Sectoral Qualifications Framework For The Military Officer Profession: Models Of Application
Abstract: In 2021, the implementation of the EU military officer sectoral qualifications framework (SQF-MILOF) was launched as a result of nine years of work (2009-2014 and 2018-2020). Freedom of movement has driven education policy to greater integration. As the globalised professional labour market has benefited from the standardisation of multiple professions, so could the military officer profession benefit from applying tools developed in the context of education and human resource management. Additionally, the tradition of socialising and educating military officers in parallel means that much of the training is rooted in national military tradition, service duties other than education, and a hierarchical approach to decision-making concerning curriculum development.
Problem Statement: How to understand the prospective SQF-MILOF implementation models?
Bottom line up front: SQF-MILOF is more than a taxonomy of levels describing the complexity of learning for the military officer profession; it is a model that can provide a solid foundation for enhancing military officer training and education and human resource management, but it requires an institutionalised mechanism for that potential to be realised.
So what?: This paper describes three models for applying the SQF-MILOF, each more ambitious and directly engaging a greater number of stakeholders. At its most complex, it can be envisaged as a means of addressing staffing challenges and increasing deployed military personnel's performance at national and European levels.
In the children’s movie Finding Nemo, a group of fish is held in an aquarium in an office just across the street from an ocean embankment. The fish develop a plan to clog the aquarium's water filtration system, so they will be placed in plastic bags while the aquarium is cleaned. Once in the bags, they plan to jump out the window and over the embankment's edge. When the group finally reaches the ocean — an unforeseen problem arises — the fish are still in plastic bags. And one of the fish asks: now what?
The development of the Sectorial Qualifications Framework for the Military Officer Profession (SQF-MILOF) is a story that is no less impressive than that of the fish that made it across the barrier in Finding Nemo. Representatives of over 60 European military academies, members of the European Initiative for the Exchange of Military Young Officers (or EMILYO) framework, carried out the initial effort between 2009-2014. This sought to create a common vocabulary, which was necessary to enable the exchange of officers, cadets, and other students. This original document allowed various educational and training initiatives to be created and implemented. Additionally, the EMILYO network has led to the development of multiple international semesters for officer cadets and over 70 education modules delivered internationally. However, the mandate of this effort was limited to junior officer competencies. In 2016, the EU Military Committee requested the European Security and Defence College to develop a sectoral qualifications framework that would span the entirety of the military officer profession. Much of the work on this framework was conducted between 2018 to 2020, when a working group of EU member-state representatives developed SQF-MILOF in its current form, with the document kick-off event in September 2021.
The EMILYO network has led to the development of multiple international semesters for officer cadets and over 70 education modules delivered internationally. However, the mandate of this effort was limited to junior officer competencies.
Initially, the Implementation Group (IG) had a limited scope. It aimed to “develop a system of descriptors for learning outcomes of vocational training (the academic part of training will continue to be described according to the national qualification frameworks, compatible with the EQF). These descriptors will minimally be used for the modules that are offered for exchanges of cadets and officers". The outcomes of that exercise (learning outcomes grouped by eight competence areas) were considered to match Level-6 on the European Qualifications Framework (EQF). Reportedly, that was the appropriate level within the mandate of the IG (vocational competencies at the end of the initial education/training of a young officer).
To exploit this achievement, in 2014, the IG invited the EU military structures (EU Military Committee through EU Military Staff) to develop a “full SQF at levels 4 to 7 (or 8) for the military profession as an implementation of the EQF, based on the work done by the IG”. Although the EU Military Staff considered this invitation, the task was considered more relevant to the ESDC with its ad-hoc working groups organised around specific tasks. In 2017 the MS agreed to create a new expert position in the ESDC secretariat and decided to continue the development of a full-scale SQF-MILOF. The SQF-MILOF package was completed in 2020 by an ad-hoc working group. Foreseeing its completion and subsequent value to military training and education, the Council of the EU mandated the ESDC to “further elaborate, maintain and promote the sectoral qualification framework for military officer”. It was the job of the SQF-MILEG (SQF-MILOF Executive Group), established in December 2021, to carry out this task by mainly facilitating the efforts of the interested MS in implementing SQF-MILOF at the national level. Beyond its political dimension, SQF-MILOF is a tool against which MS could reference/link their military qualifications, which would help them to compare similar qualifications.
Although the EU Military Staff considered this invitation, the task was considered more relevant to the ESDC with its ad-hoc working groups organised around specific tasks.
One may claim that this achievement opens an ‘ocean’ of possibilities, but there is a catch. The metaphorical plastic bag that stands between SQF-MILOF and the ‘ocean’ is the fact that SQF-MILOF is a document. At the same time, the realisation of the promises it can hold necessarily lies in the systemic action of various stakeholders in the defence community. In other words, the qualification framework must be institutionalised. At the base level, SQF-MILOF is already institutionalised by establishing a sectoral qualification framework for the Military Officer Profession Executive Group (SQF-MILEG) and implementing its decisions by ESDC within the mandate it has. SQF-MILOF has undergone several increments of development: EMILYO, the member state working group, and now the implementation group. This paper will describe possible increments of institutionalisation that relate SQF-MILOF with military officer recruitment and staffing; targeted and cost-effective competency development through training and education; officer career support throughout their service; and achieving these at both national and European levels.
Profession Or Not, And Why Is It Important?
The title of the SQF-MILOF includes the term “profession”. However, certain issues arise in bodies of literature that try to define military service as a profession. Professions in the sociological literature are described as institutions having a particular and distinct relationship with the state, among other things. And there are opinions that professions are no longer consequential institutions. For Gorman and Sandefur, the distinction between knowledge-based work and other occupations lies in the need to gain specialised education. However, that does not imply any significant institutionalisation of certain groups around any specific concept of work.
A glance at the SQF-MILOF will immediately demonstrate that a military officer's skillset will overlap with multiple other areas of expertise. So, the SQF-MILOF core is not so much a core of competencies distinct from all other knowledge-based expertise but a constellation of competencies that can only be achieved by consistent and directed effort. Libel adopts a similar line of reasoning that security expertise is no longer a preserve of military officers. Libel builds on Eyal and Pok, whose framing aligns with Gorman & Sandefur. Focusing on expertise rather than on institutions allows the taking of a pragmatic attitude to a military officer corps's human resource management (HRM) because, analytically, it focuses not on large groups or even individuals but on specific competencies that individuals hold. This holds a promise for using HRM tools that would offer greater flexibility in recruitment, staffing, training, and education as the policy shifts and demands of the military change.
The SQF-MILOF core is not so much a core of competencies distinct from all other knowledge-based expertise but a constellation of competencies that can only be achieved by consistent and directed effort.
Here, an important nuance in the sociology of professions is the focus on selfless service to society. Military officers do not directly serve discernible individual members of the public; rather, their loyalty is to the state. Therefore, framing military officers as a profession complicates the description of the military's mission: a vital element of a profession is self-organisation, which implies an interest in the profession that might not necessarily be in line with that of the political authority of the day. It should be noted that the seminal text on the military profession itself, “The Soldier and the State”, was criticised because it implied that the ‘professional’ officer needed to take a political position. Huntington distinguishes the military profession from all others by using a term from Laswell & McDougal of ‘managers of violence’. However, Huntington’s and Laswell & McDougal’s perspectives on the officer differ.
In Huntington's analysis, the military profession arose from a split of political leader-soldier (as exemplified by Napoleon). However, this does not mean that the officer corps should be viewed as a separate state institution. A concept to consider here may be that of a political-administrative dichotomy. Other functions that are part and parcel of modern states, such as healthcare, education, social welfare services, infrastructure development, and maintenance, have mostly become part of the public sector relatively recently. From this perspective, in the hope of the state maintaining policy cohesion, non-military public officials must share at least some of the values that a ‘professional military would’. At the level of distinction between politicians and public servants, that politico-administrative dichotomy allows listing traits of public officials that a police officer, a military officer, and a civil servant might share. It enables considering ideas related to service and employment in the public sector from a Weberian point of view. The competence that a person may bring into the service is loyalty to the oath, while the promise in return that they may receive from the state is a certain standard of welfare. As long as the oath-reward bond is strong, the administrative entirety of the state may be developed by adopting managerial tools as proven effective:
The administrative staff, which externally represents the organisation of political domination, is, of course, like any other organisation, bound by obedience to the power holder and not alone by the concept of legitimacy, of which we have just spoken. There are two other means, both of which appeal to personal interests: material reward and social honour. The fiefs of vassals, the pretends of patrimonial officials, the salaries of modern civil servants, the honour of knights, the privileges of estates, and the honour of the civil servant comprise their respective wages. The fear of losing them is the final and decisive basis for solidarity between the executive staff and the power-holder.
An administrative community, with a barrier of an oath, and security experts within it, in service of the state, could create an ethos of mutual trust among government agencies and the balancing of ethical principles of efficient policy delivery and respect for the democratic process. From this point of view, the professional traits of the military officer corps, as described by Huntington of corporate consciousness, exclusive responsibility, and expertise, are neither descriptively correct nor helpful for achieving complex policy goals of which the military dimension might just be one.
Limits to SQF-MILOF Utility
SQF-MILOF could become the foundation for standardised military officer training, education, and human resource management to the extent that it is needed. The HRM perspective allows interpreting the application of SQF-MILOF as a cycle of recruitment, training, education, placement, and motivation to better perform militaries in the tasks that are set before them. Recruitment has been a major challenge in NATO countries for some time. Population ageing, lower working condition flexibility, and more restrictive compensation practices mean that public service, military included, is less competitive in attracting talent. Western militaries vary in size dramatically, and smaller states often deploy their officers for training internationally to gain skills or rely on the civilian sector. HRM is a broad field; indeed, recruitment and training (or professional development) are often considered integral to this organisational process. What SQF-MILOF offers advanced military organisations is competency mapping and modelling. Military organisations, like any other, can endeavour to map the competencies of their staff and develop their competency models using the SQF-MILOF as a reference. Such data can serve policy decision-makers, recruiters, and educators in quickly identifying gaps in required competencies, deploying officers where their competencies are needed most, and providing targeted support for officers in their professional development.
Population ageing, lower working condition flexibility, and more restrictive compensation practices mean that public service, military included, is less competitive in attracting talent. Western militaries vary in size dramatically, and smaller states often deploy their officers for training internationally to gain skills or rely on the civilian sector.
The potential benefits of SQF-MILOF must be communicated, and political decision-makers must be convinced of the utility of dedicating resources to building an international standardisation process around SQF-MILOF. Standardisation also implies costs through external evaluation and service providers' adoption of administrative compliance mechanisms.
Additionally, for modelling, three distinct aspects of SQF-MILOF need to be kept in mind. Firstly, SQF-MILOF is international in nature and hierarchical. Ideas about its implementation are validated by SQF-MILEG, which comprises representatives from member states. Despite having the possibility to receive input from all sources, there is no systematic relationship between SQF-MILEG and the military officer corps if we describe them as corporations. This is significantly different from the above-described sociological notions of how professions function. This means that SQF-MILOF communication is fragmented.
Secondly, qualification frameworks serve a public governance purpose. Qualification frameworks attempt to better communicate qualifications to employers and involve employers in setting educational goals. Qualification frameworks that describe learning outcomes can allow the creation of a responsive education delivery system. In this respect, the military has an advantage vis-à-vis the civilian sector, including the civil service. Education service providers often work and compete on a market basis to provide a service, and industries compete for talented graduates. So, any education service provider usually cannot engage the sector to gauge the competency demands and vice versa. Qualification frameworks are efforts to define the relevant requirements for industry experts that education providers may need—it is a sort of proxy. For the military, both education provision and service are—at least at the national level—monopolies.
Education service providers often work and compete on a market basis to provide a service, and industries compete for talented graduates. So, any education service provider usually cannot engage the sector to gauge the competency demands and vice versa.
Furthermore, it is not uncommon for the same officers to rotate as an educator and 'employer'. Even in the cases of international training deployments, they are usually strictly regulated at the national level. SQF-MILOF, therefore, is not as much of a tool for national discussions on officer training and human resource policies as it is an international vocabulary that reflects the current understanding of what competencies military officers should possess.
Thirdly, qualification frameworks can be adapted to developing competency models. These models can be implemented at any organisational level, including international ones. In such a model, all officers could report on their competencies from the point of view of the SQF-MILOF, and all military service positions could be described in SQF-MILOF terms. An integrated database would allow for better identification of existing talent that could be placed in most needed parts and identify competency gaps that are lacking from the point of view of placement demands. A geographic aspect can also be integrated into this model. These could even be geographically located and addressed using education interventions as projects or where the gap is sustained through international collaborations to achieve the necessary number of participants in close geographical proximity.
Prospective Increments Of SQF-MILOF Institutionalisation
This overview allows us to imagine several models of employing SQF-MILOF. Our list is not exhaustive but represents a possible spectrum of institutionalisation of varied scopes and political commitment. The above analysis allows putting forward three models: opportunistic, voluntary certification, and strategic HRM.
The opportunistic model is our baseline model that already exists. SQF-MILOF already provides military education service providers opportunities to create training and education content when needs and interests match. The setup of SQF-MILOF configuration also enables the design of voluntary registration and search means. A platform to support this effort was begun to develop by ESDC in 2022. The voluntary certification model can enhance existing training and education opportunities through an external quality assurance mechanism, broad data collection, and analysis of available services, promote stakeholder engagement, and support education and training institutions in curriculum development that would reflect best practices. This model implies the development of a separate institutional mechanism that needs to be arranged in a way that augments, not conflicts with existing national training and education systems and national and international accreditation mechanisms.
The setup of SQF-MILOF configuration also enables the design of voluntary registration and search means. A platform to support this effort was begun to develop by ESDC in 2022.
Finally, the most elaborate application of SQF-MILOF is a strategic human resource management model. This may allow the profiling of officers (and others) against the SQF-MILOF to create new professional development, career planning, rotation and deployment mechanisms for militaries and source expertise by means other than full-time service. This model goes beyond military training and education and requires consistent political support. Again, as with the voluntary certification model, many states have existing national systems at varying levels of sophistication. SQF-MILOF integration may affect them in different ways and to different extents. A lot of academic and analytic groundwork must be done before a possible implementation mechanism can be proposed.
The mandate of EMILYO stresses that its goal is to work toward harmonising education, but it does not necessarily imply integration. Managerial and/or quality assurance standardisation are potential venues to enhance existing efforts on this path by building on SQF-MILOF, which currently represents the state-of-the-art harmonisation of officer training and education. However, standards are not only documents but institutionalised ecosystems of continuous development and compliance assurance supported by relevant data collection, analysis, and exchange. SQF-MILOF was nine years in the making and has resulted in many international cooperation efforts to develop officer training and education. Still, the character of those efforts remains fragmented and varied across states and institutions.
If harmonisation is a goal, a more systematic approach at the EU/NATO level would be helpful. We imagined two models as prospective increments to this end. Further institutionalisation of SQF-MILOF can help develop adaptive and cost-effective training and education across EU/NATO militaries. It can also contribute to better staffing, career planning, support, and economically rational human resource management decision-making at both the national and, ultimately, EU/NATO levels. Staffing and retaining military officers is challenging for most EU/NATO member states. So, a strategic, priority, and data-driven approach to this challenge strikes us as an opportunity not to be missed.
Further institutionalisation of SQF-MILOF can help develop adaptive and cost-effective training and education across EU/NATO militaries. It can also contribute to better staffing, career planning, support, and economically rational human resource management decision-making at both the national and, ultimately, EU/NATO levels.
Our analysis also suggests that using the term profession within the context of military service needs to be very careful. The key benefit of SQF-MILOF is that it allows the focus to be changed from a group (professional or otherwise) to the competencies of a single person. Each competency can be analysed and related to the service requirements of a particular position. At this level of analysis, certain traits of a military officer can be found among many citizens, thus creating new recruitment opportunities and nonlinear career options for military officers within the public sector as the security environment shifts and changes. In this line of reasoning, SQF-MILOF is a basis for a competency model in that anyone possessing the relevant could be measured against SQF-MILOF and thus open recruitment opportunities. Regular officers should have formal and systematic training and education-based SQF-MILOF. Still, in situations where there is a need for temporary contributions, or a rapid scaling of the force, a system of assessing persons against SQF-MILOF can be beneficial.
Dr. Mantas Bileišis, General Jonas Žemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania, Vice-Rector for Studies and Research. Col Dr. Alin Bodescu, National Defence University “Carol I”, Deputy Commandant. The views contained in this article are the authors’ alone.
 Comparison of courses based on competences (LoD 2), ESDC internal document, IG/2014/002 (Rev 4), 24/09/ 2014.
 The given competence areas were: military serviceman; military technician; leader and decision maker; combat-ready role model; communicator; learner and a teacher/coach; critical thinker and researcher; international security/diplomacy actor.
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