Is there life after the Army?
By Samantha Rea
As an officer in the British Army, Eric Warren served in Afghanistan, the Balkans and the Middle East, before retiring as a major after a career spanning 16 years. He now works in the City, and serves as chair of a network which helps veterans transition to civilian life. Here, Eric shares his own experience of establishing a new career outside the military, along with his insight into making the transition as seamless and successful as possible.
Q: Why did you join the Army?
When I was at school, I played a lot of rugby and swam for the county. I was super active, so when the careers people lined me up for office jobs, I was a bit dismayed. I’d done an internship at an accountancy firm, and it was so boring – I knew I didn’t want to do that. Then a careers officer, who was ex-military, said: ‘Have you thought about joining the military, because they’re active and outside all the time?’ So I went to an open day and I met other people who were just like me, who enjoyed the outside and wanted to do something exciting and active – and from that moment on I was hooked.
Q: When you were in the Army, you did a BSc in Information Technology and followed that with an MBA. How useful was that when it came to applying for jobs post-Army?
The military sponsored me to do those as part of my progressive career training. When I left, it was a long time since I’d completed my undergraduate degree, but I did move into a technology environment, albeit in a business setting. So I’d say they’re both somewhat useful, but the MBA more so, because it has a civilian business leaning.
Q: Can everyone in the Army do degree courses?
Different corps and regiments have different specialities. I was in the Royal Signals which encouraged us to do a lot of training around technology, and across all ranks, you’d do courses and modules that could add up to an undergraduate degree. The MBA was offered to me when I was on promotion to a senior rank. So undergraduate degrees are open to more and more people, not just officers – but the Masters level qualifications are more aligned to some of the roles officers tend to do, to enable strategic thinking.
Q: Will the Army support people in doing degrees that might be useful to them in the future?
When people have training for their trade or service, that’s given to them as part of their normal military service – so if you’re a submarine commander, you’ll be trained to command submarines. In terms of a more broad education, it’s largely down to the individual to do that off their own back. However, the military has a great facility for personal education, in terms of financial support and the time it gives people to do courses that sit outside your training, so there’s huge opportunity.
Q: Can working your way up the ranks in the military improve your employment prospects in civilian life?
There are some trades and services where the skills tend to be more transferrable. So if you’re in the Royal Engineers driving big trucks, you’ll have a Heavy Goods Vehicle licence, which you can take straight into a civilian job, whereas if you’re an infantry soldier and you’re highly experienced in battle fighting, that skill is less directly transferable to civilian life. So career advancement is a way around that, because part of promotion at any rank, whether it’s as an officer or not, is that you’re put on career courses as part of your promotion, and that tends to include educational development and qualifications. So the more you are promoted, the more useful qualifications you’ll gain.
Q: Is it possible to make sideways moves within the military to gain skills that could be useful in civilian life? For example, could an infantry soldier transfer into the Engineers, to get those skills under their belt?
Yes, the Army almost encourages people to multi-skill themselves by trying different things. It’s not a common practice, but the opportunity is there to transfer from one cap badge, corps, or regiment, into another one, which has a different skillset. So if you wanted to move from the Infantry into the Royal Engineers, I’d be surprised if you weren’t supported in that.
Q: If somebody’s in the Army at the moment, and they’re thinking about handing their notice in, what ducks should they line up before doing that?
Consider any pension or financial issues, and get an idea of what you want to do. List three areas you might be interested in working in, then gauge the opportunities that could exist for you, and start lining up a network of people who can help you. Also think about where you want to live and work when you leave, and see if you can get posted nearby for your final posting. I’ve known people placed in Germany who’ve had to travel back and forth to the UK to do resettlement courses, which is quite challenging. Even within the UK, if you want to start your new career in Manchester, then being stationed in the south of the country isn’t the best final posting, because you’ll be travelling back and forth to line up work and accommodation. So consider this when you submit your posting preferences.
Q: What sort of help is available to transition from the military into a new career?
The Career Transition Partnership can put you on courses funded by the Ministry of Defence. They offer everything from CV reviewing to vocational, educational and practical courses, and they’re available to everyone who leaves the military, regardless of rank. It’s called resettlement, and the longer your career, the more time and funding you’ll have available to you to do these courses – because the longer your service, the more time it will take to transition, and the more support you’ll need, particularly if you’re older, trying to transition into a new, second career. You’ll usually be released to do these courses in the last three to six months of your service, before you hand all your kit in – which is an extremely emotional experience, I can tell you!
Q: What was your experience of transitioning from the Army to civilian life?
The military is a relatively safe environment to be in – it’s a regular income, and it’s the public sector, so dropping that security blanket was nerve-racking. I knew I was ready for a new challenge – I’d achieved everything I wanted to in the Army. But I went through periods of uncertainty as to whether I would succeed, and part of me thought I’d made a big mistake. It was the only job I’d known, and the Army’s unique culture was all I’d known since school, so there were moments of self-doubt when I thought, ‘Will I be able to do this? Why would anyone want to employ me?’ There was also the overhanging cloud of not knowing what I wanted to do, because even if you have an idea of what you want to do, you never know if that’s going to be a success, because you haven’t experienced it yet.
Q: How did you get through that?
By reaching out and speaking to people. I had a network of friends through my career, some of whom had left the military previously, so I sought them out and asked for their advice – there’s an element of security in knowing that people before you have gone through the same experience.
So my first network was my friends network, then my second network consisted of the people my friends put me in touch with. This is important, because the military is very good at this, in that people will only recommend you to other people if they think you’re a reliable individual. So the strength of your network is important to give you another connection, to someone you don’t know, from someone you do know.
I put a lot of work into that. I think I OD’d on caffeine for about three weeks whilst meeting people! To keep track, I mapped it out on a piece of paper, using a spider diagram. If I met somebody who was a colleague of a friend, I’d introduce myself politely, thank them for their time, and if they couldn’t help me, I’d ask if they knew someone they could recommend. Sometimes the network would end with no future link, and sometimes it would grow by another step – and go on to grow further. You never know how good a connection or a meeting will be, until you pursue it as far as it will go. So the advice I’d give to anyone is: grow your network and don’t be afraid to ask for advice, because there’s no such thing as a silly question.
Q: How did you make the decision to work in the City?
I knew I wanted to work in London, and I was lucky enough to meet a number of people in financial services who recognised the value veterans bring. I discovered there’s a huge veteran community in the City and a massive network of veterans in financial services, and I plugged into that, as part of my advice-seeking journey.
Q: To what extent do civilian employers tend to recognise the value of veterans?
The transferable skills the military give you are amazing. The self-confidence in your ability, the passion and enthusiasm to learn new skills, the ability to communicate well, a desire to achieve, to get things done and deliver – these are ingrained in all of us, no matter what our rank. I’ve done some work with HR teams and recruiters across a number of industries, to sell the transferable skills which might not always be apparent on a CV. Awareness is growing and organisations that have already employed veterans definitely see those skills as valuable assets.
Q: If someone’s left the military, and they feel unfulfilled in their new career, how can they improve their situation?
In the military you tend to move into a new job every two or three years, so when veterans leave and start new roles, it’s normal to get itchy feet, especially if they’re in their first job since leaving. People often don’t know exactly what they want to do when they transition, so they may not have landed in their perfect job. Organisations such as Liquid List [thelistuk.com] provide free advice, support and networking for veterans, and the Career Transition Partnership is also a resource, even once you’ve transferred out of the military, and it’s embedded into businesses across all areas.
Q: If transitioning to civilian life is proving to be difficult, is going back into the Army ever the answer?
If someone leaves and misses the life, or thinks they’ve made a mistake, I’d encourage consideration for the Reserves. I know a lot of people who, when they’ve had those thoughts, have joined the Reserves, and they’ve enjoyed the best of both worlds. You have time in uniform, you usually retain your rank and you enjoy what the services offer, but with less commitment and without long periods of time away. If joining the Reserves doesn’t turn out to be the answer, then I believe the military is supportive of giving capable people the opportunity to re-join.
Eric Warren supports veterans’ charity The Poppy Factory poppyfactory.org