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Manpower won the first Australian Defence Force (ADF) recruitment contract in 2002 after collaborating with the ADF in a pilot program conducted over the previous two years.

Manpower lost the contract in 2008 to Chandler Macleod, regaining it less than a year later (and subsequently was awarded contract extensions in 2012, 2016 and 2019) after Chandler Macleod exited the contract after only seven months having discovered their pricing was inadequate to cover costs it had not anticipated.

In July 2022, Adecco was announced as the winner of the 10-year, $1 billion Defence Force Recruiting RPO, ahead of Manpower, and other tenderers Accenture and Toll. In May 2023 former Westpac Group Director of Talent Acquisition  Gene Crowe, was announced as Managing Director – Defence Force Recruiting for Adecco Australia. Crowe came to the role with no prior experience in military recruitment.

The ADF RPO is the biggest recruitment contract in the country and it contains big challenges. Declining enlistments and accelerating separations place significant pressure on Adecco to turn things around.

In last year’s Federal budget $400 million was allocated to fund ADF retention bonuses of $50,000 in an attempt to address the ADF’s separation rate of 11.2% recorded in 2022/23. Defence Personnel Minister Matt Keogh recently said the Federal Government was considering allowing people from foreign countries to serve.

Recruitment for national defence forces has become a major headache for traditional world military powers in recent decades.

Earlier this month the U.S. Navy announced it was lowering entrance standards for the second time in about a year in the hope of boosting enlistments and in Great Britain army and navy recruitment targets have been missed every year since 2010 despite the UK, alone among European nations, being able to enlist 16 year-olds.

The recruitment crisis in the British Army is such that its 73,000 personnel represent a decline of nearly a quarter over the past decade, making it the smallest size it has been since about 1714, according to National Army Museum calculations.

Minister Keogh hinted at early problems with the new contract earlier this week on Radio 2GB,

We are growing our Defence Force as we need, making sure that we’re improving the flow through in our recruitment.

“We inherited a situation…..(where) it was taking 300 days for us to actually get them enlisted.

“That was ridiculous. People find other jobs, they move, they find a partner and don’t want to join the Defence Force anymore or something else.

We’re now targeting bringing that down to 100 days or even shorter if we can, we have a new recruitment partner to do that, Adecco they’ve only just come on board.”

“Certainly we’ve had a few teething issues with them (Adecco) coming on board… and we’re working very closely with them to get through those issues.”

Minister Keogh’s language was restrained but “…a few teething issues” would suggest the expectations of the client are not being met by the supplier. This would appear to be a polite public warning to Adecco to lift their game.

I have never been involved in any significant RPO contract, let alone one the size of the ADF recruitment contract so I have no idea how the pricing works. I strongly suspect meeting enlistment targets for the many types of roles the ADF requires would be a key driver of any contract bonuses.

There are many challenges in a recruitment contract that has the size and complexity of the ADF.

Minister Keogh’s comments on 2GB point to the most obvious one – the time taken to complete the recruitment and enlistment process.

If it does take 300 days to move from application to commencement then, as any rookie recruiter will tell you, you’re going to lose a lot of applicants along the way.

The core demographic for ADF recruitment (18 to 23-year-olds) is at a stage of life where there are many available options. Some in this demographic have clarity about the career path they want to pursue but many do not.

I suspect only a minority of ADF applicants are set on a career in the defence force.

Many more applicants are happy enough to progress through the ADF recruitment process but if another attractive offer comes along before they reach the (300-day) end then they’ll likely take it.

This happened with a friend’s son. He had worked in his father’s business after leaving secondary school for a couple of years then applied to the ADF but the process took so long he finished up taking a very good offer in building product sales. He may consider an ADF career in the future, but I suspect the window of his interest is most likely closed.

Pay and allowances (including free medical, free education and subsidised housing loans, among other benefits) for Australia’s military personnel are regarded as generous by global standards. In Hawaii last month two of my Uber drivers said they had full-time day jobs in the US military but were driving on their days off to help meet the high cost of living in Hawaii

A slow recruitment process is easier to fix than the elephants in the room – the morality of war and the threat of dying young.

Morality issues are ones no military recruiter or government defence minister wants to admit to but as one former member of the British Parachute regiment said recently, “Iraq was exposed as the big lie, and Afghanistan as a complete failure. Young people look back on recent history and worry the same will happen again.”

Capita, the incumbent British military recruitment partner, said in a statement, reported by the Guardian, “Demographic and cultural changes have been a challenge,” referring to concerns about whether young people believe a career in which an early death is theoretically possible is attractive.

The reality of putting your life on the line in the armed service of your country is one both the ADF and the government are attempting to contextualise, if Minister Keogh’s 2GB interview is any guide,

“There’re over 200 different sorts of roles in the Defence Force and we’ve traditionally said ‘you’ve got to meet fitness and health levels on the basis that we’re going to send you on to the frontline overseas’.

“But a lot of those roles, never even leave Australia, some of them you’re more likely to be wearing a hoodie in a basement doing cyber ops (operations) than holding a rifle on the front line.

Let’s hope that Adecco can overcome their early wobbles and deliver for the ADF as there is much at stake for them, the recruitment industry and the country.

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