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How the UK military is using bespoke HR tech to tap private sector talent

The UK armed forces are seeking to modernize their HR tech stack — and their workforce.

Allie Nawrat

Credit: MoD.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is prioritizing cyber skills to attract and retain talent, particularly from the private sector. Unleash Your Recruitment

  • The UK’s MoD has been using HR tech in recruitment since the launch of the DRS in 2017.
  • It’s now taking the lessons learned from the failings of the DRS and launching a new version, the AFRP, in 2024.
  • Alongside this, the MoD’s Strategic Command is finding ways to easily attract private sector cyber talent into military careers.

Like all employers, the UK armed forces and the Ministry of Defence (MoD)’s recruitment policy was disrupted by COVID-19.

Under current COVID-19 restrictions, it is impossible to hold large, in-person job fairs so the MoD, like many others, has been forced to pivot and use technology to continue recruiting during the pandemic, an MoD spokesperson told UNLEASH.

However, this is not the UK military’s first foray into the HR tech space. In fact, it has been using technology in recruitment since the introduction of the Defence Recruiting System (DRS) in 2017.

The DRS was part of a wider Recruiting Partnering project with Capita, which aimed to bring military recruitment into the 21st century, meet recruitment targets, and drive cost savings.

It was an online portal that “delivers detailed analytics and data, provides a one-stop portal where candidates can access all the information they need as well as manage their application”, explains the spokesperson. It also allowed for direct communication between the job candidate and their recruiter.

Shortcomings of the DRS

In 2012, the MoD committed £1.36 billion to the Recruiting Partnering Project, including the DRS, over 10 years, and signed a £495 million contract with Capita to provide recruitment expertise for the same period.

However, five years into the project, in 2017, a House of Commons Public Accounts committee declared the contract a failure.

The launch of the DRS was delayed by more than four years from 2013 to 2017 — and it cost triple the original budget.

A 2018 National Audit Office (NAO) report found the delay was due to Capita’s need to create a bespoke application; the complexity and customization necessary for military recruitment meant an off-the-shelf solution simply wouldn’t work.

Also, Capita “failed to meet the Army’s recruitment targets every single year of the contract – an unacceptable level of service delivery”, according to the House of Commons committee’s report.

The recruitment shortfall between 2013 and 2017 ranged from 21% to 45% of the military’s target.

The challenges in recruitment continued after the DRS was launched, because, according to the NAO, applicants had issues using Capita’s system. As a result, the army received 13,000 fewer applications between November 2017 and November 2018. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were also affected.

The supposed cost savings were not realized, making the whole exercise, in the view of the House of Commons committee, a waste of taxpayer’s money.

Although the committee places a lot of the blame on Capita — since they were responsible for the actual recruitment – it also notes the project was unnecessarily complicated, and badly managed by the military.

The overly restrictive nature of the contract actually impacted the innovation of the recruitment process, with it still taking at least 321 days for over half the applications to be completed in 2018; this is the same as in 2014 before the DRS was launched.

MoD looks to the future with HR tech  

The MoD has learned its lessons and plans to avoid similar mistakes in its future recruitment programs.

To further unify armed forces recruitment, the MoD is working on two initiatives: the engineering skills re-deployment trial (ESRT) and the Armed Forces Recruiting Programme (AFRP).

The ESRT is testing whether the military can use “a bespoke industry-led online recruitment tool to target engineers leaving the aerospace industry and attracting them to careers in defense”, the spokesperson said.

The AFRP, which will replace the DRS, is due to be launched in 2024. In preparation for its launch, the MoD has signed a £2.5 billion deal with consultancy firm Deloitte, according to Civil Service World

The new AFRP will be based on the cloud and aims, like the DRS, to drive efficiencies to help three arms of the armed forces recruit 20,000 personnel, including reserves and regulars, every year.

A formal procurement process for partners began in December 2020; no contracts have been publicly announced to date.

The ultimate aim of the MoD through its new AFRP is to have a “single, truly whole force defence recruitment portal where candidates can access all opportunities across the armed forces,” notes the spokesperson.

To further support the recruitment of reserves, the MOD spokesperson explains the UK armed forces has launched a recruitment website called SERVE or Service for Experienced Re-joiner and Volunteer and Engagements.

SERVE, which was launched in June 2020, will provide an end-to-end service that matches reservists, re-joiners, and veterans “with new opportunities in Defence and to stay in touch with developments in MOD”. It also unifies separate systems currently offered by the Royal Navy, Army, and RAF.

The website relies on technology developed by UK-headquartered recruitment enablement company Oleeo. Oleeo hopes its tech solution will allow the MoD to provide a user-friendly experience to veterans, as well as save the MoD up to £40 million.

Spotlight on cyber recruitment

Technology is becoming central to the military’s recruitment efforts because it allows “us to manage a more complex operation, which better matches our requirements as employers to the individual skills and aspirations of our candidates”, says the spokesperson.

With this in mind, one recent recruitment focus for the MoD has been attracting cyber experts from the private sector.

Although this is something it has been considering for many years, as first reported in the Financial Times, the UK military has now officially moved to relax its recruitment rules to allow cyber specialists from the private sector to enter the military laterally.

Allowing for lateral entry into the military “provides the opportunity for individuals with existing cyber skills to enter the military above base rank, recognizing the expertise and experience they bring,” notes the spokesperson.

The spokesperson adds that this move is not about lowering barriers to entry to the military, but “about finding diverse ways of attracting people into roles in cyber, which is fast becoming one of the most competitive talent markets.”

To further attract as diverse a cyber workforce, the MoD and its cyber leadership organization Strategic Command have also engaged in outreach programmes, including Cyber First, Code First Girls and Black Codher.

The aim is to demonstrate that working for the UK military is “a rich and rewarding career that includes opportunities for development and growth that you wouldn’t get anywhere else”, according to the spokesperson.

[Read more: How virtual recruitment tech is boosting diversity.]

Deep dive into the MoD’s new cyber strategy

Attracting private sector cyber specialists to the military is just one corner of Strategic Command’s cyber recruitment strategy.

This strategy will also offer all existing military employees a cyber aptitude test; this is due to be launched later this year. Those found to have the right skills will be offered further training and a path into a cyber-focused role, according to the Financial Times.

In its recently published report titled ‘Defence in a competitive age,’ Strategic Command discussed how the UK military is keen to “attract and retain a diverse, inclusive, motivated and professional workforce [… ] equipped with the specialist skills required for contemporary conflict and competition”.

Focusing on cyber skills, the newly created National Cyber Force and Space Command will lead the way in finding the best talent to recruit from.

The National Cyber Force will also support the UK government’s focus on turning the UK into a responsible cyber power on the world stage.

According to a recent policy review, cyber power “supports economic growth, enabling businesses and individuals to transition confidently to the digital world, boosting productivity and driving the innovation that will create new skilled jobs”.

As a result, the government wants to strengthen the UK’s cyber ecosystem, which includes “deepening the partnership between government, academia and industry. We will take a more coherent approach to skills, recruitment, R&D, exercising and innovation across defensive and offensive cyber”.

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