• Defence sector

Search and develop: How companies can recruit executives and specialists for the defence sector

By Dennis Tanke

Companies from the defence sector supply the Bundeswehr and the international armed forces of their NATO partners with equipment or provide them with supplies. For the development of highly complex weapon systems or of systems for the navigation or location of missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines, they usually require specialists with very specialised knowledge or managers for a complex project scenario. Finding and recruiting them is currently a real challenge.

As in many other sectors, the personnel market in the defence sector is characterised by a growing shortage of skilled workers. Not least because many older skilled workers will retire in the coming years and companies will lose an enormous wealth of experience and knowledge as a result. Finding new employees is also made more difficult by the fact that representatives of generations Y and Z, who are now entering the job market, are often afraid of contact with the defence sector. Everything that has to do with the military or defence in the broadest sense is not considered "politically correct". There are other candidates who have no inherent fears of contact with the defence sector, but they shy away from it because of political imponderables. Who wants to see years of development work turned down due to politically motivated export restrictions that can torpedo business that was thought to be safe at any given time. One thing is sure: The Bundeswehr needs modern equipment to perform its future tasks and the German government is ready to fund a large number of projects in order to enhance the military. Those companies and suppliers in the defence sector that will finally receive the contracts are going to seek desperately for engineers and specialists who can develop the ships and aircraft of the future.

When recruiting for such positions, Bundeswehr officers – around 80 per cent of them are temporary soldiers with an average service record of 13 years – are an interesting target group. Firstly, many of them have studied and, ideally, even hold a degree in Engineering Science with a focus on defence systems. On the other hand, they have a military background, i.e. some of them have experience in handling precisely those weapon systems for whose development they are needed. In addition, they are not afraid of tasks for the defence sector. But the pool of candidates from this sector could soon become smaller. In the course of the Bundeswehr's conversion to a professional army, it is to be expected that the Bundeswehr will offer its officers and skilled personnel more often than usual the opportunity to transfer to a permanent employment contract as a professional soldier after their period of service has expired.

Based on our experience in the search for suitable candidates, we know that due to the high level of technical specialisation in the defence sector, companies hardly ever find people who are one hundred per cent suited to a sought-after position. In our view, searching for a perfectly fitting needle in a haystack with even more money than before is not the right approach. Rather, companies should invest more in personnel development in order to forge and keep the right people on board themselves.

We give you the following recommendations for action

  • Search for people with the potential for further development'
    At a time when technical development is making knowledge obsolete faster than ever, it is not so much a question of a candidate's exact expertise. It is more important to use aptitude diagnostics to find those candidates whose personalities have the right skills to acquire the specialist knowledge and skills that are still lacking. The all-round talent Gyro Gearloose, who solves every problem himself, was yesterday. Today, however, defence projects are so complex that they can only be developed in teams of specialists. This is why, in addition to technical skills, social skills such as the ability to manage complex stakeholders, combined with high communication skills, are becoming increasingly important for candidates. These can be identified very well through appropriate aptitude diagnostic procedures.
  • Make your company attractive for young applicants
    The tougher the competition between companies for the best brains becomes, the better they have to position themselves to be attractive to applicants. It is not only the salary that counts, but above all the working environment. Working in agile development teams that have the necessary resources at their disposal is expected of candidates today. However, in the highly regulated defence industry, work is often still carried out according to the "V-model" designed in the 1980s by the German Federal Ministry of Defence. Within the bounds of possibility, companies should therefore make their processes more agile in order to more easily recruit employees from outside.
  • Select and integrate the right people
    The agile way of working desired by most candidates is opposed by a certain rigidity of processes in the cooperation with governmental clients in the defence sector. The numerous regulations governing defence projects there often result in rigid processes and decision-making paths. It is therefore important when selecting candidates that they are able to adapt to these structures and the less flexible work culture. Once recruited, it is important to integrate the new employees well into the company. At management level, awareness should be raised that investment in personnel must be part of the strategy. For example, better onboarding processes help the new specialists and managers to deliver the desired results faster.
  • Keep your staff on board
    In addition to recruiting, the subject of retention is becoming increasingly important. Through targeted diagnostics, the optimal role of employees in structure and culture can be found and, if necessary, personally tailored development opportunities can be identified. In this way, important specialists can be retained in the company for longer because they see at least as good, if not better, opportunities for their personal development and career in their own company as potential competitors. Their attempts to entice them away are more likely to fail with satisfied employees than with those who are dissatisfied with their situation.

Working with an Executive Search consultancy offers a number of advantages: On the one hand, we have a command of the structured executive search process and work with you to develop a precise requirements profile for the position to be filled. On the other hand, we have a very good network in the applicant market at our disposal. Thus we can search the markets very specifically for suitable candidates who match the profile created as closely as possible. In addition, we offer a full range of services – from aptitude diagnostics to select the most suitable candidates to personnel development to ensure that the people hired quickly acquire the skills they still lack. In this way, Mercuri Urval can help companies of the defence sector to fill the recruitment gap with the most suitable candidates.

If you would like to know more about this subject or get in contact, please reach out to Dennis Tanke | Senior Consultant.


  • Defence sector