The Defence Sector:
Making the Transition

Posted: 10th Mar 2020

A world of opportunities for those leaving the Armed Forces

The defence sector is as close to being recession-proof as one could hope to find. The current Government, like successive governments before them, have committed to meeting NATO’s pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence. The Ministry of Defence spent £38 billion in 2018/19, much of which was used to procure equipment: over the next 10 years the MOD will allocate over 40% of its total budget to equipment and support services. This huge market represents a world of opportunities for those leaving the Armed Forces in search of civilian employment and can mean a reasonably seamless transition due to familiarity with the sector.

Companies within the defence sector, customers of the MOD and recipients of their enormous spending view ex-military people as attractive candidates, partly due to their experience in the processes and programmes as well as with defence materiel, but more broadly because of their ability to deliver complex strategies and overcome multiple challenges.

Fiona Jackson, a Career Consultant at the Officers' Association (OA), believes that the defence sector offers many exciting opportunities that complement Service leavers’ existing skills: “There are roles within the industry that can be described as 'generalist', such as account or project/programme management, operations, or business development. Then there are the specialist positions where one can apply the specific trade or professional skills developed during a military career, such as engineering, logistics, or human resources.”

While the defence sector is one of the more straightforward in terms of transition and ex-military personnel will undoubtedly find themselves working alongside fellow veterans, there will still be a period of adjustment. The commercial world, no matter what the industry, is culturally and structurally different from the Armed Forces, as are the hierarchical systems within employer organisations. As commercial entities, defence contractors and suppliers are concerned with satisfying customers' needs and remaining profitable, and while striving to ‘be the best' may contribute to delivering these objectives, you should nevertheless be prepared to embrace the corporate ethos.

Paul Lewis, MD of V.E.T.S. and formerly of the Adjutant General’s Corp in the British Army, specialises in placing former Service personnel into roles within the industry. His experience is that the professionalism, commitment, and sheer will to get the job done that veterans possess, along with the confidence bred from years spent operating in often challenging environments, is what makes them such attractive candidates in the eyes of hiring managers.

“If you have secured a major contract with the MOD or a foreign government's defence department, it means that you have worked incredibly hard to beat your competition, but you now need to deliver. No matter how good your product or service is, you need the right people in place to make sure the client gets not just what they paid for but that their expectations are exceeded. This is how you secure repeat business. I cannot think of a group of people who could be more relied upon to really, truly, deliver when it counts most, than ex-military folk.”

A recent example of industry's desire for military talent came in the form of The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) announcing the launch of a new initiative to harness specialist skills possessed by former Armed Forces people. As part of what it calls an ‘enterprise approach' Dstl, the largest user of science talent within defence, is looking to attract veterans with STEM skills and invest in them, offering the opportunity for a second career including personal development and qualifications. It is possible that this platform could be extended to multiple defence STEM employers.

Nicholas Barsby, who made the transition from Army officer to the defence sector and is now Chief of Staff of the Defence and Security Accelerator, commented: “My role is to bring the experiences and skills that I learnt from my full career and try and help out the people here to do their job in delivering innovation. I was really privileged to be able to help out, in my final years, with both Afghanistan and Iraq bringing in some urgent operational requirements which directly saved lives. It’s that focus and energy which I saw then being applied to help those guys out in the field that I was very pleased to support and doing so again now in a different way.”

Of course, making the transition from the military to the defence sector does not limit one to working for or with the UK Government – there are opportunities worldwide. Lee Holloway, CEO of the Officers' Association, left the Royal Navy and forged a career within the industry that saw him operate in locations across the globe. By his own admission, Lee had no particular trade or specialism from his time in the Navy and describes his role as akin to that of an infantry officer in the Army, but he knew he had transferable skills, even if he wasn't able to put a name to them:
“We talk a lot about transferrable skills, but often we actually don’t know what those transferrable skills are until. I was confident, I was very presentable, I was fairly personable, I was very upfront. That general ability to have the confidence to walk into a room and talk about things that you only know a little bit about.”

After a short spell in Financial Services, Lee replied to an advertisement from a major defence contractor for a position in business development. However, it wasn’t his naval background that ultimately secured him the role but the time he had spent in sales which provided a valuable lesson: “There’s a lot to be said for getting your teeth into something – it doesn’t matter what – and getting some commercial experience under your belt that shows you can extend beyond your military brief.”

Identifying as a ‘self-starter’ – with the impetus and drive that a career in the military often instils – Lee was the only member of his sales team to escape redundancy, after which he took up a new position overseas: “I became a bit of a specialist in the Middle East. And here’s the funny thing: I wasn’t involved in anything remotely to do with the Navy, I was selling mobile geographic systems for the Army.” Transferable skills indeed.

His next role saw Lee with a global brief, based in Switzerland, but spending time in India, Pakistan and beyond, responsible for the sales and marketing of a diverse range of equipment from ammunition to tanks, and space satellite systems to security software. Despite having no experience of aerospace or the Army and no engineering skills from his time in the Navy, Lee’s career in defence prospered, and he knows why: “Officers have vast transferrable skills. It stacks up. We do. We get the job done. I am sure that I have a little bit of something in my character that might make me stand out, most of us do, but I am a product of the military.”

The OA will be attending the Security Cleared Expo to be held on Thursday 2 April in Bristol and will hold a networking event the evening before the Expo with employers and officer job seekers.

Register to attend

Defence Secor  in Numbers:
UK Defence expenditure as a percentage of National GDP is 2.1%, the third-highest in NATO
• £39 billion UK Defence budget in 2019/20 - with additional funding announced will rise
to almost £41.5 billion by 2020/21.

 In 2018/19 MOD direct expenditure within the UK industry supported 119,000 jobs:
• MOD average expenditure equated to £290 spent for each person living in the UK
• The UK defence industry is the 2nd largest defence exporter in the world.

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