The army is courting Britain’s biggest businesses as recruiting sergeants, as it steps up plans to draft thousands more reservists into its ranks by 2020.
A cadre of officers at army headquarters are now permanent “account managers”, dedicated to working with large companies, and smoothing their relations with the military. Financial incentives for businesses are being boosted on a “no questions asked” basis and civilian qualifications are being built into training programmes — all measures designed to make the private sector embrace a commitment to military service for their employees.
“We’re now trying to manage our relationships with the top 200 employers [in the UK] like any business would, in a businesslike, coherent and consistent way,” said Major General John Crackett in an interview with the Financial Times. “Employers and the extent to which they support the reservist service are very, very important to us.”
Maj Gen Crackett — a former board director of EON UK and chief executive of electricity distributor Central Networks — is the highest ranked reservist in the forces. This week he will take up a position on the army board to spearhead the drive to rejuvenate the reserves policy.
“I’m a businessman more than I’m an army officer,” the general said, speaking from his new offices at Marlborough Lines, the army’s headquarters in the Hampshire countryside. “I think I’m in a good position to interpret what businesses think and basically it’s all about cost benefit. The costs of having an employee who is a reservist are pretty obvious.”
The military, Maj Gen Crackett said, must get better at selling the benefits.
“Reservists, if you think about them, are fit, they’re more self-confident, they’re more self-disciplined, they tend to be more loyal — they just make better employees,” he said.
“We want to move businesses through three stages. One is commitment and attitude — getting businesses to say yes . . . we have an understanding of the costs and benefits. The second is we’d like to get businesses to display supportive behaviours — changing personnel policies to be more flexible and granting more paid leave. The third is we’d like to make some larger businesses into exemplars and advocates — so people will say, on our behalf, this really does work for us.”
The ranks of Britain’s full-time fighting force were severely reduced as part of the Ministry of Defence’s 2010 cost-cutting measures, but a commitment was made to significantly increase the size — and operational scope — of part-time soldiers. The “army 2020” plans for land forces had a goal of recruiting 30,000 reservists to stand alongside a regular force of 82,000.
The last government struggled to build momentum for the plan. Reserve recruitment numbers stubbornly refused to budge in 2013 and 2014. Officials in Whitehall and the army’s general staff blamed the improving economy, poor outreach efforts and a failure to explain the role of a modern reservist.
“It’s true that perhaps people formed an expectation that reservists in the future were going to be mobilised every five minutes for long periods — that was never our intention, but it is something we’ve had to row back from,” said Maj Gen Crackett. The process, he added, has been like “turning a supertanker around”.
Critics say the military is still struggling to articulate what it wants from its part-time soldiers. The reserves are now a “completely professionalised” force, said the general, which bears little resemblance to the territorial army of the past, the appeal of which was to those — like himself — who were looking for “a bit of aggressive camping”.
The new reserves are not expected to be deployed on the front lines in any regular fashion and the most prized recruits are far from the aggressive “warrior types” sought in the past, where the main goal of the military was to “stop the Russian hordes crossing the inner German border”.
Indeed, at the forefront of the plan to co-opt blue-chip businesses, said Maj Gen Crackett, is the need to find cyber and tech specialists to swell the ranks of the military’s new — and highly secret — offensive digital fighting force.
“A big plank of the defence approach to cyber is that there are people doing this every day in big companies around the land, and there are probably people sitting in their bedroom more expert than anybody we’ve got in the army.”
Trying to get such people to become full-time soldiers is near impossible, said the general, but the reserves are a potential route through which their skills can be utilised.
“We’re going specifically to companies where these kind of people work — companies like Hewlett-Packard, for example — and having a dialogue with them about how they can selectively market what we do to their employees. I’m delighted to say that a lot of them are very supportive.”