Herve Guillou, CEO of French firm Naval Group, told Fairfax Media this week that the firm is practically having to recruit workers "one-by-one". While there are many young, university-educated people they can train from scratch, older and experienced managers are hard to find.
"My worry is always that people confuse education with experience. These are very, very different," he said.
"Finding people with a diploma is not so difficult, finding people with experience and managerial skills is more difficult ??? It's nearly a one-by-one exercise."
Naval Group - formerly called DCNS - won the contract last year to help design and build Australia's new fleet of 12 submarines.
Submarines are notoriously complex and the project needs about 1500 highly specialised workers by the end of next decade.
The firm now has about 80 people - a mix of Australians and French - based in Adelaide. But next year it will launch a nationwide recruitment campaign targeting sectors such as oil and gas, and automotive, "because we're not really getting the scope of experience that we need and there's a whole industry that still doesn't know about the program", Mr Guillou said.
He described the management of submarine construction as "incredibly dense" because everyone involved needed to be very closely co-ordinated from engineers to plumbers. Mid-range managers with experience at this were the hardest to find in Australia.
But he added that Naval Group had done this before in India and Brazil and insisted that enough time had been factored in by the Australian government.
He said it was "more risky" to do it in Australia than in France because a new supply chain would have to be built but these were "the rules of the game" set by the government.
"This country wants to get sovereignty, the full maritime enterprise on their side and that's fine. That's what we've been contracted for. That's what we will deliver."
The first of the 12 new submarines is scheduled to hit the water in the early 2030s. At least some of the ageing Collins-class submarines will need to go through refits to extend their lives.
Meanwhile, Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne and Defence Minister Marise Payne were at odds this week over the idea of stating a minimum level of Australian industry involvement in the submarines.
Mr Pyne told reporters at the Pacific 2017 naval conference in Sydney that at least 60 per cent of the work on the submarines would be done by Australian firms, which he said met the government's promise of building them locally.
"A local build is 60 per cent ??? That's the definition of a local build," he said, though he added he would like it to be higher for all shipbuilding projects.
The government has faced political pressure in South Australia - Mr Pyne's home state - to guarantee a minimum Australian content, including for the huge supply chain for the millions of parts that make up a submarine.
Mr Pyne said he had had "very clear conversations with Naval Group and they fully understand that and they have committed to at least 60 per cent". This was confirmed by Mr Guillou.
But just hours later, Senator Payne told an industry briefing at the conference: "The political argy bargy will have some people say they want to see a percentage put on that, but I don't see why you would put a floor on an item like that. Why wouldn't you start by reaching for the highest point possible? It doesn't seem logical to me to put a base on it."
The story $50b submarine project struggling to find qualified Australians first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.