Building a strong future workforce to safeguard the nation

By Nigel Lowe

It has been a turbulent time since the 2021 Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy. Seismic events have impacted the UK and continue to have far reaching consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the tilt to the Indo-Pacific all point to a more volatile, contested world, and redefined the expectations of work.

The UK defence industry currently employs over 160,000 people. However, 83 percent of key decision-makers fear technological lag due to a lack of skills, while 33 percent of employers recognise deficiencies in cyber and digital. The pace of technological change, and the ability of agile adversaries to exploit it, calls for a totally new approach to talent.

As competition for individuals with technical skills intensifies, how can the UK defence industry address workforce challenges to create a more secure future?

Think and behave as an ecosystem

UK defence industry organisations are increasingly competing both within the defence enterprise and with other high-tech industries for the same talented individuals. Competition in the market for tech specialists is intense, and it’s difficult to compete with private organisations that tempt individuals with ‘super star’ salaries.

However, UK defence industry organisations have compelling narrative that can entice purpose-driven people. Using the latest technologies, these organisations work with partners to deliver technically complex challenges, such as new air platforms and submarines, to protect the UK. Through collaboration, defence organisations can create a career destination of choice. By developing shared approaches to find individuals with scarce skills they can create more ‘market draw’ to attract talent. They can then engage people with the choice of where to start their defence ecosystem career, with the expectation they will zig-zag across both functional and organisational boundaries as they progress.

Deliver against changing and different workforce expectations

We already have a multi- generational workforce with different lived experience and expectations of what they want from work. Gen Z are much more likely to prioritise a better job (determined by brand culture, work life-balance, flexibility, and technology) over higher pay, whereas experienced hires from different generations are more likely to see these as ‘nice to have’ and prioritise job security.

Gen Alpha will join the workforce in late 2020s, with the expectation that work will mirror the digitally-enabled life they lead, and provide opportunities to rapidly learn and develop new skills as required. After COVID-19, organisations are still searching for the new normal – this will include more hybrid and home working as a prerequisite for top technical talent, in turn necessitating more diverse cyber security knowledge, skills, and behaviours. The expectation of a shorter career before moving forward needs to be accommodated by attractive career paths that retain and rotate key talent across the UK defence ecosystem.

Find individuals who can respond to constant technological change

Technology will exponentially evolve into the mainstream, increasing automation, robotics, and other advanced digital capabilities. This will require defence programmes to enhance traditional engineering concepts to incorporate new technologies and reconsider what technical talent looks like. Leading organisations are rapidly integrating AI to augment roles, crystalising the benefits of cloud technology, and exploring the potential of quantum computing.

With many skills becoming automated, individuals will seek security in skill-based careers. As university study becomes more expensive, those in the Gen Alpha age bracket will also prioritise skills over earning a degree. This will enable them to enter the workforce quickly, and start earning from a younger age. It’s time to open the talent funnel to look beyond traditional qualifications. Individuals with the aptitudes to learn, adapt, and apply knowledge to real-world complexity at pace are likely to be tomorrow’s highest performers. Defence organisations therefore need to change their talent search and assessment practices to engage these more diverse talent pools.

Use data and insights to forecast future skills demand

By adopting a data and insights-led approach organisations can better understand their existing workforce challenges and gaps to effectively prioritise skills needed through strategic workforce planning.

Successful organisations will identify opportunities to maximise existing skills and become smarter at anticipating the skills required in the longer-term as technological change continues to evolve. While no-one has a crystal ball, it’s possible to understand the future direction by engaging with academia and other traditional competitors to anticipate the skills required to sustain success. By understanding the intersect of multiple scenarios on workforce planning, organisations can create the workforce needed today, and for the next three to five years and beyond.

Leaders can endorse a comprehensive understanding of career and workplace expectations and culture, which will be critical to delivering a compelling narrative for organisations that embraces diversity, inclusion, digital, and innovation. This will help to set the organisation apart from competitors in the tussle for talent. There is real opportunity for the UK defence industry to collectively revolutionise the industry brand, retaining talent and attracting the next generation – but organisations must act now.

About the authors

Nigel Lowe PA people and change expert

Explore more

Contact the team

We look forward to hearing from you.

Get actionable insight straight to your inbox via our monthly newsletter.