Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Voting to leave

Changing the subject for a change of pace, I was struck by a piece this evening on Thin Pinstriped Line, a defence blog written from a civil service perspective. It deals with the problems of personnel retention. The first and most obvious being how expectation fails to match the reality.
Firstly, part of the issue is that there is a significant dislocation of expectation between completing basic training / trade training and doing the job for real. One of the real strengths of the training system is that it is designed to give people a goal, a reason to push for something and then a tangible completion date. People emerge from the training system with a tangible sense of belonging, and a highly motivated set of reasons to want to serve.
Getting to a first or second unit can be a real shock though. For every junior paratrooper moving straight away into an operational Battalion, there are other juniors who will find themselves sent to quiet out of the way units where the pace of life is slow, or it is remote and far from home and family.
Losing the tangible bonds of ‘matehood’ that can bring a class together to succeed, and instead finding yourself stuck in a remote role that may be operationally important, but where it is hard to see the bigger picture can demoralise people. Particularly in early years where people are looking for a career, putting them into places which feel more like a job does not help.
Added to this is the reality that for every epic day on the range or training, there are plenty of very average days in the office, doing important but routine administration work. For juniors in particular, a lot of the work can be quite dull or repetitive and can quickly feel more like an office job than a tangibly military function. For a generation brought up with recruiting adverts highlighting the potential for derring do adventures, or weeks in work spent blowing stuff up, suddenly finding yourself doing a series of JPA claims, or cleaning barracks is a real come down.
Juniors in particular suffer from the challenge of having to do some, at times, pretty unpleasant and menial work – the perennial complaint from many juniors in the Royal Navy is of having to do a lot of cleaning. For a workforce that is often highly qualified, highly skilled and well-motivated, to get to a ship following training and finding yourself fundamentally as a janitor can be a real downer.
No one doubts that it needs to be done, nor that there is no civilian cleaning company that can come out to a ship at sea and clean it, but it does at times damage morale. People compare their roles to similar ones outside – how many engineers on merchant navy vessels or oil rigs find themselves having to scrub toilets in their spare time?
After a couple of years of this, it is easy to see why people think of leaving – if you are just starting out, feel demotivated by your first or second unit role and don’t see much changing, because as a junior in a strict hierarchy it is hard to see the changes and benefits that accrue as you get more senior, then suddenly ‘going outside’ can become an appealing option.
This most definitely strikes a chord with me. If you know me at all it becomes immediately apparent that I'm completely obsessed with military vehicles and aircraft. I am a hugely stereotypical military nut. I go to the museums, airshows and vehicle shows and my bookshelf looks a lot like you'd expect it to look like. Even now I have pangs of regret that I never served in the armed forces.

That is not to say I haven't had a degree of exposure to the military. I was a sea cadet and did a three week experience course with the Royal Signals. I also joined the Territorial Army for all of three months. From that experience I learned that I'm just not cut out of it.

The freeze frame moment that pretty much decided it for me not to enter regular service was an encounter in a corridor in the Harrogate barracks. I learned some interesting new swear words from a young female corporal who was clearly in a very bad mood. She had apparently been loitering around Harrogate for six months waiting for a posting. Whatever her ambitions were, I'm pretty sure they did not include mopping up after a gaggle of sixteen year old trial recruits. I pitied her.

It was that moment that which pretty much cleared the fog from my eyes. As TPL (AKA Sir Humphrey) notes, the recruitment advertising was a collage of cool kit and exotic locations. At no point did it show a pissed off young lady mopping a corridor and barking orders at teenagers.

For me that should have been the end of the story. But I still had a military itch to scratch and figured I might try my hand at the Territorial Army since it wasn't full time and a bit of extra income. In theory it was a good idea. In practice, it was six months of square bashing and going for runs. The two things I hate most in the universe.

I persevered with it just to get as far as the intensive training down at a barracks somewhere near Nottingham. To my general disgust they had us camping out in what was formerly the morgue, only to be woken up at 4.30am to go for yet another pointless run followed by more standing in rows. Later in the day was yet more exercise and sports. No firing artillery, no tanks or rifle practice. You have to stick around to get that far and not being a sportsy person, it was pretty clear I was in the wrong place with the wrong people. It also wasn't a good place for a bright kid.

By the age of nineteen I'd pretty much exhausted my curiosity and it was decided that a life in the armed forces was not for me. And I think, these days, that's the problem with recruiting and retention. All in all it's a pretty shit job unless you like that sort of thing.

Of course, I'm not suggesting the army does away with all that just to fill boots, but it is increasingly clear that the life simply isn't attractive to Brits. I recall a report last week that suggested we would have to look abroad to recruit sailors to serve on HMS Queen Elizabeth. Of itself that's nothing at all new under the sun, but it suggests to me that if society has changed then the military must adapt. If it's all about people then it has to rethink how it does things.

Here I'm speaking from total ignorance but I would speculate that the armed forces do need to make greater use of civilians. The TA works to a point but the it's still highly regimented and docked to regular army culture. This is where the navy has it right with the RFA being a civilian fleet with RFA personnel keeping their civilian status. Could this model not supplement the army?

Being that we are not at war and standing armies are an expensive business, the army essentially has to serve two basic functions. Logistics and training. You can cut an army down to the bare bones just so long as you retain the capability to rapidly expand it in the event of war. In respect of that, there must be a number of functions that do not require fully fledged soldiers where a more relaxed tier of the service could help to attract and retain skilled people who are more or less uniformed civilians but able to contribute.

The defence commentariat seems to be taken with the idea that the forces need greater diversity of people and skills, but the square bashing culture is an instant turn off for an increasingly individualistic society used to its creature comforts. Certainly the army establishment will hate the idea of slovenly quasi-soldiers who don't spit shine their boots, but by insisting on the traditional models they can expect the same results.

By having a pool of people inside the military domain, there is then opportunity for those who fancy upgrading to military status or the reverse where those wishing to leave can still have a place in the military, their experience is retained and they have a pathway back if they want it. This could also be a means of keeping costs down in terms of wages and pensions.

I'm not sure how practical this suggestion is and I acknowledge that there is already a high level of private sector involvement, but to a point, that corporal in Harrogate was absolutely right. Why should she be mopping floors? If the army wants to keep the people we spend a fortune training then we have to respect their commitment and deliver on the promises of travel and adventure.

More to the point, a quasi-civilian corps can just as easily be drafted for major operations or support of exercises on a temporary basis if they meet the basic fitness requirements - if only to do those jobs where the military conditioning is not paramount.

Unusually, I am entirely open to the probability that I'm talking complete crap here, and this wouldn't have a hope in hell of working but as any credible defence expert I've seen will tell you, modern defence is all about choices to deliver the maximum range of capability with declining resources. By holding on to rigid definitions of what soldiering is and the culture of military service, it can only ever be an isolated establishment and increasingly unappealing to a changing society.

The latest recruitment posters have been widely criticised, perhaps unfairly, but it is a sign that the army recognises the need for a different skill set and to accommodate more individualistic youth. But the key test is whether they truly recognise this or whether they are taking their cue from marketing consultants and intend on subjecting new recruits to the same old square bashing. It seems the recurring problem is getting the product to match the advertising. If they can manage that then retaining good people will be less of an issue.

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