Skill shortages in the Armed Forces Contents

2Tackling the skills gaps

Developing a strategic centre

14.Under the Department’s delegated model, the Commands are responsible for developing the capabilities they need, including recruiting, training and managing their workforce. The Department’s Head Office develops the defence strategy and establishes the framework of personnel policies that Commands operate within.37 The Department’s approach to strategic planning, which involves input from the Commands, assesses the capabilities and skills needed to deliver defence tasks and operate its equipment. It assured us it does as much planning as possible, although the changing nature of threats means it does not always get this right. The Department is currently re-assessing the military threats through the Modernising Defence Programme work and, increasingly, is focusing on the particular skills that it needs as much as the overall size of the Armed Forces.38

15.The Department’s Head Office has responded to the workforce shortfalls and skill shortages by introducing a series of changes to its workforce policies.39 Its change programme, which has been running since 2010, is designed to improve recruitment and retention, and introduce more up to date support for service personnel.40 In July 2017, the Department concluded it was too early to identify the programme’s impact. The National Audit Office noted, however, that the changes have not yet improved recruitment or retention, and regulars’ satisfaction with pay, service life and accommodation were at the lowest levels recorded.41

16.We asked the Department about strengthening central coordination of personnel matters.42 The Chief of Defence People (CDP) is the defence authority for personnel, but currently the role does not have authority over the Commands. As a result, CDP has not been able to tackle recruitment or capability issues that require cross-Command, longer-term or structural responses.43 As part of the Modernising Defence Programme, the Department is seeking to strengthen the role of the CDP to provide greater authority over workforce policy, strategy and procedures. It intends to develop more standardisation and conformity over approaches to recruitment and training, and improve Head Office oversight of workforce capability issues.44

Adopting more radical approaches to addressing skill shortages

17.The Department’s shortfall of regulars is the largest for many years, and it does not expect to achieve its target of 144,200 trained regulars by 2020.45 The shortfall of regulars has left thousands of gaps in the ranks that Commands have been unable to fill.46 The Department expects to close the skill shortages in just six of the 102 ‘pinch-point’ trades over the next five years, with the impact of the skill shortages actually worsening in 23 trades.47

18.The Armed Forces have relied primarily upon on a base-fed model to recruit regulars. This involves recruiting people into the lowest ranks and developing their skills and experience over time. We were concerned that this model no longer enabled the Department to close the shortfalls and respond quickly enough to meet new demands for specialist skills. The Department maintained that the base-fed model was fundamental to the way it develops the skills that are needed in the Armed Forces. It can, however, take years to develop the experience and professionalism needed to undertake military operations and operate complex equipment; for example, around 12 years to train a Chief Petty Officer.48

19.The Department recognised the need to enhance its traditional approach to improve its ability to develop the skills it needs.49 It has introduced several new recruitment initiatives, although many remain at an early stage and are being rolled out on a small-scale.50 It has, for example, made changes to the medical requirements for joining the Armed Forces, which it hopes will increase the number of recruits reaching phase one training.51 It has also introduced rejoiner initiatives, such as LinkedIn campaigns, which are benefitting trades in the Army and RAF, including pilots.52 The Department is looking to increase ‘lateral (or mid-career) entry’ as much as possible, although it told us that this is not appropriate for resolving all skill shortages.53 The Department is establishing arrangements with industry, such as the civil nuclear sector, to enable people to move more freely between the Armed Forces and private sector firms.54 It has also introduced a new pay model to provide more flexibility to pay supplements in trades with shortfalls.55

20.We questioned whether the Department’s approach to recruitment was radical enough to fill the skill shortages in a rapidly changing external environment; for example, for cyber skills professionals. The Department is developing a new long-term career structure specifically in this field, reviewing the entry requirements and considering whether these posts need to be military roles.56 It is also seeking to ensure that its IT business is properly organised and is working with the Cabinet Office on its digital, data and technology (DDaT) initiative, which provides some flexibilities on levels of pay it can offer.57

21.We asked the Department how it evaluated its recruitment initiatives to establish which schemes to expand. It referred to a number of activities, such as its review of the “leave well, rejoin well” campaign, but did not provide us with evidence of a systematic approach to evaluation or the scale of its initiatives.58 The National Audit Office reported that the Department could identify only 50 new recruits though lateral entry programmes.59 The Department recognised that some of its initiatives to improve recruitment and retention have not worked as well as it hoped, and agreed it must find more effective ways of recruiting technical people and expanding lateral entry.60 The Department recently established a £3 million fund for an innovation competition, and has received 91 bids from 80 companies, proposing innovative ways of recruiting and retaining the skills it needs.61

Recruiting from different groups in society

22.Over the last three years the Commands have missed their recruitment targets. In 2016–17, they recruited an aggregate of 4,200 regulars fewer than their targets. The Department recognised that it takes too long to recruit new personnel and it loses too many people during the recruitment process. It is reviewing its approach to reduce the amount of time it takes.62 The Secretary of State has set a target to reduce the time to recruit from six to nine months to three months.63 The Commands are seeking to develop closer relationships with recruits who want to join, using a range of means (‘nudge tactics’) to encourage them to stay in the recruitment process.64

23.The Department recognises the importance of the Armed Forces reflecting the make-up of the society that they serve.65 The Commands are reviewing how they communicate with different groups in society and have tried to build relationships with Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities to increase interest in joining the Forces. But the Department told us that it takes time to engage with all communities.66 In the 12 months to September 2017, 9.2% of recruits were from BAME communities, compared to a 10% target. However, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are well below their targets for recruiting people from BAME communities.67 The Department considers the Army has had more success in recruiting people from BAME communities because it has a longer tradition of recruiting outside the usual communities; for example, there are 3,500 Gurkhas, who serve as role models for communities which do not have a tradition of joining the Forces.68 The Department accepted, though, that it needs to do more analysis of the recruitment and training processes to ensure that it does not lose so many people from these backgrounds.69

24.The Department also has a target that, by 2020, at least 15% of its intake will be women but achieved 12.2% in the 12 months to September 2017. The Royal Navy and Army have not yet achieved this recruitment target.70 The target also does not cover the overall level of representation in the Armed Forces, but the Department told us that it plans to publish its level of ambition for gender representation—as a proportion of the size of the force—up to 2030. The Army also plans to open up all roles to women as, to date, they have not been able to take infantry roles.71 It also told us that it regularly consults with the forces of other countries, UK government departments and the Police to identify best practice in building a more balanced gender and ethnic representation.72

25.The Department undertakes a range of activities to increase interest in a career in the Armed Forces. It launched the STEM youth engagement scheme to attract school pupils, particularly 12–13 year olds and young girls, into STEM-based subjects. The Department is also working with the Department of Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to increase the pool of people with STEM-based skills.73

26.The Department was able to provide data on recruitment expenditure.74 It could not, however, explain to the Committee whether increased investment would provide value for money. In addition, it was not able to provide a clear view on whether increased investment in other areas such as bursaries or cadets would be cost effective in improving recruitment. The Department has spent an average of £92 million over the last seven years on reserve forces and cadet associations.75 It told the Committee that cadets who enter the Forces tend to stay longer and do better than other recruits, but it does not collect data on the proportion of cadets entering the Armed Forces. It estimated that this was around 5%.76


37 C&AG’s Report, paras 3.2–3.4

38 Qq 65–67

39 Q 17

40 C&AG’s Report, para 4.3

41 C&AG’s Report, paras 4.7–4.9

42 Q 86

43 C&AG’s Report, para 3.5

44 Q 86

45 Qq 18, 19 and C&AG’s Report, para 1.9

46 C&AG’s Report, para 3.15

47 C&AG’s Report, para 2.16

48 Qq 109, 110

49 Q 109

50 C&AG’s Report, para 17

51 Qq 124–137

52 Qq 127, 134

53 Q 110. ‘Lateral entry’ means direct recruitment into specialist or more senior regular roles.

54 Q 26

55 Q 30

56 Q 115

57 Q 27

58 Qq 125–132, 134–137

59 C&AG’s Report, para 3.20

60 Qq 110, 148–149, 151, 153

61 Q 115

62 Q 68; C&AG’s Report, para 3.16

63 Q 69, 126

64 Q 68

65 Q 68

66 Q 87

67 Q 87; C&AG’s Report, para 1.11

68 Q 88

69 Q 68

70 C&AG’s Report, para 1.11

71 Q 89–92

72 Q 93

73 Q 94

74 Letter from Stephen Lovegrove to Meg Hillier 15 June 2018

75 The Ministry of Defences’ Annual Report and Accounts 2010–11 to 2016–17

76 Q 96; Letter from Stephen Lovegrove to Meg Hillier 15 June 2018




Published: 12 September 2018