This article was number 8 in The Cove's Top 10 Articles of 2022.

Army has a problem. It’s the same problem facing all of Defence and most sectors across Australia’s economy. There simply aren’t enough people to meet the demands of the workforce and the issue is getting worse. Australia needs another 1.2 million workers over the next four years which means employers (including Army) will be competing for an ever-dwindling pool of talent. At the same time, Army has ambitious plans for expansion to meet its own capability requirements set by Government.

How Army recruits and retains its talent is likely to be its greatest challenge over the next decade. For an organisation that (almost exclusively) has to grow and develop its own leaders, it simply cannot afford to lose its talent. And yet, based on the latest retention data, that is exactly what is happening. If there was ever a time to make bold changes to Army’s personnel management, this is it.

After leaving full-time service in Army almost two years ago, I can offer my own perspectives on how private industry is tackling the same challenges and where I think Army can make simple changes to compete effectively for the very same pool of talent.

Recruiting and retaining talent is our highest priority in business. Without it, our company simply ceases to exist. Being good at it requires constant attention, leadership, and a willingness to adapt and try new things. Every time we fail to recruit a candidate or lose an employee to another company, we must look inwards, learn from our experience, and improve. If we fail to undertake this process and give it the attention that it deserves, then we lose our competitive advantage. The same is true of Army.

The first issue I will address is tempo. Army (and Defence more broadly) is too slow when it comes to career management. The issue starts at recruitment where candidates are often forced to wait 6, 12, or even 18 months to start training. Once in the service, postings, transfers, promotions, and even discharges are beholden to a bureaucratic model that almost seems designed to wear people down – or at least make them exceptionally patient!

Recently, my company was referred a candidate on a Thursday. He was interviewed on Friday morning, given an offer that afternoon and commenced work on the following Monday. Creating tempo in personnel management (especially in recruitment) gives your people confidence that your organisation is effective, places a premium on ensuring that their time is valued and not wasted, and is responsive to their needs.

Any argument that Army would be unable to adopt a similar approach to recruitment is often based on the risk posed by not adequately screening candidates for pre-existing injuries or mental health conditions. Yet, such a challenge could likely be solved with a simple waiver process whereby Defence requests the candidate accept the risk that the organisation will not be responsible for pre-existing conditions discovered after their enlistment. Defence’s recent open tender to modernise the ADF Recruitment System provides an important opportunity to find new ways to generate this tempo.

Once established in the workforce, tempo remains equally important. If an employee in private industry is unhappy in their position, it makes no sense to keep them there unnecessarily, simply to ensure that they adhere to a bureaucratic transfer process that we designed. When the risk is that talent leaving to another company and us wasting resources on recruiting a replacement, the decision is invariably a very simple one. Yet, Army rarely applies the same logic.

Requesting to leave a posting early is rarely granted within Army without extenuating circumstances and even still, is rarely actioned with the tempo required to ensure the individual feels their requests are being taken seriously. The argument of ‘service need’ to deny flexibility in Army’s posting system is seemingly ignorant of the very real option that the individual has of simply discharging and seeking employment elsewhere. An Army beholden to an annual posting cycle is not an Army In Motion.

The next issue is agency. Too often, service life removes agency from an individual’s career. Career Management Agencies (CMAs) often proudly claim that ‘you define career success’. The only problem is that ‘you’ don’t define career success if ‘you’ don’t have any agency over your own career. In private industry, everything is a negotiation. An employee can willingly choose to accept an undesirable job to the benefit of the company for any number of reasons that they negotiate with their employer. Such bargaining power rarely exists in Army.

Individuals can request postings through their 5-year plan but there is no obligation on behalf of Army to adhere to it. An individual who decides that they now want to prioritise stability in location over career progression is offered no option to create such an agreement with their Career Manager (CM). Yet, such stability is often cited as a key reason for discharge amongst service personnel with families.

The fascinating by-product of the Total Workforce System is that personnel can now simply transfer to SERCAT 3-5 to avoid a posting and undertake enough reserve days to support themselves financially in the same location. Unit Commanding Officers (COs) are even empowered to recruit the same individual under a SERVOP C contract for what is effectively, full-time service. For want of a more flexible approach to full-time career management, this model makes no sense for an organisation that sees retention as a priority.

The last issue I will address is accountability. Army prides itself on accountability in its leadership model. Yet, when it comes to career management in the posting or Promotional Advisory Committee (PAC) process, no such accountability exists. In my experiences in private industry, it would be inconceivable for a decision-maker to decide about an employee’s career without directly briefing that employee on the decision and why it was made. This is exactly the model that our CMAs adopt though.

CMs will often remind their portfolios that they do not post people – seemingly ignoring the influential role they play in the process. By declaring as much, CMs effectively seek to hide their own agency and remove their accountability. Individuals who are unfortunate enough to not have an active CM may find themselves surprised and disappointed when they receive a posting order that they did not request or want. Yet the CM is under no obligation to personally advise them of such an important decision. Worse still, the moratorium period results in an individual having to seek advice from their chain-of-command who are largely powerless to provide anything other than advice on how to appeal the decision.

Perhaps most frustrating in an individual’s career is the lack of accountability from the decision-makers during the PAC process. At some point in any individual’s career, they are likely to get a disappointing result at PAC for any number of reasons. Yet, it is the CM (who is often not a voting member), or a unit CO (who is not even in the room) that is required to communicate the PAC result and why they voted in that way. Even during the initial recruitment process for ADFA and RMC, the selection board is required to personally brief the individual on their decision, yet such a courtesy is not afforded to someone who after 10, 15, 20+ years of service receives news that likely signals the end of their career progression.

If Army wants to get serious about retaining its talent, it needs to demonstrate more accountability in this process. An individual that does not achieve the next rank, command, or career milestone likely still has several ways that they can contribute to the Army. Yet the PAC process often leaves them feeling dejected and unvalued by an organisation that doesn’t care to properly brief them on its decisions.

The good news is that fixing these issues doesn’t require systemic changes to Army’s systems and processes. Nothing is stopping Defence Force Recruiting and CMAs from creating tempo, agency, and accountability through simple – albeit bold – changes. They simply need to see the issue in the same way that private industry does. Reflect, learn, adapt, and try again. Alternatively, we’re happy to keep recruiting the talent that Army has developed and let slip away.


The Cove Team: We asked CMA and APCB for their comments on this article and their response is below:

The Army People Capability System welcomes articles such as these that stimulate discussion on the challenges Army and the broader ADF face in attracting and retaining talent in a competitive employment market.

The author identifies some good design principles of a contemporary career management/workforce generation system and there are many more that could be included that also account for the organisational and development considerations necessary to deliver current and future workforce capability. The comments of the author in relation to the lack of individual control of their career and the sometimes negative impacts of the Career Management Board (formerly PAC) process are also noted.

Army has acknowledged that it cannot afford to exclusively grow and develop its workforce internally, nor should it continue to define career success as only vertical progression/promotion. A number of new approaches to traditional recruitment and talent recognition are being trialled. The Workforce Mobility Trial and the accelerated and bespoke recruitment processes activated in 2021 aim to improve Army’s ability to laterally onboard members with acknowledgement of their existing skills and rapidly onboard talent within reduced timeframes respectively.

The Total Workforce System (TWS) does provide the option to adopt different patterns or types of service to suit a person’s needs when SERCAT 7 service is not desirable. The TWS aims to provide agility and flexibility to Defence and its members to deliver capability and, with the success of the Flexible Establishment Trial, Army has made considerable headway in using the TWS for its primary purpose. However, it is important to note that there are differences between each SERCAT and SERVOP that affect conditions of service and commensurate benefits. SERCAT 3 or 5 service on SERVOPC is not the same in this regard as SERCAT 7.

Thanks again to the author for their valued contribution.