4th October 2015

A life on the ocean wave?

Colm Lock explains the Royal Navy’s huge shortage of engineers and argues that more young people should consider a life on the waves
A life on the ocean wave?
HMS Gloucester prior to its recent decommissioning. Photo: Ben Salter @Flickr

On the 22nd of September 2015, a proud era of the Royal Navy came to an end. HMS Gloucester, the last of the UK’s iconic Type 42 destroyers, was tugged out of Portsmouth harbour to begin its journey to a scrapyard in Turkey. It was one of 16 built for the Royal Navy and was decommissioned in 2011 to make way for the new Type 45 destroyers, of which there are only six.

However, the difference in numbers reinforces the grave problem facing our navy at this time. It is not about the reduction in the size of the surface fleet or the increased cost of building new ships since the commissioning of HMS Gloucester in 1985, but in the lack of people needed to keep her sea worthy.

It hasn’t received much attention in the press but the Royal Navy is, at this point in time, chronically short of engineers. This reality was brought home when a Royal Navy frigate had to return to port during a NATO exercise after the ship’s sole engineer fell ill. This should be seen as nothing less than a national embarrassment.

It’s not like the Navy isn’t an attractive recruitment opportunity for young engineering graduates when an officer’s starting salary is £25,000 a year and with engineering graduates also receiving a bonus £27,000 in three instalments throughout your training. Now for those of you can put two and two together, you will have noticed that this bonus will allow you to pay off your tuition debt from university completely. Where else, I ask, could a graduate hope to have such a sizeable portion of their debt wiped off at such an early age?

The Royal Navy will within the next few years commission its two newest and largest ever ships, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. These will be, upon completion, the most advanced aircraft carrier platforms in the world and will incorporate some groundbreaking technology that has never been utilised or thought of by any other Navy on the globe. Now, one can only expect that the experience to be gained from working on either of these two ships or any ship in the fleet for that matter will set the young engineer in good stead to apply for jobs in industry once his or her term of service in the Navy is terminated.

Now, at this point you are probably thinking that the article sounds less like an opinion piece and more like a recruiting tactic. You will find that both are true. The dire lack of engineers within the Royal Navy is something that concerns us all and presents a great opportunity for those graduates with the right qualifications.

But let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute, few readers of this article are going to have ever considered a life in the Royal Navy as a way to start a career and may even be completely ambivalent to the idea verging on open contempt for the need to have such a large navy to defend Britain. But, the modern Royal Navy is no longer the tool of a Victorian Parliament who wishes to utilise its global command of the seas to initiate some kind of gunboat diplomacy to force the Chinese to sign a trade agreement or to bombard Zanzibar into submission.

Today, the Royal Navy carries out copious humanitarian operations such as delivering much needed aid to the Philippines using HMS Illustrious or more recently in Dominica with RFA Lyme Bay following hurricanes in their respective countries. HMS Bulwark and HMS Enterprise have been working tirelessly in the Mediterranean and have saved thousands of African migrants and helped to end illegal people smuggling operations.

RFA Argus was deployed to Sierra Leone to help with the containment and treatment of Ebola and there are also a small squadron of ships based in the Persian Gulf to help keep shipping lanes open which, through the trade conducted there, are helping to rebuild the economy and lives of the people of Iraq.

Those combat missions that you could be expected to be involved in are usually relatively low key such as the maintenance of a naval presence in the Falkland Islands, the Caribbean, and Gibraltar, or are international operations such as the very successful counter-piracy initiative which we have seen off the coast of Somalia, effectively bringing an end to the problem and making the lives of people up and down the east African coast safer.

It must also be noted that the Royal Navy is at this time going through a period of unprecedented modernisation which will see it become the most technologically advanced in the world. The new Type 45 destroyers have been built, the Type 26 frigates are about to go into production, the Astute class submarines are already rolling off the production line and the two new aircraft carriers are due to be ready in just a few years. One can only imagine the immense leg-up having such experience would give an individual if applying for a job in a company in another country.

Of course, you could satisfy yourself with a job in a medium-sized engineering firm with the large chunk of your student debt still intact, very little time to travel, and your prospect of international employment greatly reduced. Or, you could heed the call, join the world’s finest navy, have the opportunity to travel to countries all over the world with your tuition fees paid off and the global brand of Britain’s navy opening many doors for you at home and especially overseas.

Admiral Lord Nelson said, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” and so I encourage students of engineering or on similar degrees, to take the amazing opportunities open to you and be part of this exciting new era which our nation’s maritime forces are entering.

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