James Wilkes

Staff Spotlight: From Science Student to Naval Architect

James Wilkes is a Naval Architect, preparing to relocate to France to become a member of the Australian Design Authority. In his role, he is responsible for ensuring that the overall design for the twelve Attack class submarines is consistent and balanced.

How did you get to where you are today?

When I finished high school, I was still completely unsure about what I wanted to do for my career.

In my first year of university, I actually wanted to be a weatherman and I was studying a more science focused degree. However, I wasn’t motivated by biological science subjects and I accidentally fell into engineering; it was the only other degree that my subjects transferred to easily, and that I found even remotely interesting.

The highlight of my time at university was travelling to Lausanne in Switzerland to race composite hydrofoiling boats against some of the best engineering schools in the world. We waked away from the competition with the award for the best design, which was a significant achievement considering the level of competition.

My career path since graduating with a Bachelor of Engineering from the Australian Maritime College in 2015, has involved a broad range of experiences in Defence, Marine and Offshore Engineering. I began working at Naval Group Australia in mid-2017 as a Project Engineer. During my time in this role, I was able to work directly with almost every part of Naval Group including engineering, procurement, cyber security, integrated logistics support, finance, project management and ICT. I feel very lucky as my experience as a Project Engineer provided me with a really strong understanding of the company and the Future Submarine Program in general.

What attracted you to pursuing a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) and more specifically engineering?

The main attraction to a career in STEM was the idea that every day I would be faced with a new and exciting challenge. I don’t think that I would be able to pursue a career if my day to day work was really repetitious. A career at Naval Group Australia, in my opinion, is the pinnacle of working on an exciting and challenging project.

What has been the most surprising thing you have found about your role and/or working at Naval Group Australia?

It may sound cliché, but the most surprising thing about my role at Naval Group Australia is just how complex the design of a submarine is. It will literally take 100’s of engineers more than 10 years to complete the design for the Attack class submarine, and then several more years to build. When I compare this to some of the other projects I have worked on, it’s off the scale, and the complexity is almost unimaginable.

Where did you go grow up? How have you found living and working in Adelaide?

I was born in Tasmania and I’ve lived there for most of my life. Like all Tasmanians, I love the ocean and enjoy spending most of my time outdoors.

Before starting work with Naval Group Australia, I moved to Adelaide to work on another defence project. I had only ever been to Adelaide once, so I really started from scratch. Living in Adelaide has been an incredible experience. I have made some incredible life-long friends, and am really looking forward to returning to Adelaide after my move to France.

The truth is that as a Naval Architect, to be able to work on big defence projects in Australia you really have to live in Adelaide as it’s the epicentre for naval shipbuilding in Australia.

How has Naval Group Australia supported your professional development?

I have been very lucky to be able to work with some really supportive mentors during my time at Naval Group Australia. To be able to work every day with Gérard Autret, who is one of the best submarine architects in the world, has been an incredible experience for me.

Additionally, having the ability to move into a more complex role (from Project Engineer to Naval Architect) has given me the opportunity to move to France, and really challenge and extend my engineering skills.

From Thursday 14 March to Friday 15 March 2019, you will be attending the Australian Maritime College Career Expo in Launceston, what advice would you give students wanting to pursue a career as an Engineer with Naval Group Australia on the Future Submarine Program?

My biggest advice would be to focus on the things that you enjoy, build great relationships and learn from the people you get to work or study with.

We spend more time at work than we do with our families, so it will be a pretty terrible life if we didn’t make the most of it!