The benefits of recruiting ex-military personnel

With skilled professionals in demand, Nick Everard, managing director of J1 Consulting, looks at how experience picked up in the line of duty can be transferable to the business world.

The unwelcome recent news that the UK economy is still flatlining means that now, more than ever, businesses need good people with practical skills and experience if they are to restore themselves to growth.

With unemployment rates remaining high, it might seem logical to assume that organisations have a large pool of talent to choose from. However, in reality the number of suitably qualified individuals who are available for hire by firms is finite, and the competition to secure the services of the best of these is fierce. So where else can British industry look for the kind of people that it needs?

Related: Why military entrepreneurship success stories are on the rise

As a specialist in the placement of ex-military personnel, and a former army officer with a subsequent 12-year commercial career, I am well placed to vouch for the range of skills and attributes servicemen can bring to businesses.

Furthermore, this pool of talent is expanding on the back of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review resulting in major redundancies in the Armed Forces. Tranche 2 of the redundancy programme in June resulted in a further 4500 cuts – but notably, 70 per cent of these were volunteers.

It is very often the most dynamic and well qualified who have taken a view on reduced prospects in the military and set out to build an alternative commercial career. What is more, they have the right to request immediate release in the event of a job offer, so there are some noticeably talented people coming on the market now.

With their recent high profile, there is much public goodwill towards those who have served their country. However, business leaders without military experience sometimes struggle to see how the associated skills and attributes can be applied in a commercial context.

Diverse skills

A significant military campaign such as Iraq or Afghanistan requires much more than just an effective combat capability, critical though that may be. Plans must be made to suit every eventuality: local ‘opinion formers’ must be influenced; infrastructure must be improved; complex equipment must be maintained and repaired and communications systems must continually function.

Furthermore, to enable all this, troops must be constantly resupplied with fuel, food, ammunition, spares and water.

Throughout, as in business, careers must be managed whilst financial accountability and efficient administration are critical. The managerial and vocational skills required to fulfill these demanding and often competing tasks are relevant anywhere: the challenge for employers without any military background lies in finding individuals with the specific specialist skill sets applicable in their line of business.

The core virtues

Individuals who successfully rise to a level of significant responsibility in the armed forces will inevitably have evolved a number of attributes in the process – all of which are valuable in the commercial world.

  • Adaptability: with the norm being a new role every 2-3 years, often in widely contrasting environments (e.g. the battlefields of Helmand to the MOD), ex-military are adept at picking things up fast. The unwritten rule is ‘effective in 6 weeks’.  
  • Accountability: servicemen and women understand that procedures enable an organisation to function effectively, and are used to applying them. They will readily shoulder accountability in ensuring that these are adhered to.
  • Teamwork: with proven experience of leading multi-disciplinary teams, often under difficult conditions, these people also know how to function as effective team members.
  • Task focus: being told ‘what to do, not how to do it’ (as the military are) confers a valuable business mindset: things go wrong; the unexpected happens, in commerce as in war. Ex-military are consciously trained to anticipate this, and to focus on achieving their aim regardless.  
  • Relationship building: the influencing of ‘tricky customers’ from diverse backgrounds and cultures has been fundamental to anything that has been achieved in the recent counter-insurgency campaigns.
  • Professionalism: the military prizes high standards of appearance, integrity, loyalty, timekeeping, personal behaviour, self-discipline and moral courage: if individuals do not develop such traits throughout their careers then they do not get promoted.

Provided candidates are professionally screened, an employer gets these generic ‘core virtue’ military traits for free – and it is these rather than narrow technical skills which are the precise qualities actually needed to succeed, particularly in roles with any managerial content.

Beyond that, it is a question of refining any recruitment mandate so that the company meets only individuals with the appropriate specialist skills to suit their line of business, drawn from a range of over 3000 specialist trades and qualifications spread across the 3 services. Most of these translate directly to their equivalent civilian functions.  Fortunately, rigorous military appraisals make it possible for those who understand the system and its inevitable professional jargon to check individual backgrounds (and indeed assessed potential) in considerable depth.

In making case for ex-military we should add balance in considering legitimate employer reservations:

  • No commercial or industry experience.
  • Unlikely to be able to hit the ground running in some aspects of the role.
  • Cultural compatibility concerns coupled with dated military stereotypes.

These are all fair points, but given professional assessment to ensure genuine compatibility and appropriate skills fit, they are relatively easily addressed.

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

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