Former infantry officer Hugh Andrée was incredulous at the question he was asked at the end of his first civilian job interview after leaving the British Army.
“The two young recruiters looked at me and said, ‘Can you get out of bed in the morning?’,” he recalls.
To someone from the disciplined world of the military, it seemed shocking. “Then, four years later, I was managing a recruitment business and dealing with young graduates. They were on the razz at night and I realised what they had meant,” he says.
It would be quite wrong to say UK employers don’t respect or appreciate the talent that exists in the military, but they haven’t been as good at tapping into it as the US, which is highly proactive when it comes to recruiting veterans.
Some prejudices and misconceptions still exist, such as fearing that individuals will be too task-oriented and only able to follow orders.
But there is also a huge lack of understanding about the package of benefits and intrinsic value that ex-military and reservist personnel can bring to the workplace.
The greatest skill the military gives you is the ability to understand problems, develop practical solutions, and then plan and implement them.
Andrée founded ForceSelect, a specialist recruitment consultancy for ex-service personnel, which acts as a bridge between the military and civilian worlds. When looking at recruiting ex-service personnel, he encourages employers to base their decision on values rather than just skills and experience
“I tell employers that while they might not get the exact skills they are looking for, nor commercial experience, they will get people who are disciplined, who bring a certain rigour, are tenacious, who look for solutions, have a good team ethos, are loyal and who are pretty selfless individuals,” he says. “From that perspective, you know exactly what you are getting.”
In June this year, 4,000 more Armed Forces personnel were sent redundancy notices as part of the government’s defence cuts.
The Ministry of Defence has also announced its intention to cut 29,000 military and 25,000 civilian posts by 2015. As a result, large numbers of ex-service personnel are finding themselves entering an already difficult job market.
On the flipside, contraction of the regular Army means far more dependence on the reserve forces, which will have to roughly double in size to 30,000 members.
To make the most of the valuable ex-military talent pool that will exist and to enable the reservists to recruit, train and retain sufficient numbers, employers must become more aware of and receptive to the benefits of having serving and ex-military personnel on their payroll.
Graham Brown, a former Army musician who, like Andrée, founded his specialist firm, Forces Recruitment Services, for military personnel leaving the services, says the “horrendous stereotypes” have long gone.
“People would say to me, ‘I’m not going to get a Windsor Davies, am I?’,” he says (referring to the bawling sergeant major character in the BBC sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum). “Or they thought they would get a lout.”
Thankfully attitudes have moved on, due in no small part to the change in public appreciation of the military following recent conflicts and even their help stepping in at the London 2012 Olympics.
There is increased awareness of both the role of the military and the price its members and their families sometimes pay, with Brown citing charities like Help for Heroes and events such as the funeral corteges through Royal Wootton Bassett as playing an important part in this. “The military have succeeded in winning hearts and minds,” he says.
There is also evidence to show that this is starting to translate into recognition by employers of the benefits of employing ex-military personnel.
Brown says engineering, IT and technical positions used to make up a large proportion of its placements, but his agency is now putting more ex-infantry personnel into general management and project management roles.
many employers don’t recognise the value of ex-service personnel simply thanks to a lack of exposure to the military
“These are people that don’t have specific [vocational] skills but can organise people and projects,” he says. “What we’ve seen over the past five years is that employers want the military mindset.”
The more enlightened employers in the UK are becoming more proactive in their recruitment campaigns targeting the ex-military, says Andrée.
“We’ve been mandated by McDonald’s to recruit around 50 people this year as trainee business managers,” he says. Last year ForceSelect recruited for 98 companies and currently has 180 vacancies to fill.
More education is still needed though, and many employers don’t recognise the value of ex-service personnel simply thanks to a lack of exposure to the military, says Keith Spiers, founder of EM Coaching, who also has more than 24 years of military experience as a reservist.
He adds that the high-tempo environments in which recent military operations have taken place, and the shift in how the Armed Forces manages and understands its people, mean that the skill-sets on display are highly relevant to modern workforces.
“A lot of additional management skills have been brought in and softer skills have also been introduced across the military,” he says.
Much to offer
In some cases, he believes the Armed Forces have been well ahead of the civilian world when it comes to modern management trends.
“Everybody talks about empowerment when they talk about managing staff in the civilian environment,” he says. “We call it Mission Command. It’s been used in the British Army since the Battle of Vimy Ridge [during World War I] and is still used throughout the Armed Forces.”
“When I employ regulars or reservists it is always very easy for them to follow the empowerment model. I believe if these people get into middle and senior management roles, they could really start to change cultural attitudes.”
Seamus Smith, managing director of specialist payments company PayPoint, who has spent 13 years in the reservists, suggests it is the early introduction to leadership that the military provides which forms a unique selling point to employers.
He makes the point that in the civilian world, individuals usually have to reach a certain point in their seniority before they are taught leadership skills, but in the military it starts almost immediately.
“It’s almost an inverted dynamic,” he says. “You get a broader and deeper experience of leadership at an earlier point in your career, which can have a positive impact when you make the transition into the commercial world.”
He believes that it is a lack of focus on some of the basic building blocks of leadership, such as integrity and trust, that has led to some of the current problems in the private sector.
“Because the military is so focused on those areas, and has been throughout its history, leaders who come out of that school of thinking are well placed to deal with some of the incongruity that exists in commercial environments today,” he says.
Period of adjustment
Alongside all of the positives, there are a few challenges for ex-military personnel and their new employers when they enter the civilian world of work. Many ex-servicemen speak of the culture shock.
John Wren, a former RAF Wing Commander and helicopter pilot, says he missed the camaraderie and teamwork.
No one can pretend there aren’t challenges ahead, and one of the biggest will be getting employers to accept the increased chances of a reservist on their payroll being mobilised
“There are huge cultural changes wherever you go,” he adds. “The military is a very structured organisation where you know how much everyone is getting paid, for example. Also, in the civilian world, a person’s career path is their own; it isn’t managed by the organisation.” Wren, who also holds an MBA from Henley Business School (gained while still serving in the RAF), has held a number of senior roles in high-profile financial organisations. He believes he has built a reputation for driving change and executing plans.
“I think this is probably the greatest skill the military gives you: the ability to understand problems, develop practical solutions, and then plan and implement them,” he says. “I’ve seen some great ideas in the commercial world but perhaps the biggest weakness I’ve witnessed in private organisations is the lack of effective execution.”
Phil Disney-Spiers experienced a culture shock when he left the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, where he was a regimental nursing officer.
“Getting used to the loss of identity is a challenge,” he says. “The Army has its own style of living, values, standards and law,” he says. “Leaving it all behind can be difficult.”
But he believes that the way the military teaches you to be flexible to different situations and circumstances helps you adapt in civilian roles. “In the Army you change jobs and move house every two years routinely.”
Disney-Spiers is now an occupational health (OH) specialist at the OH service provider COPE, an organisation now committed to employing further ex-service personnel. “Skills such as thinking on your feet and making decisions have proven highly transferable in my role,” he says.
While the military and civilian worlds are extremely different, they are beginning to move more closely together.
Brown says that because more civilian companies are providing services to the Army, there is likely to be more interaction between the two worlds in the future. “For example, civilian contractors are coming in to guard military bases, which never happened 20 years ago,” he says.
“This means the military is getting hands-on experience of civilians on a day-to-day basis in a work environment.” The increased dependence on reservists is also likely to reduce the gap.
No one can pretend there aren’t challenges ahead, and one of the biggest will be getting employers to accept the increased chances of a reservist on their payroll being mobilised.
While serving as a reservist officer, Smith told one of his men he should inform his employer that he was due to go on operations: “He came back to me and said, ‘That’s a bit of a problem as my employers don’t know I’m in the reserves.’ We now have a pressing need to work out how employers can be made to feel warm and positive about an employee’s involvement in the military.”