Ex-Forces personnel: Front line to assembly line

Manufacturers are increasingly recognising that ex-Forces personnel have many of the characteristics they are looking for in employees – hard working, team-oriented and technically skilled. James Lawson explores the path from military to manufacturing.

Ex-Forces Personnel Defence Helicopter - image courtesy of Leonardo.
As well as technical ability, the Forces also instil personal values and ethics eminently suited to demanding manufacturing roles – image courtesy of Leonardo.

Manufacturing has a skills shortage, there’s no doubt about that. More than half of the businesses recently surveyed by The Manufacturer in its Annual Manufacturing Report say they are in urgent need of skilled staff.

Worst-case estimates suggest there will be a shortfall of one million engineers in the UK by 2025. Ex-military personnel can play a critical role in filling that gap.

From engineering and project management to logistics and accountancy, they have precisely the training and experience manufacturers are seeking.

Tailor-made recruits

According to Deloitte (Veterans Work, 2016), 72% of organisations that have employed ex-military staff would recommend this approach to others. More than half promote veterans more quickly than recruits from other backgrounds.

 This article first appeared in the December/January issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here. 

Not only are many military training courses far longer and more in-depth than their civilian counterparts, but also the vast majority of non-military-specific MOD courses now align with accepted civilian standards like NVQ or BTEC.

That means manufacturing can benefit directly from the huge training budgets invested in military personnel.

“You can pick up more and more accreditations and qualifications over time,” says ex-Army electronics technician Steve Chessell. “I stopped after I gained a degree in Systems Engineering but many go on to do Honours or a Masters.”

As well as technical ability, the Forces also instil personal values and ethics eminently suited to demanding manufacturing roles. To reach their position, commissioned officers and NCOs alike must possess strong leadership and project management abilities.

Many military training courses last far longer, and are more in-depth, than their civilian counterparts.
Many military training courses last far longer, and are more in-depth, than their civilian counterparts.

Someone holding a seemingly lowly rank, such as corporal, will still be responsible for a large body of men or complex systems ranging from radars to jump jets. Deloitte found that veterans excel at strategic management, are more loyal to employers and take fewer sick days.

Flexibility is another key attribute. “Exmilitary personnel are largely happy to relocate to many parts of the UK at short notice,” says James Lawrence of Ex-Military Careers.

Look beyond the military experience

An open mind is vital. If there is no direct civilian equivalent of Forces qualifications and experience, it can be hard for employers to recognise and appreciate them. “You need to put experience in civilian terms on your CV,” advises ex-Royal Navy navigator Andrew House. “Often they can’t see past the lack of commercial experience.”

As well as CV writing and interview technique, resettlement courses cover topics like re-housing, finance and self-employment. The MOD is generous and flexible in allowing time for vocational retraining; the longer the service, the more training time and the higher the level of support.

Leavers also receive allowances, grants and £2,000 of Enhanced Learning Credits (ELCs).

“I completed PRINCE2 and a Diploma in Management using ELCs and the resettlement budget allocated to all individuals in their last two years of service,” says ex-Army engineering manager Dave Mackinder.

More than 15,000 personnel left the UK Armed Forces in 2016. That’s a sizeable pool of talent, but many others fish in it. The most able ones make a beeline for blue-chip firms like Babcock, BT and Barclays, but manufacturing tends to be less attractive.

Manufacturers who can look beyond military-specific experience and appreciate the technical expertise of ex-Forces personnel can benefit greatly from the huge training budget invested in the military.
Manufacturers who can look beyond military-specific experience and appreciate the technical expertise of ex-Forces personnel can benefit greatly from the huge training budget invested in the military.

“There’s a general impression that in manufacturing you sit in serried ranks and do a repetitive job,” says Mike Nicholson, Principal of Forces Business Net. “IT, project management and financial services are popular, particularly banking for officers.”

“Going from a Guards regiment to the City is a well-trodden route,” agrees House. “But I know a couple of ex-Army officers who took it and they found it incredibly dull.”

Manufacturing can offer far more absorbing, practical and creative careers than paper shuffling in the Square Mile. To make sure they are the first port of call, manufacturers need to up their game and prove that they are the most suitable home for ex-military talents. Open evenings, participation in networking events, signing up to the Armed Forces Covenant – any form of engagement is helpful.

Leonardo is a particularly military-friendly manufacturer, offering work placements to veterans and winning MOD awards for supporting reservists within its workforce.

“Our experience shows that they are excellent at absorbing complex information rapidly, then working under pressure to meet tight deadlines,” says a company spokesperson. “It can sometimes take them a while to relax into an environment in which they don’t have to adhere to hierarchical formalities with their managers and senior executives.”

Jaguar Land Rover is another example, running a six-week course designed to give confidence and civilian job skills. Plus, their Invictus Games work placement legacy programme, is designed to help rehabilitate wounded, injured and sick ex-personnel and aid transition into civilian careers.

Staff Sergeant Wayne Walker, formerly of the Queen’s Royal Lancers, joined the Solihull manufacturing team as a process leader, following completion of the company’s inaugural 12 week programme.

Former Staff Sergeant Wayne Walker (Queen’s Royal Lancers) is a process leader at Jaguar Land Rover in Solihull.
Former Staff Sergeant Wayne Walker (Queen’s Royal Lancers) is a process leader at Jaguar Land Rover in Solihull.

Wayne, 36, joined the training programme after being medically discharged from a 19-year military career, which saw him serve in operational tours of Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. It was in Iraq that he sustained a serious knee injury following the detonation of a vehicle-born IED (improvised explosive device).

BAE Systems and GSK also offer work placements to Forces leavers, demonstrating the realities of a civilian role, such as a less rigid management style, and with the potential for a permanent job at the end.

Recruitment routes

When recruiting Forces leavers, the Career Transition Partnership (CTP) is a good place to start. The main agency involved in resettlement, it offers support, career transition advice and training opportunities. The CTP hosts employment fairs countrywide and its RightJob recruitment website lists thousands of live vacancies.

However, there are many criticisms of the CTP’s effectiveness, with a poorly structured and unchanging website a particular target. “The CTP is run by a private company,” says Lawrence. “The government needs to take more ownership rather than sub-contracting the work out with little supervision.”

Both leavers and employers should look beyond the CTP to service-specific charities and informal networks. The White Ensign Association, a Royal Navy and Royal Marines charity, is one example with a long list of industry partners and its own job database.

“White Ensign gave me very good advice and pointed me in the right direction,” says House. “They give you confidence that you are making the right move.”

Since 1993, REME’s (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers’) in-house job agency RAJA has been helping the Army’s technical experts find civilian employment.
Since 1993, REME’s (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers’) in-house job agency RAJA has been helping the Army’s technical experts find civilian employment.

Since 1993, REME’s (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers’) in-house job agency RAJA has been helping the Army’s technical experts find civilian employment. WO1 (ASM) Matt Chapman, RAJA’s Transition Warrant Officer, emphasises that former REME soldiers and officers have found great success across many sectors, including manufacturing.

“We find that the main challenge associated with effective transition is communication,” he says. “Often, opportunities have been generated through the work of RAJA engaging with employers and explaining the role of the REME and the skills of our people.”

RAJA’s services are free and Chapman says that he is always keen to connect with new employers, industry contacts or other organisations. “These guys make the direct link between industry and those preparing to leave,” says Mackinder. “If you’re looking for talented engineers, this is how you’ll find them.”

Then there are the many networking associations. The List manages a job-seeking and networking database, and also runs monthly regional events under its Liquid List programme. These bring jobseekers together with employers and recruiters in an informal setting.

There are many others like Leavers’ Link, the Bristol-based Alma Group, North-East Officers Network and Midlands Military Meet. Mike Nicholson’s Forces Business Net website and the accompanying Net News publication provide information on the sectors and companies looking for ex-Forces staff and the military-specific programmes they run.

Beyond them, there are many recruitment agencies that specialise in placing ex-military staff, with various magazines, job websites and a range of other CTP initiatives like the Talent Retention Solution – all helping fill vacancies.

Social enterprise Ex-Military Careers is one of the few not to extract a whopping fee for a placement. “If there is demand, you’ll find a recruitment agency setting up a desk within that vertical market to make a profit from it,” says Lawrence.

That manufacturing skills gap isn’t going away. Although they won’t fill it on their own, ex-military personnel make valuable additions to any business. And with the MOD investing tens of thousands of pounds in each individual, why not let the taxpayer fund your staff training for a change?