Sunday, 27 October 2013

How do you solve a problem like Reserve recruitment?

This weekend saw a major recruiting effort in London, as the reserve elements of the Armed Forces came out to try and drum up interest from the public in joining the military on a part time basis. While this was going on, the Telegraph appears to have continued to wage a one paper war against the Government, carrying multiple articles from seemingly ever older, senior and out of touch retired officers to try and push the case for maintaining the Army as it is, and not replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists.

The issue of the size of the Army Reserve (as the TA is to be known) and the wider reserves is one of the most controversial parts of the 2010 SDSR. Cynics see it as running defence on the cheap, while optimists see it as a means of being able to have an army bigger than we could otherwise afford. There are many challenges in meeting this growth though, and it is something that significant political capital has been invested in – failure by the MOD to recruit will probably be seen by the media as a personal rebuff to the Prime Minister directly. To Humphrey the challenge is achievable – in real terms the TA has to expand by about 10-12,000 personnel or roughly 30%. Some see this as not possible, and ARRSE is full of people complaining that the TA simply cant provide troops of the right level to do the job. If you believe the press, we are getting rid of 20,000 battle ready troops for an uncertain future of any army of 30,000 part time troops.

In reality the debate on numbers misses a key point – growing the TA to 30,000 doesn’t meant that the UK can put 30,000 troops into the field – in the same way as reducing by 20,000 troops doesn’t mean we can put 20,000 less troops in the field. Armies don’t work in this way – one only has to look at the recent announcement by the US Army that it doesn’t have any combat ready brigades right now to realise that numbers alone do not mean capability. The reality is that the future TA will support through targeted mobilisations of troops rather than wholesale mobilisation en mass. A quick glance at the SDSR will show the sort of force levels the UK aspires to deploy in future – if you read this, it gives a clear idea about how many TA troops will be required at one time, which is arguably not that many.

What an enlarged TA does is effectively provide a sufficiently large pool of manpower so that in extremis, it can carry out a sustained period of relatively large mobilisations to support operations in line with planning assumptions. A smaller TA is not incapable of meeting those assumptions, its just going to have to mobilise people more often if the UK finds itself in this sort of situation. Similarly, if you believe the papers, you’d think that 20,000 troops are going today and we will find ourselves defenceless for years to come – in fact again if you read SDSR then you can see that the role of the TA sits nicely with the vision for Force 2020. In other words, as we slowly downsize the Army and increase the TA, the UK should be able to maintain a similar level of output throughout. This sort of rationale explanation doesn’t seem to fit well with those who see Soviet invasions lurking just out of sight...

Can we do it? Yes we can!
There is perhaps deep rooted cynicism in some quarters that the TA can enlarge to the levels required – it is always a challenge to enlarge an organisation quickly without putting enormous pressure on the system. Bringing an additional 12,000 recruits in, plus recruiting enough to maintain existing force structures will be a challenge – but it is achievable. Humphrey is wary of comparisons with the 1980s, when the TA grew to at its peak be nearly 86000 strong. This was at a time when  memories of WW2 and national service were fresh, and many peoples fathers had served in the military. When coupled with the reality that being called up was highly unlikely, it was perhaps easier to convince people to sign up for membership of an organisation in their spare time.

Todays recruiting proposition is very different – people signing up today do so in the realistic expectation that they may be called upon to serve overseas, with the attendant risks that this brings. Having done some recruitment on behalf of the reserves, Humphrey has found a lot of people do see the risk of ‘being shot’ as a genuine bar to serving. Its one thing to join on the off-chance of a deeply hypothetical conflict, and another to be expected to be available one year in five to serve overseas. A lot of people will find it difficult to belong to an employer which regularly expects them to put their civilian careers on hold, and instead do and different job. Employers, particularly those in smaller organisations will find it difficult to support membership of the Reserves if it means losing people with key skills. While the counter to such an argument is that the Reservist returns with good skills in leadership or communications, an employer may find it easier and cheaper to send them on an ‘outwards bound’ course once every few years, rather than incur the cost of losing someone for a prolonged period.

So, it is a challenge to convince people to sign up, but it is achievable. In the view of the author, this is best done through proactively showing the benefits of membership – such as good pay (you would be amazed how many people think you are not paid), access to skills, training and qualifications, and the ability to do something very different with your life. Above all it requires regular and active interaction between Reservists and civilians – while regular military personnel do a great job of PR, they cannot easily explain the mindset and different nature of life as a reservist where you have to do two very different jobs. It won’t be a quick task, but it can be done if sufficient time and effort is thrown at it – although people should be wary of investing so much time in recruitment, that retention and follow on training is neglected.

It is also important that the regular Army embraces the TA fully and adopts a ‘whole force’ mentality (the same also applies to the other two services). Based on the sort of discussions on ARRSE, there is a real and worrying lack of understanding between the two forces, with seemingly a minority of regular personnel regarding the TA as weekend warriors unable to support when really required. This is worrying, because until the Army understands its reserve element and throws time, effort, resource and support at them, then it will struggle to get the best from it. The longer damaging leaks go to the Daily Telegraph trying to undermine the campaign, the harder it will be to encourage a shift in this thinking.

Little things like making service in a reserve unit be seen as a career enhancer will help – in the RNR for instance the RN traditionally posts regular staff who are at the very tail end of their careers. While good people, there is no trickle of staff going back into the RN and selling the RNR and the benefits the organisation brings to the Naval Service as a whole. In fact it seems entirely possible for many RN personnel to go their entire careers without meeting or interacting with a member of the RNR. While this is perhaps understandable given that much of what the RNR does is about niche roles in bespoke areas, it does make it hard to get the RN to understand what capabilities it gets out of it. If postings to Reserve units are seen as career enhancing and an essential pre-requisite for promotion, then it is likely that attitudes will shift.

Also, it is important to try and build an understanding of the ‘Reserve Mentality’ – the author has often seen regular personnel complain about people in the reserves (particularly in the TA), and suggest that the irregular attendance doesn’t help. The problem is as much that many Reservists hold down busy and demanding regular jobs, and getting time to go to every training weekend is often tricky (particularly if the family or work expect support). This attitude that because not everyone can make every weekend sometimes translates into a subconscious bias that Reservists are not able to do the job. What is perhaps better is to see the Reserve as a pool of manpower that can fill the breach if required. After all, any mobilisation will usually see a Reservist pulled up to a reasonable level of capability during the OPTAG process, and ensure that they deploy with the same training as their peers.

Personally the author finds it depressing that rather than trying to focus on getting the best possible result for Defence, which is a well equipped Army with both regular and reserve components based on an affordable equipment programme, some individuals seem more focused on upsetting the plan in a short sighted effort to protect a capbadge. Perhaps the most important thing to realise is that there is no Plan B to the enlarging of the Reserves. No matter how you look at it, the cost of having regular personnel is so expensive that if the UK wants to retain a reasonable level of capability it has to move to a much greater emphasis on a mixed force of Regular and Reserve personnel. One senses that the efforts of leaking to the Telegraph owe as much to disgruntled Army officers seeing diminished career opportunities as it is about there being real military concerns over capability. The future Army is going to be smaller precisely because it is so expensive to run – while some are complaining about the loss of 20,000 troops, what they have not done is present a credible alternative which is affordable within the Defence Budget (such conversations seem to rely heavily on the ‘scrap aid, scrap welfare and scrap money on PC rubbish’).

The author has been a reservist for his entire adult life, and he genuinely means it when he says that right now is the most exciting time he can ever remember to be in the Reserves. The application of funds, training and a sense that the Reserve is now integral to UK defence is refreshing. He genuinely believes we can meet the targets set for expansion, and that given time and effort it will be possible.  

Expanding the Reserve is going to be a challenge, not matter how you look at it. But, it is achievable – after all we manage to recruit sufficiently well to support an Army of 100,000 year in year out. If through sensible application of time, effort and resource, we can shift some of those regular applicants into the TA then it is entirely realistic to assume that the target will be met. But it will take time, effort and wholehearted support from the Regular Army to make it happen. In the authors very personal opinion, this is not helped by a whispering campaign which undermines these efforts, and where some individuals seem to think it more important to leak classified documents in order to attempt to subvert the democratically elected Governments defence policy than they do in following the direction given to them.


  1. "from seemingly ever older, senior and out of touch retired officers" - how do you know that they are "out of touch"?
    Why get rid of the regulars BEFORE you have built up your reserves?
    Putting a civilian company in charge of recruiting is surely wrong - when a young person wants to join the military they want to chat with a real life service person with a chest full of medals and real stories to tell, and with the knowledge and experience to tell it as it is.
    I live in the N.E. of England and I know that the T.A. infrastructure has shrunk and most units seem to have vanished off the face of the earth.
    I don't think this latest plan has been fully thought through.

  2. The problem with UK reserves, quite simply, is that they are not RESERVES, they are part time main force personnel.
    And those are two very very different jobs.

    You call up the reserves when the main force has been broken, has the British Army been broken? So why are TA personnel overseas on a regular basis?
    Especially since TA were raised exclusively for service on the home islands.

    With all the will in the world, I couldnt do 6 months every 5 years.
    I'm at a medium international tomorrow, pitching a credit control department, the catch is its got to be self financing.
    I go in tomorrow and put my bid in, and then Reserve TrT goes in, and puts an identical bid, with the proviso that for 3 months next year, he's going to be in full time training, and then for 6 months, I'll be out of the country, so for those 9 months, I expect you to need a temp, who will cost 20% more and achieve 20% less.
    Guess who gets the job?
    Its not going to be the TrT who claims military leadership skills are better than civillian, especially since the who purpose of the role is to tell the FD what he is doing wrong, "yes Sir you know best Sir" aint what they want.

    Does the Army understand that what it wants isnt reserves, but part time soldiers?

    Recruitment centres are manned by the HR department, or certainly Air Force desks were when I was considering joining.
    You wont see a pilot there.

  3. MOD employee tows party line.

    Serving reservist tows party line, complains about people criticising said plan...

    No plan B. Like saying: Quit moaning, and get building the anti gravity machine....its the only game in town.

  4. What's your take on the disbandment of 2RRF? I don't fault 2020 for wanting to disband a few of the poorly manned battalions. But 2RRF clearly did not fall into this category. While there is alot of bloviating about defense cuts in the press, I think this time, the concerns voiced by the veterans of 2RRF and others are credible. Thoughts?

    1. I think that the decisions for disbanding 2RRF should be tested in public.
      Let MOD publish the reasoning behind this decision and a debate take place.
      At this moment in time the conspiracy theorists are having a field day because of the lack of information.
      And more importantly they are OUR armed forces.

    2. The decision on 2RRF isn't something that I'm an expert on. As I understand it, it relies more on the problem of scrapping single battalions, then having to find a final Bn to go. There are some excellent discussions on this over in ARRSE, but it boils down to needing to lose headcount, and based on the data in front of them, the Army felt 2RRF had to go.
      A very personal view is that this demonstrates again the difficulty of the Regimental system, which is that making change happen is very difficult with so many vested interests out there. The sooner a Corps of Infantry is created, where talent can be managed across a whole spread of units (which keep the old cap badges) the better. How many outstanding CGS did the Army lose because it didnt have the ability to manage them properly early on in their career?

    3. 1) I don't like ARRSE.

      2) What is the magical spell over 2 RRF? Other key units are being reduced/removed and there's no big complaint over them. Some of them for example, 23 Engineer (AA) lose a squadron and those units are far more critical that 1 light infantry battalion. If you want a public enquiry over cuts, do that for all affected units and not just champion for one.

    4. By the time all this re-organisation takes place the Scots will have had their vote on independence, and if they vote to leave I suppose they will take their regiments with them, and we will have to start the whole thing all over again.
      Its a right "buggers muddle".

    5. Can you predict their future?

  5. I suppose I am one of those talking about the 86,000; however my father was too young (just) for NS and I joined in 1977.
    The difference was, speed of entry - walk in to one of hundreds of "local" drill halls and you were attested and in the field in two weeks; and; we were a "Reserve" army not the regulars temping agency - our employers knew and accepted that we would only be called out for dire national need and not for polishing some snake oil salesman's ego.

    1. "however my father was too young (just) for NS and I joined in 1977"
      National Service ended in about 1960, so your father must have been born in about 1942, so he had just turned eighteen when they abolished National Service. And yet he had a son who joined the TA in 1977... something about that just doesn't add up. Were the TA taking child soldiers in the seventies??

  6. I think the one thing that stalls recruitment is the massive change in culture and footprint the TA has gone through. When I first got in I knew plenty of the Cold Warriors who had joined the TA in the mid to late seventies onwards. Thing was it was easy to join and easy to find then - local drill halls with detachments and platoons and troops abounded and you could walk in the door easily enough and be on your two week recruits course in no time at all somewhere quite local. Some might equate this with a lack of standards and rigour and argue that the more drawn out recruitment and training process means a more professional soldier at the end of it.

    Fine, but it also means fewer soldiers coming through the door and staying. It also means recruitment takes far longer, and the far longer training pipelines mean people just get bloody well bored of it all.


  7. I usually find myself nodding in agreement with you Sir H, but not, I'm afraid, this time. I think your position as a reservist and a MOD civil servant has clouded your objectivity.

    Not one mention of Capita?

  8. Sir H, says there is no other game in town, but how about this one:

    You could enlist soldiers into the regular army on shorter initial contracts - say 3 - 4 years rather than the full 22. That would save you a lot in pensions, benefits etc. After that initial time, the ones who are needed in the regulars could be given the rest of their 22 to stay and the others could join the reserves. The benefit to the reserves would be that you get a person with the regular training and a tour or two under their belt. You would then not have to send them to the drill hall every Monday night and you could call them up less frequently simply to stay current. Be good for youth unemployment too - give 18 year olds something different to do for a few years (rather than become a 'student').

    I think the US Army went to short enlistment periods (something like 2 years) to boost recruitment.

    1. That's pretty much the current system. They sign on for a 12 year commitment which can be progressively extended if both parties want to.

    2. "You could enlist soldiers into the regular army on shorter initial contracts - say 3 - 4 years rather than the full 22. That would save you a lot in pensions, benefits etc. After that initial time, the ones who are needed in the regulars could be given the rest of their 22 to stay and the others could join the reserves."

      The US National Guard works along exactly these lines. If you want to join, you go and do basic training full time with the regulars. Then you do your trade training with the regulars. So you spend nine months or a year or more as a full-time soldier, and at the end you are identical in training and experience to a newly-qualified fulltime soldier. Then you go into the National Guard, and presumably go and find a civi job.

  9. I was a cold war Territorial in the Specialist units. I joined through the OTC at my University at a time when far fewer attended Higher Education in the UK.

    Society changed in the 25 years before the Berlin Wall came down and has changed even more so since.

    The model of part-timers going off for a two week camp seems very dated to me. Taking up some of the above comments a short period of continuous training longer than the TA basic, followed by periods of continuous refresher training and exercises.

    I am thinking here of the Swiss army for example where recruits do 14 weeks, potential NCO's 28 and potential officers 42 weeks or there abouts (not necessarily in one go). On completion of the training, personnel are grouped in units and stay in those units during the more active part of their service, only joining territorial based units at the end.

    The problem of recruiting is that it does not reflect the changes in society- I would suggest a no commitment no attestation young adult activity, to attract bodies into the drill hall, much as the OTCs are doing to reduce costs. The training undertaken could be used to shorten the Reserve basic vis-a-vis the regular basic.

    I would suggest much of the criticism of the governments plan could have been avoided if the Reserve expansion had concentrated on Combat Support and Combat Service Support with the cuts in those areas. Without ongoing operations some of the support units could exist at cadre level with Reservists filling slots in rotation to establish and maintain skills. As far as possible civilian skills would be used in the Reserve, this would also simplify identifying specific employers in specific industries rather than using a blunderbuss approach to employer relations.

  10. When did the Swiss last go to war?

    Your scenario doesn't reflect reality - sorry!

  11. @Ianeon

    Which part to you say does not reflect reality

    Two week courses and camps are too short to be effective.

    Two stage recruiting like the OTC Model might be more productive.

    My view, based on my experience, that integrating reservists with a civilian skill that the army needs in a support role would make more realistic sense than that two week courses / annual camps and any amount of weekend evening training can produce an effective infantry soldier.

    1. If you have "no commitment, no attestation" why should they bother?
      One of the things you are trying to instill is "Esprit de Corps"

      I can agree with you in using reservists in a support role, but at present the government is making an awful lot of infantry redundant, so where would you get the reservist infanteer from?
      How do you intergrate reservists, in large numbers, into regular units, and at short notice.

      Here on Tyneside our nearest regular unit, an artillery regiment, is about 30 miles away. The next is Catterick Garrison at 50 miles. Our T.A. infrastructure has been reduced quite considerably and we are slowly losing the link between civilian and military. This becomes very apparent on Remembrance Sunday.

      I am not familiar with the OTC model but if the following is an accurate description then I have my doubts about it.
      "The Ministry of Defence marketed the OTC as "a University/College club with a great and varied social life ... where you'll find some of the cheapest drink on campus"
      I can agree with this quote: "The Officers' Training Corps is intended to develop the leadership potential of selected university students. It aims to achieve this through enjoyable and challenging training. In providing such an experience, it hopes to communicate the values, ethos and career opportunities of the British Army"
      But not this one if it is the principle you want to apply: "They are Group B members of the Territorial Army with whom they are neither trained nor liable for mobilised (active) service. Cadets have no obligation to join the armed forces when they leave university and can resign from the OTC at any time; indeed 90% of those serving with an OTC do not go on to either the Regular or Territorial Army.
      The 90% who don't seems a very high percentage and it rather defeats the argument for this type of commitment.

  12. Like everything else, the UOTCs are changing. I quote from Wiki " In 2011, an MoD study recommended the downgrading of UOTCs to sub-units (commanded by a major rather than a lieutenant colonel) and the formation of twelve Officer Training Regiments, each comprising one or two OTC companies and a TA Officer Training Wing. The study also concluded that OTC Officer Cadets should not be attested or paid in their first year."

    What that does not say is that RMAS would be firmly in the saddle and I expect there would be more collective training combining OTCs after the first year and that to stay in after the first year would require a commitment to serving in the regular or reserve army.

    I see new units to recruit and prepare potential soldiers of the reserve for recruit training, which would replace existing local Reserve units; as with OTCs it would have a mix of regular PSIs and reservist SNCOs who have moved on to allow promotion within their units.

    I also feel that the reserve should not be organised and trained on a territorial basis. Units should be regional or national* with a single centre and drill nights consigned to history. This alone should significantly improve retention and reduce the burden on recruiting.

    I don't dispute that the reduction in the regular infantry battalions is a done deal, and it was the Army that decided where to cut. This is why I feel that drill nights, weekends, and two week camps will not be enough to develop the skills required for reservist infantrymen especially NCOs to fully integrate with regulars without longer periods of continuous training.

    *Depending on the total number involved units would be regional or national. In effect all reservists would be organised like the existing National TA

  13. I've work as a contractor with the US military for several year including Iraq, and I can understand why the government is taking this route. However; to achieve their objectives they need to work closely with civilian companies and assure them that they not using their resources and money to get reservist on the cheap i.e. a highly skills personnel. The Americans military forces work as partners with their civilian companies, especially when it comes to training, the military run the trade training courses and the civilian company get the benefits of this training, in return the civilian companies embrace releasing their people for military commitments. I believe this isn't the case for the British military, they expect civilian companies to carry out trade training only for them to lose them as Reservist, and you wonder why civilian company aren't embracing this idea, as they take all the risk.

  14. Thanks for the post. I've just started my own recruitment agency: Oakland House Recruitment

    Your advice will hopefully put me in the right direction to acquiring a few clients :)