"We must keep our promises"

"... imagine it for yourself. You apply for a job as an accountant.  But on your first day on the job you’re told that you are to be a technician instead, and, what’s more, you’re to move to the other end of the country. How long would you stay with that employer?"

"The problem we have is to explain for an employer, in a way that they can understand, what it means to have completed a full term of national service – that it is proof of leadership, the ability to work in a group, specialised training in management systems, engines and machinery..."

Christer Svensson, an officer who works with improvement of the National Service. Photo: Niklas Ehlén/FBB

Christer Svensson has taken the long route in the Forces, as an officer who did not himself perform National Service – but today he spends his working life improving a system that many say has seen its better days.

- We in the Services must be perfectly clear about the fact that we are competing for the most suitable and able young people. We are fighting it out with the universities and with a labour market that has now started to offer apprenticeships and trainee positions even to young people in their late teens.

It isn’t easy to get Lieutenant Commander Christer Svensson to agree that National Service is, in effect, already voluntary today.

- That isn’t actually the case; you have to be motivated in order to be chosen. Forcing a young person, who’d much rather be doing something else, to a do a year’s military service is not a good start.

Today, Christer Svensson works in the National Service section at Swedish Armed Forces Headquarters, where he has daily contact with the enlistment authority, the National Service Administration, and with the various units that receive the young people.
- We need to explain to the young, at an even earlier age than we do now, why they should look forward to National Service as an opportunity, not just for a career in the military, but also to gain valuable skills for civilian life. When an 18 year old lad finally arrives to enrol he often carries with him preconceptions of the usefulness of doing National Service that don’t always conform to the relevant facts.

The personal touch

Svensson is enthusiastic about the work that 20 odd young National Service public relations workers are doing on assignment for the Armed Forces recruitment centre:
- They’re doing a really excellent job, but, of course, it’s just a drop in the ocean when you think that we have 800 schools and a total target audience of over 100 000 in each new generation of students. But still, it’s personal face-to-face meetings that we need to develop. CDs and web sites aren’t a complete solution either.

- One idea would be to send currently serving soldiers back to their old schools to describe in their own words what it’s like to serve as a conscript.

It becomes clear, as he further elaborates on the topic, that career guidance officer Svensson is not satisfied with the content of the present information given out to potential National Service personnel:
- We in the Armed Forces must think this issue through very carefully. Information to those due to start their National Service must be precise, without any attempt to embellish the truth. If reality isn’t good enough, then it’s reality that must be changed and not the way that we describe it. Today’s young people are brought up to think critically. Smart phrases are soon reduced to mush in their eyes.

The value of National Service
Validation is something of a hobby horse for Christer. Finding ways of presenting the learning achievements attained during basic training so that they can be understood both by National Service personnel themselves and by their future employers. In short, a method of making a record of the worth and value of National Service:
- The education and training provided is often excellent. That’s not where the problem lies. The problem is that the Armed Forces do not at the present day have a sensible way of describing the content of the education and training an individual has been through ... leadership skills, specialised training in management systems, engines, machinery, languages, the ability to work well in a group. 

Career guidance officer Svensson is aware that some of his views could be considered controversial:
- In a situation where competition for our gifted young people is intensifying we in the fighting services need to get our act together. A term of National Service must be seen as a major advantage in the labour market. If we cannot make that happen then the Armed Forces are going to experience tremendous difficulties in attracting the best students, regardless of whether they have a practical or theoretical inclination.

- Our work in recruitment has in the past focussed on attracting aspirants to the Officer corps, but now we have to broaden our horizons. It’s about getting able young people to first and foremost do "lumpen" (National Service). That in turn will give us a good foundation upon which to build overseas forces and our national task forces.

- Via an easily understood record of achievement system and a clear account of the content of National Service training schemes, we can make sure that a potential employer is able to understand what a qualified individual he or she has standing in front of them.. It is then that a completed term of National Service becomes the merit that we so want it to be, and it is then that it becomes worth spending a year of your life on.

Christer Svensson also makes the argument from the other direction – i.e. that the right employer and the right job after demobilisation, also benefits the Armed Forces:
- A militarily trained truck driver or technician who continues in the industry is naturally then even more qualified to perform his task in the Forces. Perhaps when it’s time to apply for a mission overseas after a few years in civil life.

"... devastating"

In the late summer of last year 700 young people had their National Service places cancelled by letter. They would now have reported for basic training in January – but a shortage of officers, among other factors, meant that the Armed Forces did not consider themselves able to accept them. Moreover, a few weeks ago it was announced that 7000 soldiers were to have their service period cut from eleven to ten months due to a major budget deficit.

- Such unreliability is devastating... We must, as a government agency, keep our promises to our young people. Decisions, made on the hoof, regardless of the cause, that are detrimental to a young person’s plans for future studies or upkeep are completely unacceptable.

- We have to see things from the conscript’s point of view. He or she waited to be called up. The Armed Forces take back their offer of a place. It’s past the final entry date for applications to university or college. The result? Not only suffering the disappointment of missing out on military training, but also losing a chance of a place at university, quite simply a wasted year, as well as possible problems with finding a place to live or having no money to live on...

Christer Svensson has several more examples of counter productive aspects of the way in which the Armed Forces treats young people.
- Imagine it for yourself. You apply for a job as an accountant. On the first on the job you find that you are to work as a technician instead, and, what’s more, you’re to move to the other end of the country. How long would you stay with that employer?

- Such things have regrettably happened to conscripts that have been given completely different positions, different training, to that given on their calling up orders. From the point of view of the Armed Forces there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation, but does the affected individual understand that?

Social perspective

Christer Svensson emphasises that his only giving examples of the sort of thing that he believes must be changed or improved in the military’s way of working – and that much of what he says is coloured by his own thoughts and opinions. But it is impossible to miss his dedication both to the future of the Armed Forces, its support and position among the public at large and the situation of the conscript/ national service man or woman:
- National service is today so much more than it was. Basic training should be considered as a merit, a way in to something new and important, quite simply an important and valuable part of a young person’s career. And that’s both inside and outside the Armed Forces.

Christer Svensson

Born in Simrishamn in 1959, resides in Karlskrona.

Serving in the Armed Forces since 1978. Joined up as a Petty officer Cadet at Karlskrona Naval Schools, now the naval station, instead of doing National Service (according to the system of the day).

Retired from active service 1996 (Captain, surface attack)

First Mate on an icebreaker

Company/Battalion commander at the Naval Schools

At headquarters since 2002, position in personnel

Chief task: Career development within, and of, the system of National Service

Current interest: validation of basic training that, among other things, increases the value of National Service in the civilian labour market.

Personal: Chairman of the Karlskrona Soldathem (part of the Swedish Soldier’s Homes Association).