Tapping into talent: businesses missing out on skills of armed forces veterans

Former armed services personnel can bring a wealth of skills and knowledge into an organisation, but too few businesses know how to reach this group of workers

Retailer John Lewis became the 10,000th signatory of the Armed Forces Covenant last month. Signing the covenant is intended to demonstrate an organisation’s commitment to treat those who have served in the armed forces fairly – for businesses this means fair treatment in the employment process and supporting both serving personnel, veterans and their families in their professional lives.

In general, employers understand the benefits that hiring veterans can have. A 2022 YouGov survey found that 71% of employers think that ex-service personnel bring a strong work ethic to their organisation and 42% saw the potential benefits of recruiting them to fill skills gaps. This second point is particularly pertinent in a labour market where 80% of UK businesses report difficulties in filling vacancies.

With 16,250 people leaving the armed forces in the 12 months to October 2022 – up 17.4% on the previous year – it represents a sizeable talent pool. Accessing this talent, though, can prove to be difficult, with a third of employers stating that they find it difficult to engage with the ex-service community, according to a report from the civic organisation GoodPeople

“In the last 12 months, I’ve seen an increase in organisations who are focusing on their talent acquisition from ex-military,” says Andy Pearson, head of defence recruitment teams UK&I, at Hays. “Lots of businesses have realised there’s an opportunity but not all of them have switched onto accessing that talent and using it to supplement the recruitment they’re already doing.”

In his opinion, barriers that prevent ex-service people from finding employment can come at the first stages of the recruitment process. “There are challenges even around some of the basic things, like writing a CV and translating some of the transferable skills they’ve learnt in the armed forces into something that would appeal to an employer,” he explains.

Sometimes people leave the armed forces and lack a sense of purpose

Employers must be cognisant of the fact that, for some ex-services personnel, this could be the first interview they’ve had since they joined the armed forces at the age of 16, says Chris Wilkinson, director at cybersecurity solutions provider BSS, Royal Corps of Signals reservist and former information communications specialist for the Royal Air Force (RAF).

“If you see a job spec within the military, you have to be able to tick off every single qualification or experience before even being considered for the role,” he adds. “ This means that a lot of military people think that they’re not good enough for the jobs that they’re going for and can sometimes lack that ability to sell themselves.”

There are also misconceptions surrounding veterans that can leave them at a disadvantage in the jobs market, according to Wilkinson. “Some people still think ex-military people are very aggressive or that they are all white, cisgender and male. But the military is a diverse organisation,” he says.

How businesses can help veterans find their purpose

How businesses can help veterans find their purpose
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How can employers support ex-services people?

Signing up to the Armed Forces Covenant is a clear way for employers to show their commitment to helping ex-military personnel. Pearson says he is a “big advocate” of the pledge and Hays is one of the signatories. “It’s a really good indication that the organisation helps to support ex-forces employees and their families,” he adds.

But there is additional support that businesses can provide that can help improve retention and give veterans a better chance of thriving in their new civilian roles. Pearson says: “Retention is important and it requires making sure that there is a bit of a community or support network around them as well as ongoing investment from a training and development perspective.”

In Wilkinson’s experience, two of the companies that were “the most exemplary” were the consultancy firms KPMG and PwC. Both had employee committees that allowed new employees to speak to others who have trodden a similar path, organised events such as a celebration for Armed Forces Day, and helped break down workplace stigmas. KPMG also kept one of their jobs open for seven months for Wilkinson while he finished his time with the RAF.

Leadership in a conflict situation makes dealing with the board at a large corporation seem pretty straightforward

One of the things that Justin Paveley struggled most with when returning to civilian life, after four years in the Parachute Regiment, was learning how to support himself in a new environment. 

“You go from a place where all your meals and accommodation are provided for you. The first thing that I asked myself was, where do I live? How do I feed myself? Have I got enough money to be able to do that?” he explains. “So, employers need to understand that a veteran coming out of the armed forces on a salary of £30,000 is likely to need a lot more to have the same standard of living when coming into the civilian world.”

Now an engineering director for Kinly, Paveley is helping veterans find their feet in the world of work through its three-month training programme. His experience in the military has greatly helped in this regard. “It’s quite difficult to bring somebody into an organisation if they don’t have that common understanding of what that person’s actually been through,” he says. 

“You’ve come from a structured environment, so if companies don’t have a plan or programme where dates and objectives are fixed, it can become quite demoralising pretty quickly. It’s often where things fail.”

What do businesses stand to gain from hiring ex-armed forces?

Any company that successfully recruits someone from the armed forces stands to bring a plethora of skills into their organisation, according to Paveley. These range from teamwork and communication to leadership.

“Leadership in a conflict situation is very important. It makes dealing with the board at a large corporation seem straightforward in comparison, because it’s not a life or death situation,” he says.

Wilkinson also notes that ex-service people are often willing to “go the extra mile” and are punctual. “In the military, if you turn up on time, you’re actually 10 minutes late,” he jokes.

Crucially, many of these soft skills which are developed within the military can be translated to businesses in any sector. “These people are solutions-focused,” says Pearson. “They’re used to making decisions and evaluating the challenges in front of them every day.”

Ultimately, he believes that, in the current labour market, opening up your recruitment to veterans is “a bit of a no-brainer”.