A job candidate who’s highly organised and has a proven ability to lead teams in high-pressure situations might sound fairly employable. But not always. Many veterans have just such credentials and years of experience under their belt, yet often find looking for new work a difficult and demoralising prospect.
‘Far too often we hear of sergeant majors who have led teams of up to 100 people who are now hospital porters and if you ask them why, they say "I couldn’t find anything else in the local area" and that’s a huge waste of resources,’ says Stuart Tootal, chief security officer at Barclays and head of the company’s Armed Forces Transition Employment and Resettlement (AFTER) programme. To date it has helped 4,000 veterans in their hunt for employment and Barclays has hired around 350 of those. Tootal estimates that doing so has saved them £2.5m in recruiting fees.
‘We had one case of an RAF flight sergeant, whose job was highly technical and required huge amounts of attention to detail, sweeping the floor at a fast food restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with that – but it’s not by choice. It’s because they’re not sure about how to find employment which best suits their skills.’
Tootal himself spent twenty years in the army in the Parachute Regiment, including commanding the first UK battle group of 1,200 soldiers sent to Helmand in Afghanistan. He resigned back in 2008. ‘I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do – I just knew it was the right time to leave,’ he says.
That’s a common problem. Ex-service personnel often don’t have a clear plan for their new life on civvy street. Whether you’ve been in the armed services five years or twenty, the likelihood is you won’t have had to draft a standard CV, nor will you have much experience of a typical interview process. You may not know where to look for the jobs that will best suit you, or how to make your skill set resonate with employers.
Rachel Scandling was perhaps more organised than most when she did decide to leave the Navy – planning out a 12 month campaign to set herself up for success in the private sector. Scandling had joined the Navy after college, becoming one of the first women – and mothers – to go to sea. By 2010 she had risen to the rank of commander, putting her among the top 2% of women in the senior service.
Despite her disciplined approach to departure, she found time sped by. ‘You put in a couple of courses of two months each, weeklong training sessions on CV workshops and of course you’re still doing a full-time job as well,’ Scandling explains. ‘I was overseeing five overseas bases and going out to the Falklands and Singapore as well as preparing for the transition. I think looking for a full-time job is a full-time job in itself.’
Scandling’s now a project manager in the investment bank at Barclays, but in the early days of applying for jobs, she found one of the biggest obstacles was a misconception about what ex-military people were like. ‘We live by a set of rules and values and they’re ingrained in you, but I think sometimes within the private sector they can be misinterpreted and you come across as intimidating,’ she says. ‘I applied for a role within a charity, got to the final four and one of the questions I was asked was, "You’re coming from a very disciplined, hierarchical environment – how do you think you’ll fit into a messy charity environment where lots of workers think they’re volunteers even though they’re paid employees?"’
Scandling felt the assumption was that she’d march in, bang her first on the table and start barking orders if people didn’t do what she wanted. ‘I think there is an outdated perception of military types – probably fed by a generation that grew up on Dad’s Army, but we are much more inclusive now.’
Ex-Royal Marine Sam Clark agrees. ‘In general, the military guys and girls are flexible, willing to push boundaries and we want to take on more responsibilities,’ he says. ‘If you show them the way – not necessarily lead the way – but show them, they’ll generally get there in the end.’ Clark joined the Marines in 2006 and spent six years doing various international tours, before growing tired of spending more time away than at home. He left in 2012 and initially went into the security industry. ‘A lot of people do it because it’s all they really know,’ he explains. ‘It was smoother for me because I was working for a private company but still working with military people, so you get eased into civilian life.’
Last year he took the plunge in setting up his own tree surgeon firm SPC Tree Services for a few reasons. ‘It was outdoors, it was physical and a little bit dangerous; being up a tree with a chainsaw,’ he says, explaining the appeal. The ability to have ‘a more normal life’ was also key. ‘Coming home every day is something most people take for granted.’
And while running his own business has panned out well for Clark he does think employers could do more to encourage ex-military people as potential candidates. ‘I think employers, or the people who tend to make the decisions at the top, a lot of them don’t necessarily appreciate what the guys and girls from the military have actually been through,’ he says.
Indeed, a survey of 2,000 hiring managers by VETS (Veterans Employee Transition Support programme) found that nearly 50% didn't value military experience on a CV. ‘In some cases, it was ranked below things like being well-travelled and sporty,’ says Tootal. ‘There are so many companies out there which aren’t seeing that they’re missing an opportunity.’ Of course some recruiters may well feel for certain roles, office or similar experience is just more relevant or even that a military background won’t be of great help to their organisation. But that won’t always be the case and discounting it straight off the bat could mean it’s not just veterans missing out, but businesses too.
Many veterans have experiences that most businesses would welcome if they fully understood them. Leadership for one – former members of the armed forces have gone through lengthy leadership courses and then practise it in incredibly challenging situations in places like Afghanistan. ‘They’re taught rigorously how to plan and communicate, they know how to get the best out of people, they’re great team players as well as having a can-do attitude,’ Tootal explains. ‘They think of the organisation rather than themselves, looking after colleagues and comrades is part of their ethos and they’re highly disciplined as well.’
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Often all they need to show the value of that experience in a commercial environment is a little support. ‘I saw a CV from a military individual applying for one of our mortgage solution jobs and all the CV told me was the candidate was female, a sergeant and had been a musician in the army,’ Tootal says.
Following a re-write of the offending document, ‘She became the best performing candidate out of 45 people we interviewed. Veterans have great talent,’ Tootal says. ‘Those people who serve the nation deserve better, but it’s not just about recognising them because they’ve made a sacrifice for all of us. It just makes good business sense to employ more veterans.’