Progress on the long road to solving the navy’s manpower problems

Faced with a very serious shortage of technically qualified manpower, which started to become public knowledge last summer, the RN is to be commended for quickly tackling the problem. The underlying causes were not entirely of its own making, although perhaps it should have fought harder to retain more of the engineers made redundant in 2010. There are now 150 separate initiatives to improve conditions and careers for personnel being implemented across the fleet. In the short-term the gaps must be filled as quickly as possible and in the long-term the service must create the conditions that will ensure it retains skilled people in the face of fierce competition with the civilian sector. The problems will not be solved overnight but in time these measures will help restore morale and create a stable manpower situation. It is critical not just for operational readiness, but for the credibility of the service which will be under scrutiny in the coming defence review to demonstrate it can manage its people effectively.

Putting people before programmes

It has been a long a painful road to get here but the RN has now fully recognised that in the past it too often said “Yes, can do” to its political masters when it should have said “No, you have not provided us sufficient resources to meet that tasking”. By striving to meet every demand, at times it asked too much of people and then suffered a backlash in falling morale and subsequent resignations.

There is now a determination amongst senior officers that the service will keep its promises and meet its obligations to people’s welfare. Ships will be kept to more predictable programmes that will allow people to plan time with their families and not have to keep letting them down.

A very tangible demonstration of this commitment was shown when HMS Dauntless was unable to sail for her planned Gulf deployment before Christmas (due to on-going propulsion issues being suffered by the Type 45s). Instead of disrupting the long-planned Atlantic Patrol (South) tasking of HMS Dragon (the only available replacement), it was agreed by government that there would be temporary reduction in RN vessels in the Gulf. HMS Dauntless finally sailed in January and HMS Dragon continues her deployment as planned without the disruption to everyone that a switch in programme would have entailed.

The policy announcement last year that grabbed the headlines was the change from 6-months to a new standard 9-month deployment for some ships but this was accompanied by a raft of new promises to reduce the pressure on sailors. Not only will there be free flights home for 2 weeks mid-deployment, but there was a guarantee not to be sent on another 9 month trips for at least 16 months afterwards. When ships are short of key personnel they will no longer drag people from another ship at very short notice to fill the gap. As a result on at least 2 occasions recently ships have been kept alongside that were materially ready to go to sea, but were short of people.

Obviously from an operational perspective these situations are far from ideal and show how brittle the RN has become. This is a luxury that a ‘peacetime navy’ can probably get away with for a while but the loss of flexibility will weaken the RN’s global presence if applied indefinitely. However the benefits of having happier sailors who are not planning to leave at the earliest opportunity and the resulting manpower stability may far outweigh the temporary operational limitations.

Radical new career paths for RN engineers

For the first time (since the days of direct entry Artificers) the RN is considering taking people with suitable technical qualifications and experience and starting them at Petty Officer (PO) rank. Instead of having to work up from a humble able seaman (AB), new entrants would receive the pay and privileges that the average rating would not get until having served for at least 7 years. This could be a source of grievance from other branches who have had to ‘do their time’ but makes sense if the RN needs good engineers fast. People who already possess many of the required technical skills before joining will save on time and training costs. The challenge will be to quickly give skilled civilians their ‘sea legs’ and blend them into a ship’s company.

There will also be an extension to the system of “golden handshake” and “golden handcuff” bonuses to provide incentives for engineers to join and to remain in the service for longer. This will cost money and create a bigger and potentially divisive mis-match of pay scales across branches but makes sense in the urgent drive to recruit and retain technical staff.

Civilian contractors in the ship’s company?

The RN is also actively trying to re-recruit former marine and weapons engineers, but may find it challenging to win over cynical ex-matelots, some of who were forcibly made redundant and whose current employment conditions may be hard to match. The RN did promise greater civilian support for engineers when ships are alongside but appeared to go a step further when an advert appeared in mid-January on the Ex-Military Recruitment website. Positions were being offered (apparently by Babcock in Plymouth) for civilian weapons maintenance engineers on RN vessels for 4-months periods, although limited to UK waters. The advert was only online for a few days before being withdrawn. Perhaps the implications of reliance on civilians to man warships were deemed too problematic. Having civilians embedded in the ship’s company of operational warships is not without precedent, Chinese laundrymen and civilian NAAFI managers have served at sea for years but their roles cannot be deemed mission-critical.

Helping hands from abroad

Although greeted with hysteria in some sections of the media, the recruitment of up to 100 engineers from foreign navies makes sense in plugging the gaps in the short-term. The US Coast Guard and the Canadian Navy both have more trained engineers than they currently need due to unavailability of vessels. It makes sense for all concerned to offer them postings on RN vessels where their skills can be used and maintained. 4 USCG personnel have started work aboard Type 23 frigates with another batch of 16 arriving soon. A significant number of Canadians and a few New Zealanders, French and even Indian navy personnel may also be joining them in the coming months.

The new face of Royal Navy recruitment

The RN is investing very significantly in recruitment advertising. TV adverts will draw new recruits but also help to subtly reinforce the message to those serving that they have made a good career choice. The TV, radio and online campaign begun in late 2014 marks a big change in strategy. Instead of just highlighting training benefits and cutting edge equipment, the new campaign focuses much more on the person and their journey through the experiences of navy life and how it shapes them. The old “Life without limits” strap line has been made secondary (always bit of a stretch as life in the armed forces clearly has very defined limits!) and replaced with the much stronger “Made in the Royal Navy”. The new campaign has been very successful and applications for new-entry into the navy are buoyant. Of course the bigger challenge lies in retaining this new generation of recruits beyond their late twenties, especially those that acquire technical skills.