The Armed Forces Pay Review Body (AFPRB) issued its annual report recently, outlining its case for a pay rise for the armed forces as the public sector pay freeze slowly begins a near glacial pace of melting. The top level recommendation that they receive 1% pay rise and a small increase to X Factor (the figure which provides a compensation for the challenges of service life relative to civilian life) was eventually accepted in full, following a brief political spat and some odd allegations that because the head of the committee was coming to the end of their fixed tenure, he was being ‘fired’.
The report is interesting in several ways, not just because it helps reaffirm to all serving personnel they are receiving a pay rise, but also because of some of the nuggets of information it contains about wider service issues.
The first take home from the report is that British military personnel are incredibly expensive to employ. Following the implementation of the review, the cheapest trained private / able seaman will be on a salary of £17,765 per year, plus allowances and hugely subsidised accommodation and food. The salary scale for the higher payband now runs from £17,765 through to £29,357 for a level 9 private. Anyone deploying on OP HERRICK will receive a further £5,000 tax free bonus, plus operational allowances. By the time you reach Sgt level, the payband ranges from £33 - £37,000 per year plus allowances.
The clear message to be seen here is that the easiest way to make savings measures is to cut manpower levels. The military have become an extraordinarily expensive asset to employ, and one has to wonder whether we are possibly reaching the point where the wages bill is likely to become almost unaffordable within current budget levels.
The problem we see here is that the military are perhaps a victim of their own success – well paid, no one would want to give them a pay cut willingly – indeed one only has to look at the recent budget to see the view that the military should not be constrained by wider public sector pay restraint. At the same time though, the more the salary grows, the more pressure is placed on the budget to afford the wages bill. At some point something has to give. One has to ask the question, even rhetorically, as to whether we are paying our military personnel too much now? The issue is that for many of the entry level military posts, no specialist skills or qualifications are required, and the work in barracks is often routine and straightforward. As the Army withdraws from HERRICK and barracks life becomes routine, the reality will be that most soldiers will occupy a far more stable and fixed existence than they have for decades. While exercises and small deployments will doubtless continue, the pressing need to train for HERRICK will have reduced, as Army life is likely to become a more modern version of BAOR. At this point, one can almost see situations emerging where people question why we are paying so much to the military in salaries – the public support exists at present, and no one currently begrudges soldiers wages, but take away the deployment opportunities and it may well be the case that hard questions are asked about why we pay military personnel so much.
While this may sound like thinking the unthinkable, one only has to look at the Police, who have reduced their starting salaries by some £3000 per year for new entrants. Is it better to protect formations and headcount by reducing salaries, or is it better to maintain the payscale and lose more staff and capabilities. While this is all completely hypothetical, it is perhaps a point worth considering.
|Why the long face - was the pay review really that bad?|
The next interesting fact to emerge was the throwaway line about the Army reviewing its recruitment policy to improve Officer quality. The report briefly noted that there has been a marked decline in the quality of officer applicants applying to Sandhurst, although it doesn’t specify whether this is at the AOSB stage, or during the RMAS course. This is a fascinating comment to read – after some 12 years of seeing the Army deployed on operations, one would have thought that anyone applying to join would have a much clearer idea of what qualities it is that a potential Army Officer should have in order to pass the Commissioning Course. Similarly, the explosion in Internet forums such as ARRSE have seen a massive amount of additional support and assistance offered to candidates today compared to a few years ago. Yet despite this, there is still clearly a quality issue with candidates going through the system.
It is a genuinely fascinating issue – in a time of mass youth unemployment, particularly in the target range for Army entrants, and at a time when the Army’s requirements have arguably never been that low, there is still a struggle to get good candidates into the Army. By any large organisations standards, the Army is not taking on that many people – barely a few hundred per year are needed at Sandhurst, while BRNC and Cranwell need even fewer. What would be interesting is to understand why it is that there is a failure to get the right people in – the AOSB and its two sister service equivalents remains one of the most objective assessments of character out there. It is not fundamentally difficult, it is merely a test to determine whether one has the potential to develop leadership and pass a commissioning course, prior to then developing into a leader of men.
Whether the problem is that the current military career is not seen as high profile enough for some, nor rewarding enough for others is not clear. It is arguably not the case that people are not joining because of a lack of opportunities to deploy, indeed many who are applying to the military now probably haven’t considered in any great depth the likely path their career will take beyond the first year or two. So, something else is happening which is stopping the military getting the very best of the UK graduate and wider youth into the system. By all reasonable assumptions, they should be beating off high quality applicants, particularly given how many hundreds of students try the OTC each year to get a taste of Army life – this organisation alone should be more than enough to fill the slots of potential applicants at Sandhurst.
There is no right answer here, and Humphrey has discussed it more out of genuine curiosity than having any clue as to why this may be the case. But, there is clearly an issue with the recruitment system, and one has to wonder what can be done to rectify this challenge before it becomes a major problem.
|Situation Vacant - Armoured Train Driver...|
One area where recruitment is clearly proving a major challenge is that of TA Officer recruitment, where the report recommends a series of financial incentives to try and bring new junior officers into the TA. As the organisation is due to grow in size over the next few years to some 30,000 strong there is a clear and increasingly urgent requirement to get younger individuals in to form the next generation of junior officers who can lead it forward. Despite this, there seems to be a major challenge over getting sufficient individuals to stay the course over the long training period and then into positions where they can move to carrying out work of real value.
Part of the issue to the authors mind is that it is often difficult to take on the role of being a junior officer and also hold down a real job. While joining the Reserves as a new entrant is fun, with a high quality training pipeline and lots of opportunities to develop, which in turn can lead to a real sense of accomplishment on completion, it is perhaps less clear cut for a young officer. In addition to the normal training pipeline, there is often a requirement to take on a lot of extra unit work in the name of ‘development’ much of which takes up time and effort for seemingly little reward. At the same time completion of professional training moves one away from having a clearly defined role and into instead a more vague area where there is often no hugely useful day to day role – the officer being too junior to take on meaningful staff work posts , but at the same time there is little they can do other than hang around a unit. Humphreys personal experience is that there is a vastly higher attrition rate for junior officers compared to junior ratings – indeed within 5 years of his joining the Reserves, almost all of his peer group had resigned in frustration at the lack of reward, and lack of opportunity to deploy until much later on. Indeed he knows several officers who resigned as they were told there was no opportunity to deploy for at least 3-5 years, putting them at a point where their real careers would be taking off, and when deployment would do more harm than good to their wider interests.
This is a real challenge to manage – it is relatively easy to recruit, train and deploy a junior rating or soldier, but far more difficult to do the same for a junior officer. The author once worked out that in his area of the Reserves, it would take 2-3 years to take a new entrant to the point where they could deploy as a Junior, as opposed to 10-12 years as an officer.
It is perhaps very telling that in the review, the AFPRB noted that only 65% of the Reserves qualified for their bounty last year, which means that nearly one third of the entire reserve did not complete even a basic level of training over the preceding 12 months. This also serves as a reminder that despite the views that the Reserve will make up significant proportion of the future manpower structure, it will not necessarily always be available in the numbers that people may think.
So, the key point to the author here is that a lot of thought needs to go into the concept of how viable a Reserve Officer corps really is. It’s a lot of investment of time and training which is often lost in very short order should someone decide to walk away because they are bored. The model of providing retention payments will likely go a long way to helping improve this, giving people a reason to stay on past the ‘5 year itch’ point, by when reportedly nearly half of all new entrants have left.
Personally, the author believes that the UK should move to follow the Canadian model of trying to recruit junior officers at the university stage, when they can spend their summers training and building much deeper bonds with the service. Then as they enter the world of work, it is much easier to adapt to working to ensure time is made for the Reserves, rather than trying to shoehorn the reserves into your time. This is perhaps the biggest challenge, making those who join see the Reserves as something which isn’t just a fun hobby but which is also a second career. Too often it feels as if its seen as something done on the side for a bit of fun at weekends, and that it isn’t something which in fact is of increasing importance to the defence of the UK.