Eye On Defence: Showing Recruits The Money

March 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine

by David J. Bercuson

The new LAV III armoured personnel carrier is featured in new commercials for recruiting young people into the Canadian Forces.

Coming at you, in full stereo sound, on the wide screen: a crashing LAV III armoured personnel carrier in Canadian Army camouflage, charging full bore across the landscape complete with driver and crew. Next, a Griffon helicopter making a wide-sweeping turn, banking hard as it comes around for another pass. The announcer’s voice booms through the theatre: The Canadian Forces want YOU!

The CF’s latest all-out recruitment drive began in January with spanking new commercials shown in movie theatres and on specialty TV channels across the nation. The commercials are very good. The people who made them understand that men and women who want to be soldiers are not the ordinary breed of briefcase-toting Canadians. Sure, Canadians who aspire to be military want career opportunities, with long-term prospects of interesting work at satisfactory rates of pay. But they also want adventure, difficult physical and mental challenges, comradeship, a chance to play with big and very exciting toys, and the sometime possibility of real danger that sets military life off from just about every other career on earth.

The CF recruiting commercials are exciting, vibrant, and colourful. They’ll appeal to that very group of bright and extraordinary youngsters that the Canadian Forces so badly needs to fill its depleted ranks. And if they do attract prospective soldiers, sailors, or airmen and airwomen to Canadian Forces recruiting centres across the nation, recent changes to recruitment practices and procedures will help the Forces get them to sign on the dotted line.

Recruiters are being taught the essentials of salesmanship. There is three times more money available for recruitment advertising this year than there was last. Much of the preliminary testing–for aptitude, medical status, etc.–will now be done right at the recruitment centre. Attestation procedures are being streamlined. So are ways of digging out career information for former CF members who want to re-enlist. Geographic quotas have been eliminated. There will be more than double the number of basic recruit courses in future than there was in the recent past.

These changes have been designed to draw more people in to the recruitment centres, sign them up more quickly, and get them into uniform and out into the training centres faster than ever. With numbers lagging below the rates established in the Regular Force–and well below establishment in the Reserves–the Forces have been fighting a losing battle against a buoyant economy and a roaring job market. Recent wage and salary hikes in the Forces, and quality-of-life spending increases, have helped to some extent, but numbers have continued to fall.

In an era when an infantryman commanding a LAV III may need more technical proficiency than a lab technician, the CF cannot fill recruitment quotas by dropping basic requirements, as it did at times in the past. The problem is not simply attracting bodies–which is always easily done if standards are lowered far enough–but minds which are keen, intelligent, knowledgeable, and willing to stay past a first contract.

Once recruited, can the CF retain? That is an equally tough challenge. It is one thing to attract potential soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen to the CF, even to convince them to try the Forces for a few years. But there is no point recruiting the very best people if they are going to disappear onto civvy street within three years or so of joining up. Good people who try the CF and find it lacking, and leave, are not simply a waste of major resources, they are a loss of the good foundation material that tomorrow’s CF so badly needs.

It isn’t hard to draw a list of measures the CF could take to improve retention. Given that the CF’s own data shows that Canadian youngsters are staying in school longer and trying to get more education under their belts before hitting the job markets, for instance, why not offer cash bonuses towards post-secondary education for years served? The United States has had real success with a similar scheme.

Funds could be offered to help train or educate spouses and children of military members. Vacation bonuses, or guaranteed periodic vacation leave built into career paths, might help. So would better visitation programs for members on six-month rotations.

The problem with all such schemes is that there isn’t enough money. On the current budget the Canadian Forces cannot devote more resources to quality-of-life improvement for individual members while at the same time fighting “rust out.” And although the best and most advanced kit in the world cannot substitute for innovative, imaginative, intelligent, motivated, and courageous military members, good soldiers fighting with outmoded kit are as much a recipe for disaster as vice versa.

At bottom, a military is a team, held in place by a chain of command, working–and fighting–together. That means successful retention is always going to depend on the status of the whole organization. If the government treats recruitment and retention as byproducts of modernization, advanced training, and acquisition of the best kit for those jobs the CF may be required to do, there is an excellent chance that the Canadian military will be well prepared for the challenges this century will bring.  But if eager young men and women are brought in the front door only to leave, disillusioned, within a few years because the facilities, equipment, and training of the Canadian Forces are not absolutely first class, then more harm will have been done than simply living with the status quo.

From baseball players to militaries, our society shows what it values by how much it is prepared to spend. The best commercials in the world won’t change that.

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