Comment - the hidden depths of the military

As the Olympics show the more human face of Britain's armed forces, Nick Everard explains how and why ex-military personnel have much to offer the engineering industry.

I was one of those who actually got tickets in the ballot, so for three days in August my family and I were lucky enough to visit the Olympic Park. And what a triumph it all was. But among all the well-earned praise for the general level of organisation on display; the transport; the venues; the volunteer 'Games makers', and, of course, the athletes themselves, there was one other universally expressed view: how professional, smart, good humoured, efficient and downright nice and normal the members of the armed forces were while conducting the security screening at the Park.

That this seemed to surprise people is understandable in a country where an estimated 70 per cent of the population have never spoken to a member of the armed forces. Thus clich'd preconceptions prevail easily - often of bull necks, shaven heads, tattoos, drill squares and shouting sergeant majors. Like all clich's, they have an element of truth: you will find all that without too much digging; indeed, dare I say it, the services sometimes play up to it a little.

But it is not the reality, and the Games gave members of the armed services a unique chance to show their human face.

My company sources high-quality ex-military to fill client vacancies - with nice, normal people! Inevitably, the misconceived 'culture fit' issue, which the Olympics has done so much to dispel, is the biggest single reservation we face. The second biggest is: "what can a soldier, sailor or airman possibly offer my business?"

Let's examine that premise on the basis of an army example.

First, the supposedly homogenous 'green machine' actually harbours a multitude of skills, simply because a sustained operational deployment such as Afghanistan requires much more than combat capability. Plans must be made to suit every eventuality; local 'opinion formers' must be influenced; infrastructure must be improved; complex equipment must be maintained; communications systems must function 24/7; information and intelligence must be gathered and analysed; casualties must be evacuated and treated - and to enable all this, troops must be resupplied with fuel, food, ammunition, spares and water.

Financial accountability and efficient administration are critical. The managerial and vocational skills required to do all this are those needed anywhere, and with surprisingly little adaptation. The challenge for employers lies in finding individuals with the specific skill sets applicable in their line of business, from a talent pool that can be hard for the uninitiated both to access and to understand.

Secondly, an individual who has risen to any level of responsibility in the forces will have evolved certain marked attributes: adaptability (a completely new role every two years), responsibility, strong team leadership and team member skills, task focus, a well developed ability to build productive relationships, and pride, loyalty and integrity.

These are not always easy attributes for civilian employers to find - and since they are hard to instil, they more than make up for any initial technical unfamiliarity with the business. If drawn from a parallel military background - engineers into engineering roles, for instance - then in truth this transition is not difficult. All that is needed is to graft a commercial veneer onto an already excellent professional base.

With over 3,000 trades and qualifications spread across the three services, coupled with MBA-level management training at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, there are few commercial roles where there is not a 'fit' of some description.

As the services downsize, some of the best and brightest are electing to leave. Which means that astute employers with an open mind can take their pick.

Nick Everard is managing director of J1 Consulting (www.j1consulting.co.uk), which specialises in filling client vacancies with ex-members of the armed forces. Nick was commissioned into the 9th/12th Royal Lancers in 1977 and left the Army in 1999 as a Lieutenant Colonel after commanding that Regiment.

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