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The Public Accounts Committee has recently been looking into the issue of the growing shortage of skills in some critical areas of the Armed Forces. These gaps are seen by some to be an indication of a potential future inability to staff posts in key “high-tech” areas such as advanced maintenance tasks for the latest equipment coming into service. In addition, the whole topic of cyber-defence is now coming under increased scrutiny as threats from national players replace the somewhat old-fashioned notion that a “Hacker” was typically some geeky young person working alone at night in a basement.

The scrutiny from Public Accounts Committee is in addition to that of the Defence Committee which has expressed some reservations about the MOD’s Modernisation Defence Programme (MDP). MDP  was proposed as a way of separating the Armed Forces from the overall management of the nations’ security to allow for the possibility of increased funding as opposed to controlling defence expenditure as part of a fiscally-neutral approach to security as a whole.  (See TMT article: What-is-modernising-defence-programme-why-do-we-have-it, published on 7th July.)

The report below is extracted from the House of Commons elect Committees pages. It contains statements from the summary as well as extracts from the actual report, presented in italics. Links to the full report are given below. 

All words and images Crown copyright.


MoD Soldiers

The Public Accounts Committee report finds department should innovate to recruit and retain people with specialist skills required.

Armed forces have skill shortages in over 100 critical trades

In January 2018, the Armed Forces had the largest shortfall of regulars for many years. It has skill shortages in over 100 critical trades. This is a longstanding problem and the Ministry of Defence does not expect to close the shortfall of 8,200 regulars until 2022 at the earliest.

The Armed Forces need sufficient skilled personnel to meet the Government’s defence objectives and respond to the rapidly changing threats to the UK. The Ministry of Defence (the Department) is considering the capabilities and skills needed within the Armed Forces to meet these threats. However, in January 2018 it had 137,300 trained regulars, 8,200 (or 5.7%) fewer than it needed, and it will increasingly need more regulars with technical and digital skills. It faces external competition to recruit and retain the specialist skills that it needs at a time when it is already managing significant financial pressures. In 2016–17, the Department spent £9.6 billion on military personnel, which is 27% of the overall defence budget. Economic, social, cultural and demographic changes within the United Kingdom also mean that the Department must think differently about how it recruits and retains personnel. It, therefore, faces significant challenges in developing the skilled personnel it needs to meet the future ambitions for the Armed Forces and exploit its investment in new equipment.

So far, the Department states that it has managed to deliver defence operations by prioritising its commitments and placing additional demands on regulars. But this approach is not sustainable in the long-term, particularly as the nature of warfare is evolving rapidly, and the Department increasingly needs more specialist technical and digital skills to respond to threats to national security.

MOD has not developed a coherent plan for closing the existing skills gap

It currently has skill shortages in critical trades, including a 23% shortfall in pilot trades; a 26% shortfall in intelligence analyst trades; and a 17% shortfall in engineers. The Department has not developed a coherent plan for closing the existing skill gaps and securing the new skills that it will need. It has relied too much on long-established and conservative approaches and has been slow to respond to the changing external environment. Its initiatives to improve recruitment have been small-scale and piecemeal, and the changes to regulars’ terms and conditions have not yet helped retention.

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. 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.

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.

The Department was able to provide data on recruitment expenditure. 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. 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%.

The Department needs to:

  • develop and implement a strategy to close existing skill gaps and secure the new skills that it needs;
  • make better use of the extensive data it collects to understand the causes of shortfalls in critical trades; and
  • exploit more innovative approaches to recruiting and retaining people with specialist skills.

Chair’s comments

Comment from Committee Chair, Meg Hillier MP:

“The Government’s ‘make do and mend’ approach to staffing its defence commitments cannot continue. Muddling through is unsustainable—a point underlined by the fact that twice as many Forces regulars describe morale as ‘low’ than did so at the start of the decade. The MOD must ensure the Armed Forces have the skilled personnel they need to tackle established and emerging threats to national security. A creative, effective workforce strategy is long overdue but will be vital if the stresses of today are not to become the crises of tomorrow.”

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