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Benchmarking the French Army’s people capability

French Military member from behind saluting with a French coloured flag in the background

This is the fourth blog in a series on benchmarking the French Army – the armée de Terre. To date, this series has ‘benchmarked’ the armée de Terre, its culture and its structure. This post will analyse the French Army’s people capability. In doing so, it will highlight points of convergence relevant to the increasingly important Army/armée de Terre partnership. The author currently serves as Army’s Liaison Officer to the armée de Terre in France.

Like most armies, including our own, the French Army proclaims its people, or workforce, to be its competitive edge; ‘the keystone to its current and future readiness.’ Accordingly, one of its three key functions (people, training and platforms) is devoted to human resources management (HRM). For the armée de Terre (ADT), HRM incorporates recruitment, retention and workforce (or career) management.

Given its profile as a key land force function, there is a strong case to review the ADT’s HRM as part of this benchmarking series. To date, we have established the value of benchmarking the ADT, compared organisational cultures and contrasted structures. This piece will define the ADT’s people component. In doing so, it will describe its recruitment, retention and workforce management as well as its key HRM challenges and response. Throughout, the reader will discern HRM similarities between the Australian Army and the ADT.

The ADT’s people component totals ~ 130,000 soldiers, senior non-commissioned officers (SNCO) and officers. This component encompasses an integrated ‘active’ Reserve force of ~ 25,000. It does not include the ADT’s ‘inactive’ Reserve element of ~ 75,000, which is poised for mobilisation. The mean age of serving members is 32 years (as is the case for the Australian Army). 21 years is the average age at recruitment (Army’s is 22). Female participation is 10.5% and growing; the best in Europe (15% for Army).

The bulk of the ADT’s 130,000, some 81,000, serve in their Forces, or Land, Command. Forces Command incorporates the ADT’s ‘unit of action’ – its two ‘like’ combat divisions. These number ~ 26,000. Forces Command also comprises a combined-arms training division (~3,643), intelligence division (~4,478), communications division (~ 4,828), logistics division (~7,645) and maintenance division (~6,050). Outside of Forces Command, there is a combat aviation division (~4,600) and a land special forces division (~2,500). The ADT’s ab initio training centres sit within the HRM 3-star command.

The ADT’s most conspicuous HRM function is recruiting. Land force recruitment is exclusive to the ADT, with contractor support limited to marketing and process support (the same applies to the French Navy and Air Force). A Brigadier leads the ADT’s recruiting formation, which constitutes five regiments and 100 recruiting centres spread across France and its numerous overseas territories. Its recruiting principles are threefold: ‘soldiers always recruit soldiers;’ accessibility of recruiting centres; and centralised recruiting decisions to optimise outcomes.

To borrow a sporting analogy, it would be fair to award the ADT’s recruiting formation as its ‘most valuable player’ of late. With an annual intake of 16,000, it is France’s largest employer for 17-31 year-olds (Army’s full-time intake is ~ 3,500). Following the 2015 terrorist attacks in France, its annual target increased by 11,000 in a 12-month period – or 16.6% of the ADT’s entire ‘ready’ element. Thereafter, it has had to maintain a recruiting level 77% above the 2015 requirement. The ADT maintains a candidate to recruit ratio of only 1.7:1 (for Army’s full-time element it is ~ 11:1) and an average recruiting process of five months for full-time personnel (~ six months in Australia) and 10-weeks for ‘active’ Reservists. Even with increased demand, and confronted by an increasingly competitive employment market, the ADT consistently hits its recruiting target (Army is achieving ~ 90% for full-time personnel).

Less prominent than recruiting, but no less important to a land force’s people capability, is retention. As with most professional organisations, the ADT recognises and prioritises the retention of its personnel as fundamental to maintaining current and fostering future readiness. The average length of service is 6.5 years – albeit greater amongst SNCO and officers (for Army’s officers it is ~ 12 years, for other ranks, ~ 6). The retention target is seven-years of service. Additional retention objectives relate to ab initio training completion – 68% reality versus a target of 75% - and a 75% contract renewal rate for soldiers completing their initial five-year contract (for Army, ~ 65% complete their four-year contract and 74% for eight-year contracts).

Workforce management is the crucial third lever of the ADT’s people function. Unlike most western armies, the ADT features three career streams: officer, direct to SNCO and soldier. Officers are responsible and accountable for command, leadership and management. SNCO are the ‘SME’ of technique and procedure as well as the enforcers of discipline and standards. To quote Kipling, they are the ‘backbone’ of the ADT.[i] Soldiers are ‘team members’ and ‘team leaders.’

Officers comprise ~ 16,000, or 11.5% of the land force (Army’s full-time ratio is ~ 21% while for the US and British armies the ratio hovers ~ 16%). They can be further divided into ‘direct entry’ (~ 30%), former SNCO and soldiers (~50%) and ‘specialist officers’ (~20%). The principles of accessibility, opportunity, actualisation, maximising formative (regimental/Corps) experience, milestone achievement and specialisation characterise officer career management. There are five sequential phases to the officer’s career trajectory: ab initio formation; regimental/Corps experience to completion of sub-unit command; staff specialisation in a domain(s) – operations, logistics, CIS, intelligence, international relations, capability development and, of course, HRM; regimental command and senior staff roles in their selected domain; and executive appointments.

~ 41,000 SNCO constitute the second career stream. Similar principles govern this career stream. Of note is the exceptional number of SNCO who commission; some 50% of all officers (Army’s is ~ 10%). The first phase of an SNCO’s career incorporates formation and regimental/Corps experience, often as a platoon/troop commander or second-in-command. Phase 2 is when they become true SME of their craft. The third and final phase is where SNCO are designated ‘specialists’ in particular domains.

The bulk of the ADT, ~ 63,000, are soldiers. These ‘team members’ and ‘team leaders’ are recruited under contract, which remains an important mechanism for maintaining the youthfulness of the ADT. The principles of flexible engagement, accessibility, opportunity and actualisation characterise the soldier career path. Exemplifying the opportunity principle, 50% of SNCO are former soldiers. Moreover, since 2013, soldiers can apply for commissioning.

Commensurate with the Australian Army, the ADT’s people function confronts both long-standing and newfound HRM challenges. The ADT’s recruiting challenges include: establishing itself as an ‘employer of choice’ in a hyper-competitive market; converting societal respect for the ADT into career contemplation and selection; managing the expectations of an increasingly discerning target market – conceptions which are often at odds with the ADT’s values; adapting to new demographic and social characteristics; attracting soldiers, SNCO and officers who possess the aptitude to master increasingly sophisticated capabilities and new domains; exploiting the largely untapped female employment market; and increasing the proportion of officers. In terms of retention and career management challenges, the ADT seeks to improve career accessibility, flexibility, simplicity, opportunity, actualisation/satisfaction, member ‘buy-in’ and reduce ab initio, initial contract and ‘at risk’ trade attrition, while promoting the youthfulness of its workforce.

In response to these challenges, like Army, the ADT has initiated its most significant HRM reform in over a generation. This transformation, implementing between 2020 and 2023, consists of more than 50 initiatives designed to ameliorate both long-standing and newfound challenges. Via this reform, the ADT aims to ensure its people continue to provide a competitive edge: ‘the keystone to its current and future readiness.’ Explanation of each initiative is beyond the intent and scope of this piece. However, of note, the ADT’s HRM reform is coherent with broader structural, modernisation, concept, process and training transformation. In fact, the multi-faceted reform agenda is inextricably interdependent. Achieving such consistency is easier said than done.

Perhaps less attention grabbing than other key functions, HRM is probably ‘first amongst equals’ in contributing to land force capability. According to most armies, people always come first. While the HRM distinctions between the Australian Army and the ADT are self-evident, salient points of convergence are equally apparent. These similarities justify routine HRM benchmarking within the broader bilateral partnership.

[i] From Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The ‘eathen.’

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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