The new British army recruiting campaign advertisements have caused a bit of a kerfuffle.
This article was submitted by Stuart Crawford, a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator and contributor on military and defence topics in online and other media, including the UK Defence Journal.
Apparently aimed at ‘millennials’ and ‘Generation Z’ it is the latest in a series of initiatives to try to boost recruiting in difficult times. It comes after the opening up of all army posts to women and the relaxation of residency rules to allow greater recruitment from Commonwealth countries.
However, this innovative approach which features a series of posters and supporting videos is another sign that recruitment to the British Army still faces big challenges to reach its targets. Responsibility for this was outsourced to “leading provider of technology enabled business services” company Capita in 2012, and delivery of outcomes have been, so far, underwhelming to say the least.
There have been major difficulties with the company’s online application process leading to long delays between initial application and entry to training. Delays which have, in many cases, led to potential recruits giving up and looking for employment elsewhere.
Consequently, the army is currently approximately 5,000 short of its 82,500 target for trained soldiers.
The army has admitted its own part in this abject failure, with Chief of the General Staff General Sir Nick Carter recently telling MPs on the House of Commons Select Defence Committee that the MoD had made three or four big errors when awarding the contract to Capita. But outsourced recruitment contract aside, there would appear to be other reasons why an army careers seems to have a fading appeal with young folk today.
First, and indeed most obvious, is that our collective knowledge of personal military service has very much reduced since the end of National Service in the early 1960s. The armed services as a whole have become increasingly isolated within mainstream civilian society as numbers have dropped dramatically since the end of the Cold War.
Thus impressions that potential recruits may have of the army may owe more to incessant repeats of Dad’s Army or It Ain’t Half Hot Mum on TV or, more probably perhaps, to media coverage of maimed soldiers from the Afghanistan or Iraq campaigns.
The army also undoubtedly suffers in comparison to its sister services. The Royal Navy has made much of its new aircraft carriers, and it and the RAF have exploited the PR value of the introduction of the F-35B fast jets. They benefit in that they are seen, rightly or wrongly, as being progressive, expanding organisations with real operational business to do.
On the other hand, the army is regarded as the poor cousin sucking on the hind teat, at least as far as new equipment is concerned, unable to look forward to anything significant except a much delayed and overstaffed upgrade to its ageing fleet of AFVs and a medium armoured programme which has gone on so long that many doubt it will ever come to fruition.
To quote the popular military blog ThinkDefence; “If we look back, the decades have rolled by, replacement programmes have come and gone, wars have been fought, money spent and the UK armoured vehicle industry decimated, but the British army’s aspiration for a medium weight capability remains unfulfilled.”
Again, this is not a good look.
In short, the RN and RAF are seen as much ‘sexier’ organisations than the army, which is hardly regarded as an exciting and expanding organisation which ambitious young people might seek to join. Dragged down in the public eye by Iraq and Afghanistan, it has little good news to publicise.
“Join the army and see Estonia” just isn’t going to cut it.
What, then, can be done to stop the decline and once again encourage a steady stream of young folk into the British army? Well, first of all, the solution will not be found in the current British army Twitter account (@BritishArmy) pumping out ad nauseam its current default message; “Our greatest asset is our people – the finest men and women our great nation has to offer”.
That is patronising, arrogant, clearly not true if taken literally, and also disrespectful of those who currently staff the emergency services, the NHS, the teaching professions, etc etc.
But the finger of blame must be pointed at the Capita recruitment process and the MoD – now long gone of course – who signed up to it.
Of course it’s easy to be wise after the event, but in particular the attempt to replace city centre recruiting offices staffed by serving personnel with an anonymous and dysfunctional online application process has been, by all accounts, disastrous. I don’t think necessarily that restoring the recruiting offices would be the answer to the maiden’s prayer but it would at least be a start and a sign of future intent. Nor do I advocate a return to the ‘travel the world, meet interesting people, and kill them’ message of old.
What I would like to see is a positive approach which majors on encouraging people to exceed their own expectations of themselves, to surprise themselves at what they can become.
Something along the lines, perhaps, of; “Dad a bus driver? You could command a Transport Regiment” or “Scared of heights? You could become an SF HALO parachutist”, alongside the message that the British Army will show you how.
The underlying theme might be, I suggest, that no matter your background the army will help you get to where you aspire if you want it badly enough. But no doubt others will have much better ideas than mine.
And as for the new ‘snowflake’ friendly recruiting campaign? It’s fair to say, I think, that it has divided opinion, with some seeing it as an attention grabbing approach to a thorny problem and others dismissing it as patronising and ill-judged. My personal view is that it isn’t a patch on the brilliant Royal Navy “born in Carlisle but made in the Royal Navy” series of advertisements, nor is it as good as the RAF’s current campaign on television.
But then again I’m not a millennial or of Generation Z – thank goodness – so I’m hardly the best judge.