When First Warrant Officer A retired from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) after decades serving the military, he decided to stay with the organisation he had grown to love by signing a fresh contract as a civilian Unit Safety Officer.

For all his years of experience and dedication serving the SAF, he saw his pay slashed by some 30 per cent after his pay was realigned with his new job scope.

Warrant Officer A should count himself lucky.

From what we are told, this Warrant Officer’s experience isn’t unique. Some SAF officers who moved from a combat vocation to a civilian desk job in the SAF saw their pay plummet by 50 per cent.

If you want to be clinical about things, the new remuneration packages result from the realignment of pay to the new job size. Reduced job scope, lighter responsibilities, fixed working hours, no night training and weekends off should count as suitable tradeoffs for the burden our men and women in uniform shoulder while in SAF service.

What’s more, our former Regulars who switched to civilian appointments signed their new contracts with their eyes open under a willing buyer, willing seller relationship. So they ought to have done their sums to figure out if the civilian job is worth the trouble.

Valuing military experience

Be that as it may, there is something to be said about the experience an individual gains after serving an organisation for many years. And the strength of the former Regular’s military experience and institutional memory is something that the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and SAF should consider pricing in when working out civilian terms for former Regulars.

Many of these old hands know SOPs inside out. Many of them know how the processes and protocols evolved and can reinforce SOPs with stories they gained from their years of service that can drive home and strengthen key points in topics such as training safety.

Using a Human Resources (HR) Compensation and Benefits framework to resize the quantum of one’s pay risks downplaying the immense value of real world experience that MINDEF/SAF would benefit richly from, if the former Regular was persuaded to stay with the SAF under a civilian contract.

In many instances, such experience is incalculable under HR matrices that factor in job size, peer comparisons and so on. If experience is worth paying for, this isn’t obvious when one looks at some of the renegotiated salaries for our former Regulars who are now holding civilian appointments.

In the case of Warrant Officer A, his USO job scope may well compare favourably with a safety officer job in another industry sector (i.e. alignment of remuneration through peer comparison). But how does one price in operational experience (which he gained during an SAF operational overseas) and firsthand experience watching safety systems and processes evolve over the years?

Knowing how to set the sweet spot when pricing in real world, operational experience of our Regulars is relevant and timely as MINDEF/SAF looks set to expand the training cadre by some 1,000 Regulars in the coming work year.

Their terms of service, whether they are hired as uniformed or civilian personnel, career path and the synergy forged between training schools from BMTC to OCS will be closely watched by Regulars and job-seekers as they weigh the benefits of a career in uniform.

If uniformed Regulars are appointed for our training schools, MINDEF/SAF must guard against the evolution of a pecking order where some training appointments (OCS or teeth arms such as the School or Armour, School of Artillery) are viewed as being more prestigious compared to a trainer role in some support unit.

Beyond the arithmetic of how HR works out rewards and benefits for our servicemen and servicewomen emerges many heart-warming stories of SAF Regulars who stay with the profession of arms out of a (misguided?) sense of duty – not because they cannot find anything else to do when chucked on civvie street.

Among the scores of former combat Regulars whose pay was slashed by half are many loyal, dedicated and engaged individuals who put SAF before self.

But does the organisation care enough?

Tipping point

When job scopes and remuneration packages are renegotiated, there comes a point beyond which the erosion in pay can be belittling, demeaning and potentially damaging to morale. That 50 per cent pay drop is such a tipping point.

Seen in the context of a breadwinner who provided for his family for decades, the sharp drop in income will result in a lifestyle shift in his 40s – a period when the children are probably in their teens and when maximum support is needed for their higher education.

Self esteem is real and needs to be nurtured carefully.

The 50 per cent pay drop is potentially toxic to MINDEF/SAF engagement efforts because the cost savings in the person’s new civilian contract are pitifully small when measured against the erosion in morale among Regulars who do their own horizon scanning and realise they may be better off making a job switch sooner rather than later. This could explain why not a few young servicemen and servicewomen decide to call it quits in their mid to late 20s after their first contract, or in their early 30s in the case of non-scholars who realise their career runway will be limited knowing their CEP is pegged at a certain level.

If left unchecked, the end result could see HR practitioners in MINDEF spending more time and tax money backfilling certain appointments due to the constant churn in personnel. It is false economy that shortchanges tax payers in the long run.

We have in the SAF today a wealth of experience amassed by Regulars who serve in declared units and even more valuable knowhow and experience from those in classified battalions and squadrons (1xx SQN, 1xx SQN, 2xx SQN).

This experience is worth paying for because retaining this data-information-knowledge-wisdom within the MINDEF/SAF workforce will strengthen the core institutional memory of the organisation. It will pay dividends many times more than the pittance saved from cutting salaries.

Our war fighters are not mere digits that fit into a matrix of job size and remuneration.

We must learn to do our sums right.

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