Staffing Crisis: Poor pay forces members to flee Defence Forces

A large crowd gathers for the Defence Forces Open Day in Farmleigh House, Phoenix Park.

Sean O’Riordan examines a UL report which highlights the high numbers leaving the Defence Forces

AN average of 60 personnel of all ranks are leaving the Defence Forces (DF) every month and even though there’s been accelerated recruitment, fears have been expressed that even with maximum recruitment it won’t keep pace with the exodus for better-paid jobs elsewhere.

The University of Limerick report also highlights concerns that expertise is being lost and that inexperienced people are acting up, which, through no fault of their own, could lead to a calamity. This is particularly significant where high-risk military operations are concerned.

Those who took part in focus group sessions organised by the academics said the haemorrhaging is leaving the Defence Forces with significant gaps in operational capabilities.

They’ve pointed out the organisation invests a large amount of money in training recruits to a high standard, but with large turnover rates there’ll be no return on that investment. Respondents estimated at the current recruitment rate it would take 10 years-plus to replace the expertise which has been lost.

One senior officer claimed they’d lost more people through retirements and disillusionment than they inducted last year.

Another said: “We spend enormous resources recruiting people, training them, looking after them, doing our best for them and we are losing 10% of them annually.”

Both organisations which represent Defence Forces personnel (Raco and PDforra) maintain that even though there is accelerated recruitment it will not maintain the overall numbers unless “retention” of those currently serving is addressed immediately.

They point out that reliance on recruitment only will fail unless effective retention policies are introduced.

However, everybody surveyed agreed that pay was the biggest cause of the exodus.

“You can only flog a horse so much before it will fall. These lads (privates) have to have money to pay for petrol, to pay bills, to pay childcare. They get fed up eventually and they are gone. And it’s the best ones who are leaving,” a senior NCO said.

Another pointed out that soldiers supporting gardaí on operations often watch somebody being arrested who will end up in a cell which is in far better condition than their own billets.

One senior officer said a highly skilled soldier trained to drive two-and-a-half tonne armoured vehicles left the army because he’d get more working in a shop.

“We cannot stand over 25% of our people being on FIS (Family Income Supplement.) This is unacceptable,” he said.

Chaplains have said the number of Defence Forces’ lower ranks on FIS “is absolutely disgraceful,” and the Government had to address this issue.

“There is a responsibility when someone is the last line of defence between democracy and anarchy, and people forget that. If pay was sorted I think a lot of (other) issues would be resolved,” he said.

PDforra estimates that any Defence Forces member who has less than six years service and has one or more children are likely to be on Family Income Supplement.

Privates in particular are getting a very raw deal when it comes to pay.

“I can’t get a mortgage. We would be better off on the dole, as we would have no bills,” one said.

They said that some of their colleagues were sleeping in cars as they couldn’t afford the fuel to commute back and forth from home.

“In 2005, 2006 and 2007 I was taking home €150 more a week than I do now. I got a mortgage (back then) on the strength of that and now I have to work two jobs to pay for that,” another added.

Safety concerns

Staffing Crisis: Poor pay forces members to flee Defence Forces

Widespread concern has been raised about the safety risks associated with the current shortages of officers and NCOs and claims this could lead to deaths in the Defence Forces.

“We are already seeing it in the army — little accidents. There is going to be a big accident. Guys are so much more inexperienced. It’s (a major accident) going to come and if it keeps unravelling it will come.

“We fear a serious incident with a number of could be overseas,” a senior army officer said.

Members of the Air Corps told the report’s compilers there was a ‘high level of stress among officers with regard to operational safety,’ especially as they claimed 50% down on personnel in the technical unit.

They forecast there is “going to be a huge safety issue in the Air Corps” and there is “a direct relationship between safety and experience.”

Accidents could also happen in the Naval Service due to a lack of officers and NCOs and overstretching of resources.

“We have eight ships, but we don’t have enough people to man seven. There is a rumour of a ninth (ship coming). We barely have enough to man the seven...What the hell is going on here?” one senior officer said.

An NCO claimed that at least 10% of sailors coming back from migrant rescue missions will apply for discharge from the force.

New recruits are also bailing out and it was pointed out that “it takes five years to train a guy up to be competent at sea.”

The report said there is evidence from the focus groups who took part that ‘a vicious’ cycle of turnover is developing and this in turn has given rise to serious concerns regarding ‘safety and operational readiness.’

Air Corps

Staffing Crisis: Poor pay forces members to flee Defence Forces

The report showed that living conditions were also a big concern for apprentices in this wing of the Defence Forces, with those involved in the survey citing that lack of amenities and poor standards of accommodation were “demoralising.” They also felt that health and safety was a big issue.

Some quotes from those interviewed included: “A substandard hostel that was supposed to be renovated, It’s a tinder box, it would go on fire if you put a match to it.”

Another stated: ‘There’s one washing machine for 23 people. Dryers and (other) machines have been broken for the last six months” and “two broken windows in the bathroom have been stuck open since October 2015,” leading to freezing conditions in the winter months.

Lower ranks in the Air Corps also stated frustration connected with going through the appropriate channels to get the issues rectified as they feel “nobody cares as nothing is being done about it.”

They have also complained about lack of healthy options for their dinner — they pay for their food — which is described as often being “fried battered fish, or rib steak in a white bun with chips.”

They said “a very good dinner would help” and what’s they’re being given “contradicts the requirement for them to be fit and healthy.”

Naval Service

Staffing Crisis: Poor pay forces members to flee Defence Forces

Young recruits on dire wages, who can’t afford soaring rents outside the Naval Service headquarters on Haulbowline Island, say that they are resigned to sleeping night after night on board their ships even when in port. They say as a result it “provides no quality of life outside work.”

The report by the academics says that for younger members of the Navy there is nothing in Haulbowline for them to do on their downtime.

Young men and women say there’s no football pitch on the island and there should at least by a library and Wi-Fi to keep them occupied.

In addition, even if they get off the island to do a bit of shopping, they are uncertain of being able to get back because of the poor bus connection to base, and thus miss out on their dinner.

On a positive side junior and senior officers said supports for personnel during times of crisis were very good.

One senior officer said: “If people are in trouble at home they are looked after. They can disappear and come back when the time is right,” although one junior officer said he wanted to emphasise “that the navy is not family-orientated.”

It was pointed out that young crewmen working on migrant rescue missions get €290 a week in wages into their bank accounts, which is “disgraceful” considering some of the harrowing events they’ve had to deal with.

“If you put a private sector person into that scenario out there they wouldn’t do it for anything less than €300 an hour, not to mind a week,” one respondent said.

Another even compared the Navy’s treatment of new recruits as akin to JobBridge, which was also a sentiments aired by some middle management in the Army.

Senior NCOs in the Naval Service complained their own workload is ridiculous and they should be paid like junior managers.

“They throw money at ships and won’t pay the men a living wage,” was another comment.

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