Lifelong employability to replace job for life in army

The concept of a mixed career path has been introduced for army personnel in Belgium, as part of a new military statute agreed upon in September 2006. Based on regular advice and training programmes, the new system will allow military personnel to follow a career path both inside and outside of the army. The new measure aims to increase the attractiveness of the military profession and to rejuvenate the army as a whole.

At the beginning of September 2006, the government approved a new statute for the army. A cornerstone of this agreement is the introduction of a new system aimed at promoting a mixed career path for military personnel. In the same month, the Ministry of Defence reached a final agreement with the trade unions on the implementation details and on some of the transitional measures of this new system. After some last-minute fine tuning, three of the four trade unions supported the final plan.

Background

The idea of a ‘mixed career path’ was an important priority set out in the second sectoral agreement, which was concluded between the Ministry of Defence and the trade unions in July 2004. It has taken almost two years to achieve this concept through a range of concrete measures. The strategic goal of the Ministry of Defence is to restructure the Belgian army, transforming it into a small, flexible and efficiently operational group of units, consisting of 35,000 soldiers (BE9704206N).

In a new plan, developed in 2003, it was stated that innovative measures were needed to attract young people into the army and to rearrange the age structure of military personnel. The concept of the mixed career path was proposed as the main instrument in this regard. The latter promotes the idea of a career path comprised of varied career steps, which can be totally different to each other. The individual’s career path can comprise a mix of jobs both within the army (as a soldier or as a civilian) and outside of the army (for example, in the civil service or the private sector). In essence, this means that the guarantee of a lifelong career in the army until retirement is now being replaced by a guarantee of lifetime employability for the individual in question. The new arrangement also enhances the possibility of employees becoming involved in the career planning and decision-making stages.

Figure 1: Current and ideal age profile of Belgian army, by number of personnel and age

Figure 1: Current and ideal age profile of Belgian army, by number of personnel and age

Note: Graph compares the current age profile and the ideal age profile; the bars represent y persons at an x age in the army; the red line represents the ideal line that the graph should have.

Source: Ministry of Defence

Provisions of new agreement

The agreement is viewed as a form of compromise, which serves a number of important objectives:

  • On the one hand, it gives the army more opportunities to rejuvenate its workforce, in turn enabling it to consolidate the army and transform it into a flexible combat force. This is important as the ageing profile of Belgium’s armed forces could lead to recruitment problems in the future, with too many people retiring in a relatively short space of time. Moreover, an ageing workforce with a low turnover would lead to an army with a high number of officers and a lack of foot soldiers, as a result of the seniority-based promotion system.
  • On the other hand, lifelong job security has always been an important factor for those joining the army. The change of focus from the guarantee of a lifelong career could result in the opposite situation that the army has been striving for: namely, a lower influx of young recruits and a further ageing of the workforce. Therefore, the new system pays considerable attention to employability measures. It also aims to tackle negative aspects of the previous system, in particular the perceived lack of influence among soldiers over their own career decisions, along with the risk of burn-out.

Career orientation

Among the provisions of this new approach is a career orientation programme. After 10 years in the army, military personnel will be obliged to participate in this programme. A decision will then be reached on the individual’s next prospective career step in consultation with the person involved. The individual can decide to:

  • remain in the army as a soldier;
  • change to a civilian job within the army (internal career move);
  • make an external career move by entering the civil service or changing to another job, with the support of an extensive vocational training programme.

Retirement age

The retirement age for personnel who decide to remain in the army for their entire career will be 56 years. Those who opt for a career change to the civil service shall be eligible to the retirement rules of the civil service.

Similarly, military personnel who opt for a new career in the private sector will have to adhere to the retirement rules of the particular sector.

Transitional measures will affect the existing personnel. In contrast with the new recruits who will be hired in the future, existing personnel will not be obliged to make an external career move; only internal moves can be ordered. Other transitional measures relate to the retirement age of existing personnel who decide to make a career move, for example to the civil service.

Commentary

The ‘mixed career path’ concept is a prime example of a well-developed employability programme. As such, it will provide the army with the necessary flexibility to attract new recruits, at the same time offering them sufficient career possibilities and enhancing their sense of labour market security.

The agreement is also an example of how social dialogue has begun to mature within the Belgian army in the last decade.

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute for Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven

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