Advocating for Defence families

‘Back in the driver’s seat’: Program empowers Defence families to steer their careers

Participants of a pilot program tailored for immediate family of current and former serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) members have been left energised and empowered to regain control of their professional futures.

Families of ADF members often make career sacrifices to support their loved one’s military service. This is largely attributable to frequent moves due to postings, challenges with securing flexible work, and bearing the majority of responsibilities around the home.

The pilot Defence Family Career Comeback Course, which ran in November 2022, was a partnership between Defence Families of Australia (DFA) and the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of NSW Business School (AGSM), and sponsored by the Department of Defence.

The course was aimed at helping Defence and veteran family members realise their full career potential following time away from the workforce or their preferred career path.

Course participant Mathilde Lamerton, who recently moved back to Australia after living and working overseas with her young family, said the three-day in-person program helped her shift her mindset about her varied skill set.

“I have acquired lots of hard and soft skills across my career and life as a Defence partner, moving across countries and continents,” said Mathilde, who has a background in military history, research and analytics.

“The course helped me realise I have so much to offer, and my different life experiences and skills can be useful to employers.

“It put us back in the driver’s seat of what we want to do and where we want to go professionally, instead of simply taking what’s on offer and being grateful for the opportunity.”

Data from the 2019 ADF Family Survey found that even though ADF partners are more likely to be tertiary qualified than the general public, they were at the time twice as likely to be unemployed or underemployed.

“I have been part of an ADF family for 38 years, and made sacrifices willingly and happily,” said course participant Cath Parsons, whose professional background is in music education and theatre. 

“But it got to a point about 10 years ago when my husband turned to me and said, ‘It’s your turn now; what do you want to do?’

“When I was accepted into the program, I was full of disbelief and trepidation. I felt out of my depth and undeserving, but I could not have had a more positive experience in every aspect.”

Cath, who is completing an undergraduate degree in professional writing, expressed her gratitude for the other participants and what they achieved together in such a short time. 

“Because of our shared connection with Defence, everyone just understood the lifestyle – this can be difficult to describe to others,” she said.

“Making set goals professionally and challenging assumptions I had about myself was also an uncomfortable experience, but I felt supported getting through it.”

Course participant Toni Jones, who described herself as an ‘outlier’ in the Defence family community due to not having children and for opting to live apart from her husband (classified as a member with dependants (unaccompanied) (MWD(U)) to focus on her career, said the course was the first time she felt strongly connected to the Defence community.

“In 2021, I moved with my husband, for the very first time, when he was posted to RAAF Base Amberley. The sacrifice of leaving my corporate career for two years, at age 53, was a professional setback,” said Toni.

“I reached out to DFA, who recommended I join this course. It was very valuable in restoring my confidence to return to a high-performing role in a global organisation in the finance industry.”

Toni said she enjoyed the presenters, the material covered and the opportunity to learn from some of the brightest minds from UNSW at AGSM.

“The Defence Family Career Comeback Course gave me the confidence that a career comeback is possible at any stage of life,” she said.

A post-program survey of the course participants showed 95% of attendees would recommend this course to a friend.

This resounding endorsement of the program shows there is a strong demand for professional connection and shared lived experiences in the Defence and veteran family community, according to Defence Family Advocate of Australia, Sandi Laaksonen-Sherrin.

Defence family employment is an important area of focus for DFA’s advocacy work.

DFA is now urging tertiary institutions, governments and private enterprises to replicate the successful pilot Defence Family Career Comeback Course, following the recent release of the course evaluation report.

“There is immense potential in this underutilised but highly qualified cohort of Defence and veteran family members,” said Mrs Laaksonen-Sherrin.

“We hope industry, educational institutions and governments will take our learnings from the pilot Defence Family Career Comeback Course and improve on it.”

The Defence Family Career Comeback Course 2022 Evaluation Report can be downloaded from the DFA website at

Blog at