Saturday, April 20, 2019

Keep pay for Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers competitive

Whenever I hear of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) officers who earn as much or more in civilian life as they did when they were in uniform, I am both happy and concerned.

Happy for the individuals whose years of service and experience in the military has been recognised and rewarded by the civilian sector.

At the same time, one wonders if the remuneration for SAF officers has kept up with the times. The situation described above is not as uncommon as one would expect.

SAF officers are said to command higher remuneration packages as compared to equivalent civilian jobs because of their shorter career spans. In simple terms, SAF officers are paid more because their career end point terminates around the age of 45.

If that is the case, one can see three immediate reasons for those who are worth the same salary after leaving the SAF.

First, the individuals are the outliers. They are exceptional talent valued by free enterprise.

Second, the market-plus pay scale for SAF officers has lost some of its market competitiveness.

Last, some civilian employers are over-paying their SAF alumni. In a free market economy, it is of course an employer's prerogative to pay a new hire as it wishes so long as the company can afford it and their shareholders don't quibble (especially for listed entities with a heavy presence of SAF alumni).

Of the three possible reasons listed above, the second is the most troubling because it may be a sign that market benchmarks for SAF pay need to be reviewed.

In general, SAF officers tend to think about a career transition around the age of 30. This is the time when their first contract is about to expire. A sense of personal ambition ("I can do better outside") or a sense of reality ("I'll never make it past +insert rank+ and should leave now") are common triggers for career transitions by younger officers. 

SAF officers who are promoted are obliged to stay with the organisation as part of their moral obligatory service (MOS) for accepting the promotion. The SAF's MOS tenure is said to be two years long. Some officers do not take up the MOS lock-in period, decline the promotion opportunity and leave.

The next trigger point is around the age of 40 when individuals choose to carve a new career in the private sector before they are too old to make the transition.

Specific to Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) pilots, the number of pilots who want to switch to civilian flying careers has apparently been strong and sustained enough to support a niche industry set up to assist military fliers who want to get their Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certification.

Demand is such that at least one ATP hot house has a dedicated programme for RSAF pilots on its website. No other ASEAN air force or Asia-Pacific air arm for that matter, has attracted their attention to the same extent as RSAF candidates - at least none known to this blog.

Considering the importance of the RSAF to Singapore's defence, we pray that military aviation careers in the air force are on a strong footing.

Our combat pilots are in demand by commercial airlines. Why?

Not because RSAF pilots speak English. So do the Australians, Indians, Malaysians, the New Zealanders and many others in the region. The RSAF-specific focus probably stems from awareness that RSAF fliers come with a strong pedigree and count as valuable additions to any airline's bench strength.

Alas, it is also sobering to think of the possibility that there is sufficient demand from RSAF pilots who want out to justify the niche service.

It is estimated that it will take about $5 million to get a pilot to the OCU stage prior to joining squadron service. Upon entering an operational squadron, a pilot's pay is said to account for a fraction of the cost per flying hour for a fast jet like the F-15 and F-16.

Similar arguments can be made for critical roles, say for example, submarine officers in the RSN and the army's C4ISTAR officers.

But you probably get the picture: We risk losing officers who can command and fight our latest and most capable war machines if these individuals are unnecessarily distracted by bread-and-butter issues.

In the case of RSAF pilots, one does not expect them to demand the sun and the moon. Informal calculations show that about $2,000 more per month will make the opportunity cost of leaving the air force high enough to make one think very carefully before punching out.

Yes, that's still a chunk of change in any language. But relative to the cost of the platform and how much it takes to keep it flying, it is a pittance.

It is Singapore's loss if we let market forces whittle away the SAF Officer Corps, especially under current conditions where a high ops tempo strains the organisation's leadership.

Every officer who resigns prematurely leaves behind a gap that is not easily filled. This is because the pipeline of candidates with the requisite professional expertise, leadership qualities or operational experience to step into the vacancy is limited. One must fill middle to senior appointments from within and cannot simply recruit from outside like private sector organisations.

One hears that it is not uncommon for regulars within a unit to double hat, with some holding concurrent appointments with open-ended tenures. The added workload, unceasing and demanding operational tempo, high expectations from the bosses and public creates a vicious cycle where unhappiness stirs among those called upon to make additional sacrifices. So there's a knock-on effect for every resignation.

Anecdotally speaking, one has heard of fathers and mothers in uniform who have missed birthdays; sons and daughters who have experienced the same. A good number have been away from their loved ones when needed because duty calls.

In many respects, one could say this is par for the course. It is what the men and women signed up for and they did so with their eyes wide open. That's absolutely true.

But a career as an SAF officer also comes with the social compact that the compensation and benefits from such a career pathway are compelling enough to overshadow such sacrifices.

Pay matters are never easily resolved.

When asked if you are underpaid in an organisational climate survey, one might guess the response most people would give. Tax payers would bristle at suggestions that armed forces personnel should be paid more. Everybody has an opinion how much is enough.

To be sure, the SAF's voluntary attrition directly linked to remuneration has not reached epidemic proportions. But remuneration for critical appointments and those with long lead-time vocations must be resilient enough to withstand market forces.

A salary review would help determine if that is the case today.

Comparisons with salaries of other armed forces often give no clarity especially when one has not factored in cost of living adjustments specific to the Lion City whose limited size has made the cost of homes one of the most expensive in Asia.

Warfighters, like all other salaried staff, have expectations for their family and lifestyle too and the pay scales for SAF officers must keep in step with the times.

1 comment:

Playtime said...

As far as i know, the concern of regulars leaving is always about Loss of income, that alone suggest that saf pay is not uncompetitive.

At the higher level, golden parachutes are not unusual. During in camp, I had different people speaking openly about their resentment of parachuted ex regulars, how common is it now I don't know.
At the rate ex senior officers are being air dropped to various very high paying "C" level jobs that they cannot handle, few would argue that pay is low.
Perhaps for the low ranks.. but not for the top.. no one would consider smrt, nol, sph, lta and various other govr linked positions as symptoms of underpaid saf problems.. quite the opposite.