Marching to a different tune

Equipped for the forces, and little else? Not any more. Harry Wynne-Williams reports on the booming employment prospects for ex-army boys
ON A HOT, still night in the summer of 1990, I found myself lying exhausted in an army bed, trying to decide just how long I needed to endure something for which I'd volunteered, before I could justifiably cite irreconcilable differences and escape.

I was 19 and was indulging a schoolboy curiosity by turning up for Brigade Squad, the potential officer's course of the Household Division, held at the Guards Depot in Pirbright. This meant two months of life as a recruit - enough to test the commitment of any potential officer and designed for just that purpose.

That night I resolved, rather nobly I think, to endure it for two weeks. But by an entirely predictable process, I found myself still there at the end of the course, convinced that I had achieved a great feat of willpower and hooked on the idea of a few years in the Welsh Guards after university. I passed the army's officer selection board and was awarded a university bursary, which committed me to a year at Sandhurst, followed by three year's service.

In the meantime parents and elders swelled with pride. Traditionally, a spell in the army was seen by many as just the thing to complete a chap's education. Connections were formed and good jobs were sure to follow. But by the time I had completed my degree I was equally well versed in another, more contemporary view. Spending the first few years of your career in the army would merely ensure that you would be older, lacking in relevant experience and perhaps slightly institutionalised when you came to find a job at the end of it. Moreover, I had become interested in a career in the media. I began to wonder whether infantry tactics and regimental life were the best prelude for such a career.

Despite such doubts, I honoured the terms of my bursary and duly reported at Sandhurst. With hindsight I'm glad that I did. The four and a half years that followed were as wide and enjoyable an experience as I could have ever hoped for. Since leaving, I have been relieved to discover that the experience is relevant to a civilian career.

As a journalist, the relevance of my experience is fairly subtle. Essentially it made me more confident, improved my communications skills, taught me to think on my feet and gave me an added perspective to bring to my new profession.That perspective has been invaluable in terms of the stress on deadlines and accuracy, or the arbitrary style of working relationships, to name just a few.

Even those who anticipate a longer career in the forces do so in the knowledge that they will need to find another job after leaving. Aside from the few who reach the dizzy heights of the force's top brass, most will not serve beyond the ceiling age of 55. So the issue of secondary career prospects is a concern for any officer, not least the 1,950 or so who will leave this year. For the vast majority, their management skills will be their greatest asset.

Mike Hartwell is a recruitment consultant at Robert Walters, specialising in banking operations. He believes that both ex-officers and employers are often mistaken in thinking that the former have no experience. Most of the ex-forces people I meet are graduates with four or five years of broad leadership and management experience. All they need to add is the relevant product knowledge.

Headhunter Ian Patterson, a former army officer who runs a "search and selection" consultancy, agrees: "80 per cent of management skills are common. The specific knowledge is only 20 per cent." He specialises in finding former officers to fill jobs in areas such as project management for corporate clients.

Not surprisingly, he is ebullient about their potential, which he believes stems from the forces' standards in selecting, training and evaluating their officers: "The average young officer receives more formal management training than many chief executives," he says. "It just needs to be successfully translated into civilian terms."

Some companies have fully institutionalised the common ground between military and civilian practice. American corporate giant General Electric (GE) has even created a Junior Military Officer recruitment programme to attract candidates from forces backgrounds across Europe. The majority of last year's entrants, some 45 per cent, were British.

But ex-officers don't always get it right. Gary James specialises in sales and marketing appointments for recruitment consultants Michael Page. Having seen many ex-officers, he knows their common weaknesses as well as their strengths. "The two main ones are commercial naivete and an occasional tendency to take a job on the bounce, for the sake of having one," he explains.

Robin was wary of making such a mistake when he left the army last year. He spent five months without a job, turning down five job offers that stemmed from an endless round of interviews: "To me it was a question of getting the job, not a job. I took some professional City exams during that period, mostly to prevent a black hole in my CV." He now works as a project manager for a large City bank.

Understandably, the secular nature of forces life can lead to misconceptions by potential employers. Patrick was warned by one personnel officer that, "You will have to learn to work with people that you don't necessarily like." This was to a man who had recently spent six months in close confinement with 90 others in a base in Northern Ireland, with only 10 days off.

But overall, most with experience in the field agree that ex-officers can have an edge in the job market, provided that they are well prepared and focused. All officers are entitled to resettlement courses and time to prepare before leaving. Organisations such as the Officers Association and The List (The Services and Business Network) can offer leads and advice even before an officer has left the forces.

When he or she does leave they need to hit the ground running. As Sandy, now a corporate financier points out, "There is no longer room for the good egg."