Disabled ex-servicemen and women battle for civilian jobs, but there are people and agencies who are willing to help, as Peter Crush reports
In 2011 Ben Nash’s life turned upside down. Barely three years into his career as a private in the Adjutant General’s Corps, the then 20 year old got the news many soldiers dread most – he was going to be medically discharged.
That day Ben joined the pool of approximately 2,000 Armed Forces personnel who each year suffer the same fate: having a disability that prevents them from active duty. Disabilities range from illnesses to battlefield injuries, blast and gunshot wounds, and missing limbs.
“Dealing with my medical condition [he’s reluctant to go into details] was tough enough,” he says. “But on top of this was the prospect of having to find normal work. I was sending out hundreds of applications, running down all my savings and just not hearing back. It was a real nightmare.”
Today though, Ben says he’s one of the “fortunate ones”. Last year he qualified as a chef, having been given an apprenticeship after helping out in the kitchen at the Help For Heroes-funded Tedworth House Recovery Centre in Wiltshire.
But not all have the same luck or speed finding employment. “A lot are struggling to find work,” says Graham Brown, managing director of Forces Recruitment Service (FRS), founded specifically to link ex-military personnel to the civilian job market. “While we help about 200 to 300 people a year, as soon as disabilities come to the fore, we’re seeing doors close for people. Clients find it difficult and disheartening.”
Organisations like FRS are part of a wide range of private companies and public bodies aiming to help ex-servicemen and women into work. They include the likes of the Regular Forces Employment Association, and agencies including ForceSelect, which last month partnered with Capita, CivvyJobs, Demob Job and 4exMilitary.
None specifically focus on disabled ex-Forces personnel, but this is no bad thing, according to Nicolas Harrison, founder of consultancy Soldier On! “The problem with disabled ex-Forces employment is a problem of disabled employment across the board,” he says. “It’s not just a Forces issue. From my perspective, it’s simply about looking at someone’s skills and potential, not their situation. We must view them as normal and non-homogenous people.”
It’s why he’s also wary of labelling any improvements in disabled ex-Services job prospects as being due to a “Paralympic effect”. “Paralympians aren’t the same as disabled ex-soldiers looking for a job,” he says. “While some ex-Forces disabled may show the sort of mental strength exhibited at the Paralympics, there are plenty who do not. The point is they’re all different.”
Joining the Army straight from school, Ben admits he felt he didn’t have “any qualifications employers need” and those who help former Services personal often note that the first problem is most ex-Forces staff frequently under-sell the skills that being in the Armed Forces gave them.
This compares very differently with how many enlightened employers see ex-Forces staff as displaying strategic thinking, leadership, calmness under pressure and getting the job done without watching the clock.
Enlightened employers see ex-Forces staff as displaying strategic thinking, leadership, calmness under pressure and getting the job done without watching the clock
But often, argues Matt Fellows, head of Armed Forces’ and veterans’ services at Remploy, which has helped 150 disabled veterans into work in the last year, employers have a media-driven image that disabled Forces personnel are at the severest end of the disability spectrum, which deters them from reaching out.
“Actually,” he says, “the really severely disadvantaged have numbered only about 1,000 in the last 13 to 14 years; most of these tend to go down a fundraising path. Of the 2,000 discharged annually, most won’t suffer anything requiring drastic alteration to the workplace.”
Employers who are trying, though, include BT, which recently announced 250 engineer opportunities, McDonald’s and pub chain JD Wetherspoon. At the latter is Steve Saxton, manager at the Robert Bruce pub, in Dumfries. His 22-year career in the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment and Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment ended soon after he suffered a stroke, leaving him with memory loss and co-ordination problems. “My initial thought was who would want me? But the hospitality industry has restored my confidence and developed my skills,” he says.
In 2010, Barclays launched its Armed Forces transition, employment and resettlement (AFTER) programme that helps wounded and physically disabled personnel find work, tackling confidence issues by running CV-writing and job-finder workshops at all of the UK’s Army recovery centres each month. In addition, it then brings people in for work experience – 50 have so far done this – and, in some cases, it does lead to jobs.
“We believe in focusing on this group because we believe they need help,” says Stuart Tootal, Barclays chief security officer. “Although we don’t give them any special advantages, what we do say is that, if we’re right for them and they’re right for the business, we’ll take them on.” The bank already employs many ex-soldiers – its Armed Forces network has more than 300 UK members – which means the skills ex-Services people bring are already well understood internally.
Despite stories to the contrary, some have suggested that disabled Armed Forces personnel actually have better chances at work than “regular” disabled people because of the defence skills they possess. “The fact our heroes are so much more in the public domain is definitely a draw,” accepts Gerry Hill, chief executive of Hire a Hero, which works with employers to help them make adjustments in the workplace, such as how to be more accessible and fit jobs around individuals’ abilities.
Perhaps ex-Forces staff and employers both need to believe in each other more. But, says Mr Harrison, perhaps if there were more employers with an open attitude, then it might make more ex-Services people feel their skills are worthwhile. “In 2013, it’s still a case of disabled ex-Forces staff getting what’s on offer, rather than what they really want,” he says. “Once we see this change, disabled people will be able to pursue meaningful careers.”
TRANSITION FROM ARMY TO OFFICE
For Ed Addlington, 29, a captain in the Riffles and veteran of Iraq and Kosovo, disaster struck when, ten days from ending a tour in Afghanistan in 2009, 35 kilos of explosives detonated under his vehicle. Despite terrible injuries to both legs and an arm, he was able to keep all his limbs.
Ed spent some time at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Unit at Headley Court in Surrey, where he was introduced to a partner from Deloitte – a meeting which was to help put his shattered life back together.
Deloitte was running ‘insights’ days, helping soldiers make the transition from army to office, in partnership with the Officers’ Association, the Army Recovery Capability and the Career Transition Partnership.
“I was invited on a work placement in the risk group in April last year,” Ed says. “After formally being discharged in December 2012, I was given a full-time job in its consulting division at the start of this year.”
Deloitte began running insights sessions in 2012 and in January this year formally launched its military transition and talent programme, to help ex-Forces personnel “civilianise” their CVs.
Stevan Rolls, Deloitte’s UK head of HR, says: “These guys have a great set of skills, but they don’t often know how to verbalise them into the language of business. We also find that coming into the workplace is a positive part of a person’s recovery.”
Ed, who was also diagnosed with a brain condition, had to teach himself how to stay focused while reading, gradually increasing his concentration span. “I’m now able to concentrate for an hour at a time,” he says. “Beyond that I don’t need any adaptions. I walk using a stick and I have to allow more time for journeys, but that’s about it.
“When you come from a position where you should have been killed, you tend to rethink life,” he adds. “But I definitely knew I wanted to work.”
WHERE TO GET HELP AND ADVICE
ACCESS TO WORK is a government scheme that helps people with disabilities who wish to take up employment or who are in work and experience difficulties related to their disability. It can also help employers who wish to recruit or retain people with disabilities in employment.
BUSINESS DISABILITY FORUM has more than 20 years’ experience of equipping people with the expertise to create confident organisations by improving the understanding of disability in business, removing barriers and making adjustments for individuals.
SCOPE provides information services on all aspects of disability.
Contact: 0808 800 3333
DISABILITY RIGHTS UK promotes meaningful independent living for disabled people.
Disabled Students Helpline: 0800 328 5050
Independent Living Advice Line: 0845 026 4748
General inquiries: 020 7250 3222