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We Want You, inc.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith examines the recruitment of young people by the Australian military.

Dismounted patrol

The army needs recruits. In Australia, we outsource this in part to the Manpower Services Inc. They’re a private sector, civilian corporation who find part time and full time ‘talent’ for a spectrum of industries including grain harvesting and interior design administration.

The collaboration between the ADF and Manpower Services has yielded a series of campaigns that feel like an unlikely allegiance of Contiki, GTA and Tough Mudder. Don’t be a soldier; start a Defence Career. Don’t join the army; challenge yourself.

Daniel, a UTS student who moonlights in the reserves, is unimpressed by the people this sort of advertising is attracting. He’s a stocky guy, unsurprisingly, and is mostly monosyllables and refills until we start to talk Kapooka.

Kapooka is the training site just outside Wagga where new recruits get turned into soldiers, whether for the Reserve or what Daniel calls the ‘real army’. “They should show these fuckwits crying into their phones on – what day are they allowed a phone? Day 15? – to all their girlfriends about oh I can’t do this oh I want to come home. That’d keep the noobs out.” Noobs? “Guys who put ‘lol’ in their application. They see this shit and think it’s for misfits who love guns. They get chewed up fast. It’s not a fucking gap year.”

It doesn’t seem the moment to point out that the ADF does in fact run a gap year program.

Manpower joins a rising tide of corporations including Serco and GFS now managing civilian-control mechanisms that have typically been the dominion of the state. Manpower Services thinks of potential recruits as players in a job market full of competing internships, placements and part time work.

By far the biggest influx of recruits happens over summer, when school leavers and tertiary studiers are looking for any number of combinations of money, something to do during the day, a way to get fit, and a way to give back to the community. For Tim, joining up was a way to stay ideologically consistent with his belief in compulsory national service. I ask if the money helps – a trainee recruit can expect to make $34,460 in a year. “I mean it doesn’t hurt. But if I just wanted money I’d stack shelves.”

Manpower has three years left in its contract with Defence, which is worth $500 million to the company. It is tasked with two things: ADFA recruitment and retention. The potential for alliteration was not lost on the military boffins who dubbed the strategy ‘R2’.

The ADF has allocated $3.1 billion to recruitment and retention since 2007. That’s 117 M1 Abrams tanks. When I told Daniel about Manpower Services’ involvement in recruitment, he’s bemused in an almost curmudgeonly way. “I had no idea they were managing it. It’s weird that they’re not… that they don’t have military experience. You’d think they’d want more than just a civvie advertising company.”

Perhaps this explains the ways recruitment drives have targeted young Australians in the last few years. The era of army personnel standing in shopping centres and bookstores is long since passed. If the ADF wants to compete with other employers who want a part of the young, fit, mobile workforce, it knows it has to out-advertise them. Joe, a 22 year old with his sights set on being a clearance diver, was bemused by a recent series of recruitment ads run in cinemas nationwide for Navy, that a few years ago made like Zuckerberg and dropped the ‘the’. “They had a guy on a tuk tuk somewhere in south east Asia. They didn’t show the hours you spend every day on mindless cleaning”.

The second part of the R2 strategy, Retention, is simple enough. Once people are in the army, don’t lose them. Australian retention focuses on trying to “establish and maintain the ADF as an employer of choice, by providing contemporary rewards for a competitive marketplace”. This doesn’t seem to rattle Daniel and co so much. “No I get that’s all fair. Some guys get 182K as a base rate, but they do a hard job. Pay them. But the people they’re attracting with this entry-level bullshit… we need young people, not people with nothing better to do.”