A new investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens reveals the ongoing challenge, and expense, of recruiting personnel to the armed forces

The Government spends more money per person recruited to the armed forces than it does on recruiting teachers and nurses, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal. 

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests show how advertising spend per armed forces recruit was, on average over a two-year period, more than 10 times higher than the spending of NHS England per new nurse, and seven times higher than the Department for Education spent per new teacher.

It should be noted that our figures do not include the spending by NHS Scotland or Northern Ireland, but these tend to be much smaller, at around £200,000 in Scotland between 2019 and 2020, compared with more than £7 million spent on advertising by NHS England. 

Over two years (2019 to 2021) the Ministry of Defence (MoD) spent nearly £70 million on recruiting new personnel to the Royal Air Force (RAF), the Royal Navy, and the Army. In the same time frame, 31,660 new people signed up to join the armed forces. 

This was nearly double the amount that NHS England spent on recruitment advertising, at £32 million, in which period it recruited 104,638 new nursing staff, health visitors and midwives. The military’s spending also dwarfs that of teacher recruitment: in this period, the DfE launched a £22 million campaign to attract new trainee teachers, while 66,700 teachers joined the profession. 

However, retention of staff is an issue – the NHS currently has 100,000 unfilled vacancies – leading to the Health and Social Care Committee to warn of a workforce crisis impacting patient safety and wellbeing.

While NHS England’s ‘We are the NHS’ campaign was the organisation’s most expensive single recruitment drive, other bodies such as the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) may have run separate, smaller campaigns.

In addition, responding to an FOI request, the DfE stated that: “there are a number of other teacher-training providers, including Teach First and Teach Now, which may also carry out teacher recruitment advertising”. 

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Is It Working?

The figures raise questions about the longstanding challenges faced by the military in persuading a younger generation of new soldiers to join, and of the potential shortfalls in the public-private relationship of military advertising.

The lead advertising message currently employed by the British Army is – ‘Nothing can do what a soldier can do’ – which valorises human fighters over automation. 

It’s the sixth iteration of the ‘This is belonging’ campaign. Other versions focused on targeting ‘phone zombies’ in a similar bid to woo Millennials and Generation ‘Z’. The advertising message was devised in a partnership between the army and outsourcing company Capita, which has worked with the military since 2012. Its contract is worth £1.3 billion. The campaign has helped to revive army recruitment after a recent collapse in sign-ups. 

“The Army has been struggling to hit their recruitment targets for a number of years now,” the charity Forces Watch told Byline Times. “Wider social and demographic changes have reduced enlistment from traditional audiences – young people in their mid to late teens from less affluent backgrounds. Changing attitudes to conflict and foreign policy have also had an impact”.

Previous to the launch of the ‘This is belonging’ campaign, the military had only hit its recruitment targets in two years out of the previous eight

The army is still struggling to recruit soldiers, however, and troop numbers are lower than historic levels. A report from February 2021 found that all but one-of-33 infantry battalions were short of troops. The revelations followed the leak of an MoD report, with the effects blamed on poor pay and the effects of outsourcing.

This is despite the UK armed forces being the only in Europe to routinely accept applications from people who are 16-years-old, and having relaxed its standards for admission. As a 2019 report from the Child Rights International Network (CRIN) highlighted, the forces – mostly the Army – enlist more than 2,000 children per year, largely from underprivileged areas.

Research conducted by the group highlighted that “army recruits under the age of 18 come disproportionately from England’s poorest constituencies. During a five-year period, the rate of recruitment in the age group was 57% higher in the most deprived fifth of constituencies than the least deprived”. This raises further questions of military recruitment methods, many of which are specifically aimed at younger people and those living in working class areas.

“Recruitment marketing now primarily relies on ideas of social mobility and self development, with some references to humanitarian missions and limited conflict scenes added to tick those boxes,” said Forces Watch.

The official annual survey of soldiers in 2019 found that only 44% were satisfied with army life.

The CRIN report also highlighted how the training of young recruits is often a “coercive” process, involving “all-round degradation”, with “stress-related problems in the British military, such as anxiety and depression… twice as common as in civilian life”.

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Military recruitment more broadly has appeared in the news recently in terms of diversity, with right-wing outlet GB News reporting that an RAF boss has quit “amid claims the service has effectively paused white men [sic] recruitment” – claims rejected by the RAF.

As previously reported by Byline Times, diversity within the forces is a longstanding problem. In the Army, for instance, only 0.4% of senior officers are black, despite black individuals making up a higher proportion of army recruits (6.7%) than within the wider British population (3.4%).

Data from the Service Complaints Ombudsman also shows that disproportionate numbers of non-white armed personnel have made complaints of abuse over the past five years. Last year, 15% of complaints were made by people of colour, even though they make up only 8% of the armed forces (including the Navy and the Air Force). 

The Government, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, recently committed to reducing the numbers of troops in the armed forces, with a greater reliance on automation and drone warfare. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is still experiencing a shortfall when it comes to boots on the ground – especially given that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the geopolitical landscape.

Currently, the UK spends around 2% (2.12% as estimated by NATO) of GDP on military spending, at around £48.2 billion. Johnson vowed to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030, in response to Putin’s aggression. 

Liz Truss, who is widely predicted to take over from Johnson in Number 10, has signalled her commitment to increase military spending too, with a plan to commit 2.5% of GDP to defence by 2026 before upping it 3% by 2030.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson told Byline Times: “We are committed to recruiting the right people for the right jobs and ensure our recruitment expenditure delivers value for money for the taxpayer whilst delivering the talent we need. We are proud of the opportunities serving in the armed forces affords young people, from basic literacy education and support for postgraduate degrees, to high-quality accredited training and unique employment prospects”.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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