Pooling talent: Could collaboration hold the key to closing the defence skills gap?

Daniel Edwards Alison Gregory

By Daniel Edwards, Alison Gregory

From data-enabled battle planning to combatting cyberattacks, the demand for technical skills within our Armed Forces is growing all the time. But a traditionally narrow and siloed approach to talent screening and career development is ill-equipped to deliver the skills the Forces need. Greater collaboration can help solve this challenge by opening up new sources of talent and harnessing untapped capabilities.

The Armed Forces are not alone in finding it hard to attract and retain tech talent. Our recent research found that three in four STEM-focused organisations are experiencing skills shortages and difficulties with hiring, all of which hinders growth, innovation, and competitive edge.  

But the traditional sources of recruitment for service personnel can make it even harder to secure tech talent and bridge skills gaps.  It is not unusual for recruits to have few formal qualifications when they join the Armed Forces, but their achievements within the services attest to their potential.  

A modernised offer  

Before joining the ranks, recruits undergo standard aptitude tests that assess their strengths and then channel them into appropriate roles. While these evaluations can help to identify personnel with the potential to train as electricians, mechanics, and other valuable trades, they’re not yet geared to finding a future data scientist or cyber specialist. Appraisal and selection also focus on specific roles within each of the Forces. There is little or no inter-service sharing of talent, common training, or career pathways that are open to all. 

Change is coming. In the recent Defence Command Paper 2023 refresh, Defence’s response to a more contested and volatile world, the Ministry of Defence acknowledges the need for a whole new approach to attracting, selecting, and developing talent. Key priorities include broadening the recruitment pool, modernising the offer, and raising the digital bar, with collaboration between the different Forces and wider civil service and defence industry at the heart of this bold new approach. 

Widening the net 

Today’s constantly shifting national security threats are stretching traditional approaches and structures. Unconventional thinking can help to break down barriers, aid agility, and stay one step ahead of adversaries.   

This includes re-evaluating what technical talent looks like, where to find it, and how to develop it at pace to a ‘mission competent’ level. Key to this is developing and implementing a new set of interactive aptitude tests, which identify the capabilities that mark out high-performing cyber operators, such as computer proficiency and problem-solving skills. This will help to look beyond individuals with formal cyber qualifications or STEM degrees. Along with recent recruits, that could include existing military personnel serving in areas ranging from infantry to firefighting roles. They may have been previously rejected because of their poor educational record but would, with the new aptitude framework in place, be able to demonstrate that they have the ‘right stuff’.   

Broadening the recruitment net beyond a still male-dominated STEM-qualified population will lead to a significant improvement in the gender diversity of cyber personnel, too. Because many of these roles are desk-based, they make it easier for personnel to remain in post beyond the age when many would have withdrawn from frontline duties and retired from the Forces.    

Opening up a new type of career in defence 

A collaborative approach to talent and other initiatives within the defence and security community can show what’s possible when organisations work together, break down siloes, and challenge conventional thinking. It would not only help to make defence careers more attractive, but also strengthen the depth and breadth of capabilities within the defence ecosystem. Echoing many of the recommendations within the Defence Command Paper refresh, four core priorities stand out:   

1. Joint selection

The different branches of the Armed Forces come together to create common recruitment campaigns and selection frameworks for people with digital and other technical potential, both new to the services and from within them. 

2. Joint development  

By developing common aptitude testing and skills training, personnel would build interoperable capabilities and a common language they can use when working together on inter-service operations. The common training would also mean that services with a surplus of applicants and trainees could share talent with under-resourced Forces.   

3. Create common career pathways

As well as sharing technical personnel across the Forces, it would be possible to create a ‘zig-zag’ career pathway that includes secondments and long-term positions within the civil service and defence industry. These openings could in turn be extended beyond the UK to embrace opportunities within the Five Eyes member states and other allies.   

4. Overcome institutional barriers 

There may be institutional resistance to talent sharing and open career pathways. In particular, individual branches of the Armed Forces may ask why they should lend and potentially lose talent that they’ve developed. But this narrow thinking and protective approach would miss out on the opportunity to strengthen the expertise and experience within our defence capabilities – our adversaries are taking an ‘all for one’ approach, and so should we.    

Another compelling argument for developing portfolio careers within security and defence is that flexibility and opportunity is what younger generations coming into the workforce want. The Defence Command Paper recognised the change in attitudes by stating that young people are “embracing greater opportunity for career mobility between jobs in defence and whatever other employment they’d like to pursue elsewhere.”

Focusing on the common good 

By looking beyond individual organisational needs to what’s good for the defence and security community and the people it protects, we can change entrenched approaches for the better. The discomfort of doing things differently would be more than offset by the opportunity to make technical careers more attractive, accessible and fulfilling. The results would create a much larger pool of available talent and go a long way towards bridging today’s skills gaps.

About the authors

Daniel Edwards
Daniel Edwards PA people and performance expert
Alison Gregory
Alison Gregory PA people and change expert

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