Employing ex-soldiers in the workplace

Employers can be wary of employing ex-Armed Forces personnel in civilian roles, but someone with a services background can bring a wea lth of valuable skills to the workplace, as Helen Gilbert discovers.

When the Conservatives set out their education manifesto last month, they proposed a ‘Troops to Teachers’ programme that would retrain ex-service personnel as teachers. The Tories believe boosting the numbers of ex-Army staff would help instil a sense of discipline, inspiration and leadership in the education system that will be passed onto pupils.

The concept is not new, however. Two years ago, the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank published a report suggesting that former soldiers should be retrained as teachers. The study found that ex-servicemen and women could have a profound effect on discipline and learning within inner-city schools. Their ‘macho’ image might also have the added bonus of engendering respect, particularly among boys, the report said.

Around 24,000 people leave the Armed Forces each year, and there are an estimated five million veterans in the UK, Ministry of Defence figures show. It would seem that employers might do well to consider them for roles, or at least add them to potential interviewee lists, given the transferable skills they come equipped with.

But according to Nicholas Harrison, founder of Soldier On, an organisation that specialises in seeking civilian employment for disabled former Armed Forces personnel, some employers are deterred by the horror stories portrayed in the press.

“I do fear that the slight media overkill stories about homeless former personnel, or those suffering from alcohol-related problems or who have been in prison, are allowing the public to believe that the majority of people who have served [in the Armed Forces] are incapable of clothing and feeding themselves and will all suffer from anger management issues and take to the bottle,” he says.

Stereotype

His organisation aims to banish the ex-soldier stereotype and help HR directors see the benefits that ex-service staff can bring. Qualities such as loyalty, good timekeeping, discipline and smart appearance are often attributed to former service personnel, but Harrison points out that they have much more to offer.

“It may surprise many people to hear the Army alone offers more than 150 different trades, ranging from medical to engineering and accounting to marketing,” he explains.

“The fact candidates are, on the whole, tidy, trustworthy, loyal, incredibly driven, with operational and managerial experience in some of the most challenging environments, should be seen as a bonus to everything else, and not the only selling point.”

Stephen Bevan, managing director of The Work Foundation, agrees. During the past 25 years, he has carried out two major studies on soldiers who have decided to quit the Army and take up civilian roles.

“What came out in the research is that civilian employers would benefit from the clear sense, can-do attitude [of ex-services staff],” he says. “An ex-soldier’s typical approach to a complicated problem is: let’s reduce it down to the key essentials of what you need to do to make a difference.

Challenge

“There’s an intolerance in most Army people to fudging or ambiguity. It increases with people who have seniority. If you’ve been a corporal, sergeant or officer, you have more responsibility and accountability for getting things done. You don’t see them as problems but as obstacles to overcome. There’s a sense of: give me something that is difficult – that’s a challenge and I will relish it.”

Case study

Tim Burton, head of operations for the Welsh Rugby Union, responsible for recruitment, is an ex-Army officer with 12 years’ experience.

He undertook various roles from platoon commander to finally being responsible for education and training, but left the Army in 1995 when he decided to marry and settle.

According to Burton, the transition to his first civilian role as a consultant was seamless as he had spent much of his previous work in the Army advising on resettlement. But the attitudes he experienced left him a little perturbed.

“There are stereotypical prejudices from some employers towards military personnel,” he says. “When I first came out of the Army, I went along and spoke to a couple of recruitment companies and headhunters. Their immediate response was: ‘you’re a squaddie’ – they don’t understand the difference between the many Army roles and there is no comprehension of the skillset.

“Businesses only seem to have two types of experience – either fantastic, or a disaster. That’s the impression that came across.”

However, Burton is quick to point out the advantages of taking on ex-Army personnel. “There is a ‘can-do’ attitude – the vast majority of military people possess that. Because training is key to what they have to deliver, they have to have up-to-date, relevant skills that are easily transferable. My background teaches you not to panic and come up with plans quickly. If Army staff have come from a trade background, such as engineering, that’s an obvious transferable skill, which has been honed in an extremely difficult environment.”

Another advantage, says Bevan, is that ex-services staff are usually team players. “Being in the military requires you to depend on other people and trust them in dangerous situations. There’s an ‘all or nothing’ element about the way people manage teams, and 100% commitment. Utter reliability is highly valued and can save your life.”

However, one common worry among ex-military employees is that work in civvy street might be mundane and unstimulating. This emerged in both Bevan’s studies.

“There’s a fear of boring, routine work – a notion of working nine to five,” says Bevan. “One of the things employers have to recognise about the Army is that soldiers, by and large, do get variety in what they do. They get trained in several things, depending on which area they are in.”

Ideal

Centrica is one employer that espouses the virtues of ex-military staff and has long taken them on. It has employed around 15 over the years in roles ranging from engineering to management to customer services.

Melanie Flogdell, the firm’s head of HR policy, explains: “If you think about the kind of attributes an ideal employee should have, organisational skills, loyalty, reliability, integrity and confidence would probably all be on your list. You will find these attributes in most ex-Army employees.

“Decision-making, communication, leadership and team-building are all areas where ex-Army personnel can add value to your organisation. They also have a great deal of experience in dealing with a diverse range of people from all ranks, nationalities and cultures. They develop vital skills to enable them to cope under pressure. Their training also focuses on evaluation, decision-making, planning and communication skills – all key areas of competence which employers can capitalise on, no matter what their industry.”

It is perhaps not surprising that some employers may question the health of ex-Army staff, particularly those returning from tough, dangerous environments such as war zones.

Related mental-health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder have been well-documented. But, according to Flogdell, this should not put employers off. “Fortunately we have not experienced such issues, and if you look at the value of employing ex-Army employees, they outweigh any concerns,” she says.

Responsibility

James Ramsbotham, chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce, which also employs ex-Army personnel, agrees, and thinks employers have a corporate social responsibility when it comes to recruiting former services staff.

“Strength of character continues to be required every day for many who have returned from recent conflicts, perhaps having suffered life-changing injuries,” he says. “Encountering these incredible individuals can be equally life changing.

“Businesses owe it to these heroes to engage with them, find them employment, and help them to continue to have useful and rewarding lives.

“Their positivity and strength of character boosts wider team morale and makes many rethink what corporate social responsibility is really all about,” he adds.

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