The Royal Navy has one of the “most complex HR tasks in the UK” when it comes to workforce planning, a CIPD conference heard yesterday.

Satisfying the level of demand for personnel, but avoiding an over-supply of staff which government budgets would not pay for, posed a “manning conundrum”, according to Commander David Cox, a strategic workforce planner in the Royal Navy.

This meant striking a fine balance between focusing on recruitment or retention strategies, he told delegates at the recruitment, resourcing and talent management conference. Over-staffing in the early 1990s had led to a round of redundancies, but a subsequent recruitment freeze meant the service became “undersupplied” for the next 10 years. Cox added that the knock-on effect was a “7 per cent workforce black-hole” which came to light several years afterwards.

Cox’s comments come at a time when defence staffing levels are once again being questioned as budgets are squeezed. He told delegates that the forthcoming government defence review was likely to be a rigorous one for the Navy, with no areas “left untouched”.

Although he said that the Navy is now at an optimal staffing level, Cox added that the normal turnover rate of six per cent had dropped significantly because of the economic downturn. “Past data shows our employment rate is inversely proportional to our voluntary outflow during a recession.”

But despite this, the temptation to halt recruitment initiatives would be an unwise move, as more people would leave in the economic upturn, he said.

“We only recruit at the bottom rung,” explained colleague and fellow workforce planner Commander Iain Upton. “If we want an admiral we have to think 20 or 30 years ahead. We need to grow, train and develop them.”

The Royal Navy currently employs 35,000 personnel, with 7,000 to 12,000 deployed at sea or on land around the world at any one time. A third of its budget is spent on staffing costs.

As well as support staff at the Royal Navy headquarters, headcount includes medics, those manning submarines and aircraft carriers, plus the Royal Marines, who are currently on operations in Afghanistan.

Upton added that his team “revelled in the complexity and thrived on the difficult challenges” of workplace planning within the Royal Navy.