· Features

You're in the Army now

Brigadier Jolyon Jackson needs to recruit 9,000 soldiers annually, just to stand still - and then they only stay four years. He's got some refreshing ideas and definitely doesn't want clones, he tells our man on the parade ground, Peter Crush.


It is not often that an organisation is explicit about only wanting half of all its new joiners to stay for more than four years - especially when the cost of recruiting each one has reached an eye-watering £17,000. But this mantra of the British Army (which, despite cost-cutting, still requires 9,000 new soldiers each year just to stand still), identifies it as no ordinary organisation. It is an employer whose recruits join with the foreknowledge that their employment will be one of short (but intense) and highly dedicated service (average stint is spot on target, at 3.7 years) but that, after this, they are required to move on to the next phase of their career on Civvy Street (now also the name of the service leavers' website).

For this reason, when it comes to soldiers leaving and finding work elsewhere, the process doesn't start with outplacement services (such as the MoD's Career Transition Service) at all, but at the very earliest stage. "Soldiers are recruited on the basis that they will leave," says Brigadier Jolyon Jackson, director of recruitment and training (operations) for the British Army. "For employers to receive the best people after they leave us, it is obvious that the very best have to have been recruited in the first place."

Jackson is quite clear that he is not recruiting people he thinks will make good office workers. He is recruiting for his own immediate needs: finding soldiers - a refreshingly pragmatic view from the former Royal Green Jacket commander. It is especially so after a long summer of largely negative press about the army's seeming inability to help retiring or early army leavers to reintegrate into normal working life. It led to a clutch of new privately-run pressure groups and recruiters forming, including Hire a Hero, SoldierOn and ForceSelect, all championing what they feel are the often ignored skills of ex-army personnel. It even led this magazine to launch its own 'See the Best' campaign (see page 55).

However, Jackson believes he is slowly addressing all these perceptions (some unfounded, he argues), by gradually getting his own initial recruitment process right.

"There is still a perception the army scrapes the bottom of the barrel, that we take the people no-one else wants," he says with disappointment. "We're nothing like TV programmes such as Bad Lads Army (which whips delinquent youths back into shape using gob-spitting, shouting sergeant majors)." He adds: "While it's still true we don't take a lot of notice of the grades that come to us, the average soldier joining the Army today is actually only about 1%-2% off from the education level of the average UK citizen. Employers do not often realise this."

In this respect, Jackson recruits as many other organisations would - for what he says is people's "innate ability" and "how we can bring it out". When he first took over responsibility for recruitment in 2009, 'wastage' was running at 35% of all recruits leaving within a year after receiving their commissions. That year, annual recruitment spend hit £95.1 million (up 30% from six years earlier), and the level of drop-outs was completely unsustainable. To make matters worse, that year too recruitment was 10% below what was needed, leading to some in the army questioning whether Poles and other European settlers could be given dispensation to join and make up the numbers. Recently, this problem has abated, as a surge in national pride for 'our boys' has seen a 25% increase in numbers applying. However, this presents its own problems and Jackson says his recruitment is now focused more on getting rid of those who will drop out (if they really must) before they actually enter paid service.

"We have about 100,000 people apply to us each year, and these will straight away be whittled down to nearer 30,000 that will go forward to selection," he says, adding "we are very ruthless about what we want. Those we remove immediately will go out of the system forever. Of the 30,000 left, only about 9,500 will make it to the end of their basic training."

Although it might appear harsh, selection this way is designed to eliminate what Jackson refers to as "surprises", where people only realise what the army is about when it is too late. "Getting the recruitment right reduces the shock of 'capture'. We want people training with no surprises. That's our motto."

Shock about what army life really entails is a more modern problem.

"Back in 1963, the year conscription finished, 95% of the population knew someone who was in, or had been in, the army," says Jackson. "Today, the figure is more like 10%. The country has lost its familiarity with what the Army is about. It explains why some people think it's not for them once they start the recruitment process."

Jackson is determined to get on top of this, insisting that better recruited personnel will benefit him and the army, and eventually the rest of the workplace as a whole when they leave and find work elsewhere. "My project," he reveals, "is what I call working out the DNA of the soldier. "I'm fascinated by finding out what it is that makes a good soldier and what it is that doesn't. The aim is to be able to tailor the training that recruits receive in their initial 14-week training period to be more personal. Why, for example, should faster learners have to wait for others around them to catch up? We should be taking more of an individual approach. Things that will help us achieve this include looking at graded selection, values-based leadership training, continuous improvement assessment, and even train-the-trainer responsibilities."

It is during this part of the conversation that Jackson uses less 'army-speak' and instead has the man-on-the-street common touch about him. "The DNA bit is all about the fact that the more you know about someone, the more you know what to do with them," he says simply. "Our philosophy of teaching is changing. If we acknowledge we have diverse people (diverse in all respects - women recruits are now at 7.7% and ethnic minority recruits are 3.3%), then it's better than having a set of clones."

For an organisation perceived as all about stripping out individuality and turning people into a homogeneous mass that does as it's told, admitting the army does not want 'clones' is a big statement. Jackson goes further: "The sort of person that leaves the army now is very different to 20 years ago and the sort of person that leaves after this change of training will be different again," he says. "We are acknowledging you have to understand people in a better way than we used to."

Since Jackson arrived, channels aimed at attracting recruits have expanded to include the web (YouTube/Facebook) and viral. He says he would like to get to the point where he can identify which channels attract the best (most successful) recruits. Until then, he says he will try to work with businesses to make sure they are up-to-date with his new values-driven approach to recruitment and development. "The corporate world is lagging behind in its awareness about the type of people we pick and the skills we give them," he concedes. "The fact of the matter is, the army is actually the largest awarder of qualifications in the country, but this isn't well publicised."

Future plans include tentatively partnering with more further education colleges to map the skills soldiers habitually display into hard qualifications (something it already does with Kent College), although Jackson says he won't be pushed into doing this if he doesn't feel it adds value. "We don't always like saying 'this army role is equivalent to that civilian role', even if we know ourselves that a battalion major probably has more management skills than someone fresh off an MBA," he says.

"Qualifications have become a bit cheap and nasty; just dishing them out would be the wrong way of going about things. We feel we, just like other employers, want functional skills instead of lists of theoretical skills. You shouldn't have every sergeant-major coming out saying they can manage an M&S store. That wouldn't be realistic.

"The first thing we need to address is people coming out of the army and being too modest about the skills they have," he adds. "It's not enough to just capture qualifications. We're leading new initiatives on CV-writing training, because the default image an employer has of our people is that they are 'a soldier', without knowing what that means. It is for soldiers themselves to be able to talk to employers about the skills they've got and how they can apply it to their business. That's the Rubicon we need to cross."

With 10,000 soldiers due to leave the army this year, all vying for fewer new jobs, commentators say they still face an uphill battle. But week-long 'Insights' courses and 12-26 week preparation courses with FE colleges are paving the way to help exiting soldiers to have realistic chances of breaking into the corporate world and starting the rest of their lives. It is to be hoped that employers will recognise that a better calibre of personnel has been recruited by the army in the first instance, and it is employers who must now seek them out.


33% of recruits come from initial contact with army recruitment offices

27% of its recruitment budget is spent on advertising

20% of recruits have previously been involved with the Army Cadet Force


Between 20,000 and 24,000 regular personnel leave the armed services every year, but military charities say many still struggle to find meaningful careers. HR magazine believes armed forces personnel represent a hidden, but highly qualified, pool of labour. Many employers misunderstand the skills these people have and services staff often undersell the skills they can bring to an organisation.

Our See the Best campaign is designed to encourage HRDs to recognise the talents of military personnel and treat these people as untapped talent. We want to hear from you and will showcase the best employers that are recognising the talents of military personnel. For more on the campaign, including Peter Crush's trip to Afghanistan, please go to www.hrmagazine.co.uk and search for See the Best.