News from ACMP-CGPM, Belgium “Recruiting and Retaining issues in the Belgian Armed Forces”

On average, almost 15 percent of newly recruited service members forces are already leaving the Belgian armed forces within the year, either on their own request or because they are forced to leave for medical, physical, moral or professional reasons. In 2021 and 2022, the attrition rate even surpassed the 20 percent. Over the period 2020-2022, a total of 7.086 future service members were recruited; by contrast and within the same timeframe, 3.116 service members left or were forced to leave the Belgian armed forces during their basic training. That’s 44 percent.

To put this into perspective: in three years, the Belgian defence organization loses far more people during initial training alone than it recruits on average in one year. This is madness, even more since we didn’t take into account yet the military personnel who leave the defence organization later on during their career at their own request or for medical reasons.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the total military strength of the Belgian armed forces will continue to decline in the coming years, and this despite all the strenuous recruitment efforts.

This disastrous handling of the main ‘wealth’ of the Belgian Defence costs the Belgian tax payer about 50 million euros in ‘wasted’ salaries, infrastructure and lodging costs, clothing, utilities, training equipment, ammunition, etc. a year. That is, without mentioning the huge reputational damage, as people themselves leave the army disillusioned or because they are turned away without much notice.

Social and demographic factors

The Belgian military is struggling to recruit and retain qualified members due to several social and demographic challenges. Profound changes are required for the military to meet its manpower requirements in the coming decades.

Before COVID-19, retention was arguably the Belgian military’s most significant challenge concerning manpower. Retention spiked to a high during the corona pandemic, as service members reenlisted or stayed on board rather than risk the uncertainties of the pandemic job market. But retention plummeted again after the pandemic as businesses began a hiring boom and wage increases. In addition to a retention drop, recent falls in recruitment numbers add to the challenge.

The Belgian armed forces find it hard to recruit and retain mainly due to factors outside its control, starting with the rising cost of military labor which is due to three main reasons.

First, a shortage of people on the labor market means all labor is generally more expensive, while military manning is even more costly as it is a productivity loss compared to private sector economic activity. Since employers are willing to pay top dollar for employees in these times, governments usually must compete by forcing conscription or paying exorbitant prices to their own soldiers.

Second, because labor costs across the economy are increasing, the prices of goods are as well. The military is no exception; its production and logistics tail are affected by price shocks. This forces militaries to choose between manpower, research and development, or production and logistics. The next decade will test all Western defence organizations decision-making paradigm as they need to start factoring rising costs of goods alongside faster-rising costs of military labor.

Lastly, skilled labor and specialized knowledge becomes significantly harder to retain in stagnant population growth economies. The hardest hit military jobs in this economic environment will be highly specialized ones with civilian counterparts. Medical, aviation, cyber and technical jobs already face lower-than-average retention because the civilian pay for these skills far outweighs what the military can offer. While there are intangibles to military service that augment the income, many individuals and families choose to secure better lifestyles outside the military. The military may still be able to recruit effectively with the right messaging, but their Achilles heel will remain retention.

The propensity challenge

Another, and much more challenging factor involves military propensity — the number of young people who are interested in serving in the military. The number of solicitants has fallen significantly in relative terms to two candidates for each vacant job. Only 13 percent of young Belgians said they would consider military service before the pandemic, and that already paltry figure shrank to just 9 percent last year. That number is simply not high enough to ensure the stable flow of recruits upon which the all-volunteer force relies.

Besides, there are some early indications that fewer people in and around the military are willing to recommend military service to young people. In 2017, almost 63 percent of military families said they would recommend military service to someone they care about. Yet that figure dropped to just under 52 percent in 2022, another sharp decline in just five years. Since one third of the young people who join the military today have a family member in the military — it may well be that more military families are steering their children away from uniformed service toward civilian careers.

Possible solutions

Some experts have offered solutions. One is to return to a conscription-based service, combined or not with the all-volunteer force. This would be a grave mistake. We can see how conscription fails modern fighting forces, with Russia in the Ukraine war being a prime example. Conscription will not solve for the highly skilled and specialized knowledge work that modern militaries rely on for command, communication, aviation, or medical. This being said, conscription can, however, offer a solution for the manning of territorial defense units with expeditionary vocation.

A better solution would be to open more education and training opportunities for military members, to retain them longer. The fundamental goal should be to train and retain the highest skillset possible, not necessarily the highest manning. A specific policy proposal would be paid time away from the military for any member who applies and is accepted to graduate level education in needed degree fields. Rather than locking education behind a selection process where commanders hold the keys to opportunities, allow any member of the military to apply to a list of needed degree programs. Upon acceptance the member will be given the opportunity to attend schooling in person, with pay. This could also be used in lieu of current military professional education requirements.

The armed forces must also meet the needs of their members by creating more flexible career paths. The average length a private sector employee stays at one firm is currently 6,5 years in Belgium, yet the military is still relying on lifelong careers for its highest skilled jobs. This affects retention as members today are more willing to leave the military after their commitment due to increased information about job opportunities, pay comparison, and little say over future assignments which affect their family and stability. More flexibility could easily be the option to homestead for one assignment, or the ability to deny one assignment without recourse. While the private sector must deal with people quitting, it’s easier for them to replace lost talent with lateral hires, but the military does not have this option. Commanders must start thinking outside the box concerning career flexibility if they wish to retain this generation’s talent.

Thirdly, extending monetary bonuses for high-demand career fields will become crucial. While there are military bonuses currently for aviation, medical, cyber, and other needed skillsets, these often do not compare to private sector bonuses. Instead of simply raising the bonus to meet private sector levels, another course would be changing the timing for bonuses to when the member has the most to gain by staying in the military. If bonuses only happen when the member has the option to leave, they will compare the military with private sector bonuses and pay. However, if a bonus is offered before a member’s commitment ends, they may be more likely to extend their service since they cannot directly compare civilian pay at that time.

Fourthly, one of the most successful efforts to expand recruit eligibility has been a specific education track “Security and defence” in high schools which prepares interested youngsters for jobs with the police, in the armed forces, emergency services or the larger security sector.  This clever initiative could be expanded with academic and fitness coaching to prospective recruits who fall short in one or both of these areas but are otherwise eligible to serve.

Get serious about recruiting more women. All of the services need to invest far more time, energy, and money in efforts that specifically focus on recruiting qualified women, since an increasing number of women have both the education and skills needed for military service. Although women constitute half of the population between ages 15 and 24, more of them earn high school diplomas every year than their male peers, and more of them attend university and earn advanced degrees. In addition, more young women are physically fit than ever before.

Finally, though the all-volunteer force has been a tremendous success by almost any measure, it has one tremendous Achilles’ heel: It created an ever-worsening gap between the Belgian military and the nation it serves. As noted above, the young people who are most likely to enlist in the Belgian armed forces today are those who know it the best — those who have a relative who is already serving. But that pool is far from large enough to support the long-term health of the force — and citizens all around the country deserve to see and touch the military their tax euros pay for. Most Belgians are deeply ignorant about the their armed forces, so expanding their personal connections with those in uniform is an important first step toward increasing propensity.

Doing so will require the Belgian military to actively reach out to populations in ways that it simply has not done before. The armed forces could, for example, start a program that partners combat units with recruiting offices in a number of  cities around the country to help more Belgians meet people in uniform and see the capabilities of such units. Most of the services could find a way to do similar events, whether at air shows, fleet weeks or open doors that showcase both their people and their platforms. Moreover, the services should expand their recruitment initiatives by sending successful young troops back to their hometown to connect with schools and to help their friends and peers learn about life in the military.

Today’s military is doing a fantastic job of incorporating lessons learned at the tactical and operational levels, making training and mission execution safer and more effective. This deserves praise and is the military’s most significant step forward to capitalize on our manpower better than any previous generation. Yet, to build a military force that achieves mission success in the 21st century, our armed forces must incentivize highly skilled training and education, increase career flexibility, and incentivize its members to stay with a combination of reserve duty and monetary bonuses. In addition, more efforts should be put on reaching out to the society to increase propensity.

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