Armed forces and the attraction challenge

Sandra Kerr OBE, Race Equality Director Sandra Kerr OBE, Race Equality Director

This week the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the three armed forces service chiefs that 10 per cent of their new recruits should be from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background by 2020. So what can the armed forces do to address BAME under-representation?

We know from our Gender and Race Benchmark 2014 that, although only 5 per cent of uniformed and armed services applicants come from a BAME background, the percentage of candidates at each stage who come from a BAME background is flat, with 5 per cent of recruits being BAME. This seems quite low but is actually a positive, as many other sectors have considerable drops in the rate of BAME hires compared to applicants. It therefore suggests that the armed forces’ recruitment processes are not unintentionally excluding the best BAME candidates. Interestingly 5 per cent of non-executive directors in the sector are BAME, implying that once BAME recruits enter the forces they are able to progress to senior roles.

So if the problem isn’t recruitment processes or opportunities for progression, it therefore lies with attraction; to put it simply, many BAME people do not see the armed forces as an attractive option for a career. Our ‘Aspiration & Frustration’ research backs this up, with 50% of BAME people being ‘turned off’ from a career in the armed forces. Reasons for this included the forces’ perception of being ‘aggressive’ and unwelcoming and a lack of role models. With one in four young people now coming from a BAME background, it’s vital that these perceptions are addressed sooner rather than later.

The good news is that the armed forces are making a positive effort to change this. I have recently met with both the Royal Air Force and the Army and both have cited increased BAME representation as a top priority. By acknowledging there is a challenge, setting targets and focusing their attraction strategies that will include under-represented groups, they are showing they take this issue seriously and recognise that that UK need services that reflect the rich diversity of our nation. The Armed Forces and the Royal Air Force are also both Finalists in this year’s Race for Opportunity Awards, showing that their approach is being recognised as best practice alongside other employers such as Deloitte, EDF Energy and the Bank of England.

However, there are still other opportunities to boost the rate of attraction for potential BAME recruits. For example, there are many inspiring stories of BAME people in history who have served in the forces, yet these stories have yet to be told. October is Black History Month and sharing these stories across all three forces would be a great way to spotlight the number of BAME role models in the armed services, helping to change perceptions, fuel inspiration and enable young people to see themselves in those roles. Collaborating across the forces to showcase the range of careers available – think the advertising campaign ‘You don’t have to be a pilot to fly in the RAF’ – and using a wide range of recruitment channels could also help increase engagement.

In short, the armed forces have lots of good practice and processes in place to recruit and retain BAME people, but the biggest challenge is attracting them. By collaborating together to showcase the range of role models across the armed forces, as well as sharing the broad range of opportunities available across the services I believe they can reflect those they serve at every level.