In recent years, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) has been confronting notable and, at times, insurmountable recruitment challenges.

The strategy of boosting investment in recruitment efforts does not appear to be yielding the expected returns in terms of increasing personnel numbers.

It suggests that the solutions to the RFA’s recruitment woes might not lie simply in amplifying the budget but rather in re-evaluating and potentially re-strategising the entire recruitment approach. The data indicates that simply ‘throwing money at the problem’ is not rectifying the recruitment issues, as even when the spending on recruitment rises, intake still falls.

Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey MP, told me:

“The Conservatives have failed in defence for fourteen years – failing to hit their recruitment targets for our forces. This is the latest example of how the Conservative’s have ‘hollowed out’ our Armed Forces. In Government, Labour would renew the country’s commitment those who serve; by fully incorporating the Armed Forces Covenant into law, tackling the shameful state of military housing and legislating for an Armed Forces Commissioner as a strong independent voice to improve service life for our Forces and their Families.”

Recruitment Shortfalls

The staffing requirements for the RFA in the financial year 2023-24 were identified as 1,713 personnel. However, the actual headcount, as of 1 October 2023, was recorded as 1,675, evidencing a shortfall. This trend is not a new development but part of an ongoing issue, as revealed by the data from the past decade.

The following table details the recruitment targets versus actual intake from 2010 to 2023, highlighting the RFA’s consistent struggle to meet its recruitment objectives.

RFA Total Intake vs Recruiting Targets, 01 April 2010 to 31 March 2023

Recruiting YearTotal IntakeRecruitment Target
2010-11150177
2011-123237
2012-133434
2013-1486122
2014-15167267
2015-16217336
2016-17164204
2017-18149218
2018-19145192
2019-20131166
2020-21171227
2021-22167231
2022-23169201

The Ministry of Defence’s financial commitment to RFA recruitment over the years has been substantial. The written responses detailed the costs associated with marketing and staffing, specifically attributable to recruitment activities, spanning six financial years. The following table summarises the expenditure:

Financial Year Expenditure on RFA Recruitment

Financial YearRecruitment Campaign Cost (ex VAT) (£million)Estimated Cost of Direct Headcount in Support of RFA Recruitment (£million)Total (£million)
2018-190.1030.3270.430
2019-200.1150.3280.443
2020-2100.3460.346
2021-2200.3510.351
2022-230.1750.3570.532
2023-240.1750.4380.613
Six Year Total2.716

The data challenges the assumption that more spending leads to better recruitment outcomes. The figures are as follows:

When correlating the financial investment with recruitment outcomes:

  1. 2018-19 to 2019-20: Despite a modest increase in recruitment expenditure, the total intake of recruits decreased.
  2. 2019-20 to 2020-21: Interestingly, a decrease in spending was associated with an increase in total intake.
  3. 2020-21 to 2021-22: A slight increase in spending did not significantly impact the intake numbers, indicating a disconnect between financial input and recruitment success.
  4. 2021-22 to 2022-23: Even a substantial rise in recruitment spending resulted in only a marginal increase in total intake.

The trend observed in these figures indicates that increasing recruitment spending does not necessarily lead to an increase in recruitment numbers.

This suggests that factors beyond financial investment are significantly influencing the RFA’s ability to attract and enlist new personnel. Such factors might include the effectiveness of the recruitment strategies, the appeal of the roles offered, market competition, or broader economic conditions etc.

There’s the question, though, how does this get fixed? If I knew, I wouldn’t be writing a blog in my spare time.

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Lisa has a degree in Media & Communication from Glasgow Caledonian University and works with industry news, sifting through press releases in addition to moderating website comments.
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John Stevens
John Stevens
16 days ago

Should the UK not start to recruit from overseas also.. I don’t know if that happens with the RFA.. Just a thought. Might help to fill some of the vacant job positions.

Coll
Coll
16 days ago
Reply to  John Stevens

Start? We already recruit Gurkhas and Commonwealth nationals.

John Stevens
John Stevens
16 days ago
Reply to  Coll

Yes, I know.. Just talking about the RFA. I did not know how that side of things worked out with the RFA.

Coll
Coll
16 days ago
Reply to  John Stevens

I do apologise.

Sleepy
Sleepy
16 days ago
Reply to  John Stevens

To join the RFA you have to have a British passport. Everyone in the RFA is a Sponsored Reservist!

John Stevens
John Stevens
16 days ago
Reply to  Sleepy

Ta! For the Info..

Christopher
Christopher
15 days ago
Reply to  Sleepy

Are you sure? I think commonwealth realms can also join and obviously the OSTs have a BP anyway.

Christopher
Christopher
15 days ago
Reply to  John Stevens

I was about this, I spend most of my time in the Caribbean now, the kids on the commonwealth island and OSTs would lobe this sort of opportunity and as far as I am aware, Commonwealth is eligable.

John Stevens
John Stevens
15 days ago
Reply to  Christopher

Thank you for the reply. yes, that’s a good point about the OSTs and passports from your reply to (Sleepy) Perhaps if it is possible to do.. Should advertise job vacancies a little bit more in some of the Commonwealth nations, when it comes to the RFA.

Jonathan
Jonathan
16 days ago

There is a difference between spending money on a recruitment campaign and spending money to improvement recruit and retention…not the same thing…one is just a small giveaway to the recruitment companies commissioned, the other needs a root and branch strategy, that includes pay, conditions, training staff development etc..I suspect what has happened is a small amount of money has just been handed out to recruitment companies…if you look £500,000 for recruitment of just over 200 hard to find skilled individuals….that is pittance. It’s around the £2500 per head mark….that’s not a lot…when you think the army will hand an ED… Read more »

Expat
Expat
14 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan

You have to wonder what 60k civil servants employed by the MoD actually do if the give all the work to contractors. If we use a very conservative 45k total employement cost per employee (not salary) it would mean we could buy 1 addtional T26 and 1 addtianal T32 every year if we halved the civil service numbers in the MoD to 30k = £1.35b saving p.a. Thats conservative estimate as a I say. However we’ll likely see the opposite happening with the civil service actually increasing under the next government taking more cash from frontline services.

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
16 days ago

Law of diminishing returns or spending increasing sums of money on not being able to recruit anyone or with the right skills.

Usually means you are too tight fisted, moronic and wedded to Political Dogma to do the bloody obvious.
Or are on a fat contract to just keep on trying rather than telling the customer the truth.

Save your wasted Money and spend it on better Pay and T & C’s for your Staff.

John
John
16 days ago

Asking what are in effect merchant seamen to enter war zones without ample financial recompense? A no brainer. Up the pay, give a better career structure. It is just another aspect of a British disease, lack of investment in people, not valuing people, losing them, and whining about it. For a maritime nation we have become totally sea blind.

Supportive Bloke
Supportive Bloke
16 days ago

Is the issue with the non linearity COVID lockdowns?

Geoff Roach
Geoff Roach
16 days ago

An armed forces commissioner? Wow. Another bureaucrat and staff and offices and oncosts and….. Might be worth spending the money on the RFA directly?

Andy P
Andy P
16 days ago
Reply to  Geoff Roach

Rather than a ‘commissioner’ I’d plump for a Forces Federation. The divisional system isn’t fit for purpose and people with a gripe vote with their feet and leave. The Forces need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st.

Geoff Roach
Geoff Roach
15 days ago
Reply to  Andy P

Like the Police Federation? To look after “social” needs. Doesn’t seem a bad idea to me. Mind you, the old guard will probably have a fit.😉

Andy P
Andy P
15 days ago
Reply to  Geoff Roach

Aye, like the Police Federation. Its been talked about for years but it seems the more gold you have the less you want it for some reason. 🤔I genuinely think it would cut both ways and help the Forces too. Especially with things like retention, if you have different people having the same drip then it can be collated and presented as an issue rather than individuals being fobbed off then adding to them eventually leaving.

ChrisLondon
ChrisLondon
15 days ago
Reply to  Andy P

I know several ex police. They all say if you want to know what the police think about any issue go to the Police Federation, not the police top brass, they are all political appointees.

Jacko
Jacko
16 days ago

Any of the LSTs I had the ‘pleasure’ of going on between Liverpool and Belfast had mainly Hong Kong Chinese as crew and British officers!(70s)

Jacko
Jacko
16 days ago
Reply to  Jacko

LSL,Galahad and Percival 🙄

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
15 days ago
Reply to  Jacko

Was that before 1970 ? They were transferred from the Army to RFA then, before that they had Hong Kong Chinese crews and British officers. Maybe they had the right idea 🥴

Jacko
Jacko
15 days ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

73&75 I had the pleasure of cruises across the Irish Sea😳definitely a Chinese crew.

maurice10
maurice10
16 days ago

Incentives are the answer. The RN is completely dependent on these support services and they should receive commensurate compensation. The current UK posture on World events can not be achieved with inadequate support personnel and that is the elephant in the room. One answer may be greater interoperability with friendly navies equivalents, which might be the long-term solution for all parties concerned. This current issue of manning the armed forces will only continue to fall as future youth will opt for other less demanding occupations. We are now after all living in the, ‘Working From Home.’ generation. A.I. should eventually… Read more »

Jay
Jay
16 days ago

So pay more – just like any other industry would.

Pathetic.

Last edited 16 days ago by Jay
Mr Bell
Mr Bell
16 days ago
Reply to  Jay

Got to agree. The whole RFA earning a starting salary of £35-40k would be a good start and not cost the country all that much. After all our medical consultants are the 4th highest paid in the whole world and are still striking, having rejected an eye watering pay rise to just get them back to work. The junior doctors were offered around 15% pay rise, which they’ve rejected for pay restoration. Seems if the government can afford those large pay rises to a huge medical workforce they definitely could afford a good uplift too the RFA to aide recruitment… Read more »

Expat
Expat
15 days ago
Reply to  Mr Bell

35-40k with 2 kids and working just 2 days a week you can get the equivalent from the UK government with the benefit of much more time on your hands and with family.

You’d need to.put salaries up more than 40k, but once you hit 45k you start paying nearly half back to the government in Tax and NI then above 50k you start to loose things like child allowance so effectively its diminishing returns working to give 1/2 back the taking a further kicking by have child allowance removed. The whole systems a joke.

Last edited 15 days ago by Expat
Mr Bell
Mr Bell
16 days ago

Bring back the pressure gang! 😂😆😂😅 There are loads of youths wandering around Knowle ….as just one example, doing nothing but tearing up the estate. Knock them out, drag them onto a ship and set them to work.
Bit too extreme???? I’ll get my coat.

Andrew D
Andrew D
16 days ago
Reply to  Mr Bell

Sounds ok to me 👍

Gareth
Gareth
16 days ago

The main problem is most likely visibility. Most people simply haven’t heard of the RFA (frankly most people seem to barely have heard of the armed forces at all but that’s another rant….), let alone thought about working for them.

Maybe they do this already but perhaps offer things like on-the-job training + 7-years of service. No student debt built up and you leave with a marine engineering qualification or something. Or offer posts to retired / former navy personnel / rig workers etc. Must be plenty around.

SailorBoy
SailorBoy
16 days ago
Reply to  Gareth

I think hanging around the gates of some state schools offering a job with minimal previous qualifications needed, better pay than stacking shelves and a sense of community would be the quickest way to sort out recruitment. A pay rise would obviously help too.

Benjamin Rule
Benjamin Rule
16 days ago

There is clearly something about annual targets being strictly enforced in isolation. Almost no single annual target was met. But the recruitment system was clearly capable of hitting many of the targets because it did so in other years. For example the 19/20 target was missed but the number was achieved the following year even though the 20/21 target was missed. Same in 13/14 and 14/15. Feels to me like someone is making the annual target an absolute hard limit. Which will ALWAYS mean the recruitment machine will undershoot in every year. Better to allow people to overshoot a bit… Read more »

Tim
Tim
16 days ago

I have never seen a single advert for jobs for the RFA and plenty of people would join them if they did

Mike
Mike
16 days ago

The question is why are our young people not particularly interested? Is it the wage, the time away from home, the lack of focus in schools on stem and the everyone must go to uni culture? Or is it that’s its not fashionable on TikTok, or that many young have been either raised to loath the uk because we have only done bad or because they are new generational arrivals with no perceived link to the culture and values of the UK- only wanting to take from society? Could be lots of other reasons as well. But it’s sad to… Read more »

Robert Blay
Robert Blay
16 days ago
Reply to  Mike

Lots of people have tried every trick in the book to get out of being called up. That is nothing new. Kids are not rasied to loath the UK. Many who use this site loath the UK, judging by many of the comments. And as somebody else said. Many simple don’t know the RFA exists. It should be an appealing career. The excitement of the military with the benefits of being a civilian. It needs to raise its profile.

Barry White
Barry White
16 days ago

As an ex RFA man of nearly 20 years the lack of seaman reflects the decline of the Merchant Navy in general
Also the fact that it has become very very RN oriantated
People dont want to be militorised in the way the RFA has become (wearing unifoms etc)
As an ex AB even that terminoligy has gone being replace with term such naval terms such as Leading Hands

Tony Smith
Tony Smith
15 days ago

My Stepson tried to join the RFA last year. The process took nearly 7 months. When he finally had his ENG1 medical assessment it was discovered that he was colour blind. The ENG1 was issued with 1 limitation “No night time watchkeeping duties” as he had applied to join as a deckhand we rightly or wrongly assumed that his application would be accepted…..The RFA recruitment process refused his application. He was so deflated by this decision he has since moved to Canada where he was accepted for employment.

David Bevan
David Bevan
15 days ago

If you look on the RFA website and see the salaries they are offering for the starters it’s more than insulting its embarrassing. My daughter gets paid more working in a call centre. If you uplifted the pay you’d get more recruits simple.

Mike
Mike
15 days ago

The RFA are in this position because of Pink and Fluffy Civil Servants making poor decisions, Minsters not understanding what the RFA brings to the party, lack of funding and real term pay cut. Doctors are complaining that their pay has reduced by 35 percent over the past 15 years well the RFA is the same position. The only real difference is the RFA employs less that 2000 people and has no clout and doesn’t hold the country to ransom! The RN needs the RFA but doesn’t help the recruiting situation and only looks at how it can rag the… Read more »

Frank62
Frank62
15 days ago

Offer private contractors more money to fix recruitment & they gladly take it, pay themselves & shareholders more, but skimp on doing what the money’s supposed to be for. They just minimise product & maximise profits. That’s the lie of the whole privatisation/market forces ideology. Then they’ll probably come back & ask for a bit more money that they hope will fix the problem, but never does. We’ve been promoting the worst sort of people across society for too long-in it for themselves, screwing the public, running civilisation & society into the ground.