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Retention problems in the British military


Army.ca Fixture
Fallen Comrade
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Start and en of a long post at Thin Pinstriped Line--CAF relevance?

"Everybody Fights. Nobody Quits". Retention & Reward in the Armed Forces.

100% of people who join the British Armed Forces will, at one point or another leave.

These reasons will vary – some will retire after a long career, others will leave their basic training establishment at the earliest possibly opportunity. Some will soldier on for a few years then walk away, others will be killed.

This is perhaps useful context for the news that the MOD has launched a review into retention to understand why there has been an increase in personnel leaving the military at earlier than expected points, and what can be done to fix this challenge.

The peculiar challenge of a military career is that, at present, it relies almost exclusively on direct entry at the most junior point in the system, which then feeds the manpower pyramid. The system relies on recruiting plenty of junior people, with numbers thinning the further up the ranks you go. This pyramid theoretically reduces manpower numbers, reflecting the diminished requirement for more senior personnel in general.

This principle works well when the manpower flow is steady, and retention rates are within expected norms – e.g. people will always leave, but the overall manpower levels at each rank/rate are sufficient to keep generating enough people for the future career structure.

The problem strikes when too many people leave too quickly, causing a deficit in the system that can take decades to iron out. For instance, if too many junior Royal Navy engineers leave now, then there is a gap working its way through the system where the manpower planners either have to accept a gapped post (and the potential risks that this brings for a ship or shore post without a suitably qualified Petty Officer available) or potentially promote someone early, before they have had enough experience to fill this gap, presenting both a training and experience risk, but also creating a gap at the previous level which then needs to be filled...

Fundamentally though the decision to leave is an intensely personal decision and taken for very different reasons. Studies into retention can only go so far in to understanding the decisions people make, or why they choose to walk away.

As an example, Humphrey chose to leave the Reserves when he found himself looking likely to deploy on another operational tour at very short notice that his personal circumstances meant he couldn’t support that specific rotation of. The choice was stark to either mobilise or resign, and he reluctantly chose to resign.

In itself this is a normal story, but what it doesn’t capture is the wider factors of feeling frustrated at a system that had not upheld promises made in previous years about promotion and recognition, and the sense of being forced to go yet again because others were unwilling to mobilise and finding reasons not to go. It was also about looking for leadership and reassurance and some kind of compromise offer that would meet half way – recognition that he was being expected at a couple of  weeks notice to upend his life for 6-9 months and do significant damage to his normal career, but without any kind of incentive or reason to do so, particularly after several years of TELICS and HERRICKs and the associated challenges this posed.

Coming on the back of frustrations about a system that he’d probably spent too long in without a break, and feeling that no one out there was reaching out to try and to talk him into staying, the decision to submit a resignation letter was hard but then very easy. Paradoxically, a well-judged intervention or conversation about what could be done better to help see light at the end of the tunnel and find a compromise acceptable to both would probably have saved the reserves from losing someone.

This personal example is given because it shows that for all the demands to do a study and find a solution, there isn’t necessarily a simple set of reasons and answers. The reasons Humphrey left were utterly different to why many of his peers left both regular and reserve service, and any solution proposed here would probably not have worked for them.

The military needs people to leave every year – not just through resignation, but also to keep the force fresh and talent flowing upwards. If everyone stayed then promotion would slow to a crawl and people would be frustrated and unable to progress.

Retention is as much about understanding how to look after people, ensure they are treated properly and that they and their families are not messed around as it is about offering a blank cheque. At its heart, retention is as much about taking someone for a coffee or chatting on the phone about their prospects and investing in them as it is about career management.

At its heart, retention is everyone’s business.


- mod edit to fix thread title -
* Mods I thought we had a Type 45 Daring threads. Pls move post if it can be found. Cheers.

Kind of a sad state for the RN T45 class- note one tied up due to lack of crew and one laid up 4 years (so far) for an engine upgrade that has yet to start:  https://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/minister-tells-head-of-the-royal-navy-to-make-increasing-warship-availability-a-priority/

Note also these ships were built with a lot of capability in the design, but other than AAW and the main gun they barely function in any other role. Hope they (and we) don’t do the same with the T26.
MarkOttawa said:
Start and en of a long post at Thin Pinstriped Line--CAF relevance?


"Retention is as much about understanding how to look after people, ensure they are treated properly and that they and their families are not messed around as it is about offering a blank cheque. At its heart, retention is as much about taking someone for a coffee or chatting on the phone about their prospects and investing in them as it is about career management."

OK, so this never happened at all when I was there. It didn't really factor into the decision to leave, but just sayin'....

I don’t understand why anybody would not want to be “retained” in an army that produces awesome videos like this: https://twitter.com/thinkdefence/status/1230910086895284224?s=20
CloudCover said:
I don’t understand why anybody would not want to be “retained” in an army that produces awesome videos like this: https://twitter.com/thinkdefence/status/1230910086895284224?s=20

Well, their "Snowflakes" campaign last year was the most successful in quite a few years. Go figure.

FJAG said:
Well, their "Snowflakes" campaign last year was the most successful in quite a few years. Go figure.


The problem seems to be retention, not recruiting....

British Armed Forces have retention, not recruitment crisis, new figures show

The British armed forces now have a retention crisis rather than a recruitment crisis, new figures suggest, as modern soldiers are no longer willing to move around the world.

Government data released on Thursday revealed that the strength of the British military fell for the ninth year in a row.

The figures also showed that recruitment is increasing but the Army, with 74,400 regular fully-trained troops, is over 7,000 short of the target figure of 82,000, a deficit of over nine per cent.

The Royal Navy and Royal Marines with 29,090 “full-time trained strength” are under the requirement of 30,600, and the RAF, with 29,930 personnel, is six per cent under the MoD’s target of 31,840.

A survey of those leaving the armed forces reveals that the recruitment crisis is largely down to personnel being unwilling to uproot their families to move posting.

Most service leavers - 61 per cent - went for voluntary reasons, with just over a quarter reaching the end of their engagements and around 14 per cent leaving for medical or compassionate reasons, being discharged for poor conduct or dying whilst in service.

Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith said: “Ministers are either in complete denial about this crisis in recruitment and retention, or they are actively in favour of cutting the Armed Forces to these historically low levels.

“The new Defence Secretary should come clean about which it is.”

RAF personnel were pivotal in saving the Toddbrook Reservoir dam near the village of Whaley Bridge. Here a Chinook Mk6a helicopter is directed from the ground as it approaches the dam. Aug 6, 2019.  Credit: Cpl Rob Travis/MoD/PA 

However, the data show that Britain’s armed forces may actually be suffering a retention, rather than recruitment crisis.

Encouragingly for the MoD, the figures show that recruitment is increasing, possibly indicating that controversial campaigns such as the Army’s ‘Snowflake’ series resonated with target audiences.

The recruitment campaign - officially called  ‘Your Army Needs You’ - caused controversy when launched in January this year as it featured Kitchener-style illustrations of soldiers with labels such as ‘snowflakes’, ‘phone zombies’, ‘binge gamers’ and ‘selfie addicts’. 

Lieutenant General Tyrone Urch, Commander Home Command, said at the time: "You may feel like the army is dumbing down on who it seeks to recruit as these ads are a change to the norm, [but] the army is open for business".

But more worryingly for the military the new personnel statistics suggest the trend for servicemen and women is against regular employment, with Britain’s reserve forces enjoying an increase in numbers as the regular totals decline.

It is not possible to prove that the increase in part-time military service has been exclusively filled by ex-regular service personnel, but all three services have shown an increase in reserves and decrease in regulars in recent years.

Possible reasons for dissatisfaction with military service and the decline in numbers were shown in the recent Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey.

The top factor influencing people to leave was ‘impact of service life on family and personal life’, which was cited by 62 per cent of service leavers’ as a reason for going.

The second most stated reason, at 56 per cent, were job opportunities outside the service, a constant drain on military personnel when the country experiences high employment.

The impact of service life on a spouse or partner’s career was cited by half of service leavers as the reason they ‘turned to the right’; the military expression for leaving. 

Collectively the figures suggest the military, which is always criticised for being 20 years behind wider society, is experiencing changes the civilian workforce went through a generation ago and the MoD can no longer expect partner’s of service personnel to not have their own careers and to move every two to three years.

Sasha Lilley, who served in the RAF for 12 years alongside her husband and has two children, both of which had been to four nurseries before the age of five, said: “I’m a very different woman from the one who joined the military. As I’ve got older I’ve changed and the military can’t accommodate me anymore.

“We can’t keep resettling the family and we’re not prepared to do that anymore. The military is too inflexible.

"I'll always be a working mother, but when I went back after maternity leave whilst I thought 'thank god', it was written on their faces - why are you 10 minutes late? I couldn't explain that I'd just spent 10 minutes on the way to nursery staring at a fascinating puddle."

daftandbarmy said:
The problem seems to be retention, not recruiting....

That raises an interesting issue with respect to British Reservists.

There's been a great move to increase trained reserve strength to compensate for regular force reductions under the "Army 2020 Refine" restructure and the previous "Future Reserves 2020" white paper.

Under FR20, parliament appointed an "External Scrutiny Team" to report to them annually on the progress of the plan (presumably because they didn't trust the regular force Col Blimps to implement it). The Team's 2019 report mentioned that originally there was a fairly good rate of employing reservists on full time force exercises and operations (back in 2012 there was about 6.7% reserve involvement but that has dropped to 2.2% in 2017/18 and that there was ministerial direction to up that to 5% and 8% in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

The team was quite concerned if opportunities dry up it will negatively effect reserve retention. I tend to think that overuse could lead to the same thing.

There is certainly a trend under FR20 to use reservists more on "routine" operations and exercises which can be disruptive to civilian employment and careers. I'm not sure if the Brits have the philosophy quite right here and what will happen if volunteers start to dry up.

Actually, T6 (and I know this is a difficult concept for Americans  ;) ) for Canadians and most Western Europeans, more pay is not a panacea that solves all hardships. Issues of quality of life and of family life are of greater importance. Both Canadians and Europeans have a much lower number of "marry-have-kids-stay-at-home-little-wife" than the US, so for us, a spouse that can achieve a reasonable career progression that satisfies his/her life work objectives and good work/life balance is important.

I note from the article that the RN seems to have a much smaller problem than the Army and RCAF, and funny enough, just like us in Canada, they have a system that basically home ports the crews for most of their career. It's fairly easy for spouses to have a good established life and job around Plymouth or Portsmouth (OK, for submariners, it's not as easy in Faslane, because, who's English/Welsh/Irish's spouse wants to be stuck in Scotland - I ask you  ;D ) and during the occasional posting to Admiralty in London, you can easily commute on week-ends.

tomahawk6 said:
How about more pay

You're not wrong there....

....compared to other armies the pay is cr*p. The living conditions are also, in some cases, medieval. Literally if you wind up guarding places like Edinburgh castle ;0

The other issue is the unrelenting pace of activity at the battalion level. The British solider is out of barracks, or the country, an average of 9 months of the year or so on operations/exercises/long courses etc. They can't just drive to Wainwright/Gagetown etc for a BGp level live fire ex, for example, so they have to go to Canada/Kenya etc....

On top of that, unless things have changed that much (which I hear it hasn't), the arms plot has the battalions upping stakes and moving every couple of years or so. This would be like every infantry unit in Canada moving their base locations every 2 years or so from Wainwright, to Gagetown, to Shilo to...... For many NCMs, a posting to the Infantry Depot is the longest period of time they've ever spent in one location where they can be home for dinner every night, almost.

The Royal Marines were more predictable in many ways as they have fixed unit locations in Arbroath, Bickleigh etc so, kind of like the Navy, you know you were going to be based in one of three or four locations during you career.

The strain on members and families, especially at the NCM level, is significant as a result, and divorce rates etc were always high.

The upside? You get a really well trained unit that can deploy almost anywhere, at short notice, to k*ck a$$ in a variety of ways.