Army winning battle for talent

Despite the negative publicity of a number of alleged bullying cases, the
Army is winning the battle to attract more and better suited recruits to its
ranks. Ross Wigham reports from the frontline to find out how the military has
changed tactics

Allegations of bullying at the Deepcut Barracks in Surrey have rocked the
British Army at a time when it is looking to recruit more young soldiers, and
play a greater global role.

Four recruits have died at the barracks since 1995, including two this year,
and a police investigation has recently been launched following pressure from
the victims’ parents.

The man in charge of recruitment for the British Army, Brigadier Andrew
Craig, admitted the bullying allegations were undermining recruitment, as the
Army looks to grow by around 5,000 to accommodate increasing commitments as
part of the war on terror.

"For some I’m sure it may well affect their decision to join. I don’t
think this will put a coach and horses through our recruitment, but it will
affect some people," he said.

Craig is concerned about the allegations, and said they must be fully
investigated to help restore confidence in the Ministry of Defence.

He explained that he had implemented a range of measures to remove the
bullying culture, but admitted that some in the Army took the issue more
seriously than others.

"We’ve worked very hard over the past six years to eradicate this
problem and bullying incidents have been much reduced. Our people are trained
that bullying is unacceptable, and that is part of our ethos, but perhaps there
are some people who haven’t embraced it in the way that it should be,"
said Craig.

Despite this issue, Army recruitment and retention has reached some of its
highest levels, thanks to increased military action overseas, heightened media
coverage, and the changing nature of soldiering. Craig revealed that Army
numbers increased slightly last year to 120,000, including soldiers currently
in training. He added that the current annual turnover rate is 6 per cent – the
best ever.

"We need to expand the organisation by around 5,000 over the next five
to six years. Last year we grew by around 700, and this year it looks like
we’ll grow by 1,000," he said. "I’d like to grow a little quicker,
but we have to be realistic – the economy is very strong at present and
unemployment is low."

The brigadier explained that the war on terrorism, coupled with the
multitude of peacekeeping missions, was enticing young people to join a
profession that was exciting and worthwhile. He thought that missions in the
Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Sierra Leone in particular, have raised the
Army’s profile and boosted its image.

"The fact that there are now increased commitments, of a variety that
wasn’t there before, is a good thing. More action definitely helps to attract
recruits. Some people are turned off by it, but that’s more than outweighed by
the youngsters who see it as exciting," said Craig.

A new culture of openness in the media has also assisted recruitment, with
books, dramas and docu-soaps all approved by the Ministry of Defence in recent
years.

"In the past the Army has been a bit isolated. There have always been
some negative stories, but on the whole more openness with the media is
positive. The fact that we have been more open has been a real plus, because
people get an improved awareness about the Army," he explained.

The Army has also made large strides in improving diversity after harsh
criticism by the Commission for Racial Equality in 1996 prompted a fresh drive
for ethnic recruits. Targeted recruitment advertising and a change of image
have helped the Army boost diversity by almost 4 per cent in six years. From a
base of 1.7 per cent in 1996, effective HR policies have helped the Army hit
its 2002 diversity target of 5 per cent, and Craig hopes this will to increase
to 5.5 by the end of the year. The Army has benefited from an influx of
recruits from Commonwealth countries such as Fiji, India and Jamaica.

"We’ve been responding to demand rather than actively going out to
recruit. Numbers have risen, but I think that will reach a plateau. We want a
balance in the Army, which includes ethnic soldiers – we have always had them
in the Army, it’s not a new phenomenon," he said.

However, Craig does not think that calls to modernise the service by
allowing soldiers access to trade unions will prove as successful.

"I suppose it is viable, but I’d like to think that we didn’t need
unions. Over the past 10 years we’ve made changes in the way we look after our
people, and I don’t believe there is a need for unions," said Craig.

He stressed that any modernisation programme has to be balanced with the
Army’s need to operate as a fighting force.

"Being up-to-date and progressive is important, so we are making
changes where appropriate. However, we don’t want to jeopardise operational
effectiveness," he said.

"We have a distinct job to do, and you can hardly compare it with
working at Tesco. There is a very different emphasis here, and we see it as a
covenant between the organisation and the individual."

One area the armed forces has significantly improved upon, is how it deals
with stress – a key factor for soldiers who can be confronted by the horrors of
war and its aftermath. The days when the stiff upper lip was seen as the only
remedy have been consigned to the past.

"We’re very alert to making sure people don’t go over the edge, or
become so stressed they cannot do the job. We always ensure we have the ability
to take corrective action for individuals who have become stressed," Craig
explained.

"Counselling is important because it enables people to get the help
they need. You train for this job, but even so, some people are still affected
by it, so you need to have remedial action in place."

A significant part of soldiers’ training is also focused on how they might
react during and after incidents that may cause trauma. "Preparation for
people before they go into a situation is key, and our training always has an
element which concentrates on dealing with the stress of it."

Another challenge Craig and the Army’s HR team has been trying to meet, is
retaining more soldiers who have served between four and eight years, which is
no easy task as they are prime targets for private sector employers. Often
young and well-trained with good management experience, many are tempted by
offers of high salaries in civilian life, and the Army wants to prevent this by
raising the average length of service from nine to 10 years.

"We are at an early stage of thinking, but we want to have some means
of pull-through or incentive. That might be a commitment bonus, or more
personal development," he said.

Craig believes the Army must position itself as a modern employer of choice
by making sure the next generation of potential recruits are aware of the full
range of opportunities available to them within the force.

"We have to ensure that people recognise the opportunities available in
the Army. There are 140 trades and 3,000 career paths – anything that you can
do in civilian life, you can do in the Army.

"We must appeal to the target audience of 16-24 year-olds, but also to
their parents, and you have to be much more subtle there."

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