sea­men and air­men like self-dis­ci­pline, a strong work ethic, team­work and great com­mu­ni­ca­tion,’’ he says.

‘‘ They also get a great sense of pro­por­tion be­cause when you are put in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions where you are mak­ing cru­cial de­ci­sions un­der pres­sure, then you do have a more bal­anced view on life than per­haps the per­son who is just driv­ing to and from work ev­ery day.’’

For Fly­ing Of­fi­cer Mansell, the big­gest re­wards came not from com­plet­ing the study re­quire­ments or the dreaded phys­i­cal train­ing that she even­tu­ally grew to en­joy, but from the sense of achieve­ment de­rived from be­ing yanked out of her com­fort zone and deal­ing with it.

‘‘ It chal­lenges the way you think about things,’’ she says. ‘‘ You stand on the edge of the cliff and say, ‘ No, I’m not go­ing to do that’, and then you go right ahead and do it.’’

Af­ter fin­ish­ing school, Kurt Phelps, 19, Sea­man Of­fi­cer, worked as an earth­mover with his fa­ther’s Queens­land busi­ness. But he was on the look-out for a long-term ca­reer op­tion, and did the DEO pro­gram with his sights set on be­com­ing a Prin­ci­pal War­fare Of­fi­cer.

‘‘ The high­light of the train­ing for me was the sea train­ing de­ploy­ment, where I spent four weeks on board HMAS Manoora trav­el­ling to Jakarta and Sin­ga­pore and ex­pe­ri­enced first­hand how sailors live and work.’’

Do­minika Czaja, 26, Le­gal Of­fi­cer, stud­ied law at the Univer­sity of West­ern Syd­ney but wasn’t sure where to go with her qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Her fi­ance, a for­mer sol­dier, sug­gested the defence forces and she com­pleted her DEO train­ing with the navy. She is now plan­ning to study a masters de­gree in mil­i­tary law.

‘‘ While it seems ob­vi­ous now, I didn’t re­alise the navy would need a lawyer; I just as­sumed it was all about sailors, ships and sub­marines. It’s great that in ad­di­tion to be­ing of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to travel the world and meet peo­ple from all walks of life, I’m given the chance to con­tin­u­ally im­prove my skills.’’

Michael Jancek, 23, RAAF pilot, went into en­gi­neer­ing af­ter fin­ish­ing school but never gave up on a child­hood am­bi­tion to be a pilot. Hav­ing com­pleted 17 weeks of DEO train­ing, he is on his way to achiev­ing that dream.

‘‘ The train­ing was fan­tas­tic and the high­light was ab­seil­ing face-first down a cliff. As a fan of sports and a snow­boarder and surfer, I felt pretty con­fi­dent but I’ll never for­get the sight of the cliff face drop­ping away from me, and the feel­ing of be­ing to­tally re­liant on my own wits and the sup­port of my col­leagues to get me down.’’

Michael Jancek: Es­caped en­gi­neer­ing to pilot aero­planes

Lisa Mansell: Mother of two now an RAAF Fly­ing Of­fi­cer

Do­minika Czaja: Found her forte in mil­i­tary law

Kurt Phelps: From earth­mov­ing with dad to RAN war­fare of­fi­cer

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