The struggle: From military life to the workforce

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Why leaving the armed forces can be more difficult than you might think

We speak to three ex-servicemen and women who made the difficult decision to quit the British Army and the Royal Navy to embark on civilian careers at Siemens. Find out the highs and lows they encountered along the way

Fear, risk, and a huge sense of the unknown; not exactly what you want from your first day in the office. But for many leaving the military to begin their first civilian career, the transition can be far from simple.

The night-before nerves

It’s a feeling that certainly rings true for Phil Jackson, who served in the British Army for eight years. Beginning his military career when he was just 16 years old, he was apprehensive about his first role on “civvy street” (military slang for civilian life). “I was anxious about my skill level and knowledge. I was acutely aware it maybe wasn’t where it should have been, but I wasn’t going to know until I started,” he says.

The night-before nerves were also felt by Victoria Sargeant, who served in the Royal Navy as an aircraft engineer. She says, “I was worried about fitting in and not knowing how to be. I wasn’t institutionalized like a lot of other people, but it was that feeling that I would be a bit lost without my friends around me.” While serving in the Royal Navy she’d shared a room with 32 women, so it was daunting to head out on what seemed like her own.

The struggle

Accustomed to doing things a certain way, Victoria accidentally caught her colleagues’ attention during the first week in her new job. She says, “On Friday afternoon, I started clearing the bins. My boss said to me, ‘What are you doing?’ I replied, ‘It’s Friday, we’ve got to do a clean down.’” Her boss explained there are cleaners for that. “It was so ingrained in me that you look after your stuff,” she says.

Besides the bins, Victoria found hierarchy problematic. “If an officer walked into the room when I was in the Navy, you stand to attention. I kind of have that now – when I’m talking to my boss or above, I think, ‘They’re higher than me.’” Her mentor encouraged her to forget about rank and to just think of colleagues as people, but she admits it’s difficult after learning to respect hierarchy in the armed forces.

Settling in to a civilian role was also a test for Paul Bryden, who left the Army on a Friday and took on a new role as an operations manager the following Monday. “I joined a property division with no real property background, so the whole language was foreign to me – as was joining a commercial organization.” One of his first tasks was to review the purchase order system, but before he could start, he had to ask, “What actually is a purchase order?”

Although the unknown can be disconcerting, Paul faced it head on. “There was a difference in the fundamental stuff, but I thought, ‘That’s OK; I don’t understand, but I will soon. I’ll fix it and I’ll do it quickly.’”

It took up to two years for Phil to get used to his new career. “The learning curve was a very, very steep one for me – both in a lifestyle change with regards to attitudes at work, but also as a change of industry with new technical skills,” he says.

Getting through it

But Phil, like Victoria and Paul, managed to work through the tough times to excel in his civilian role at Siemens. “There was a lot of people with a lot of knowledge, so I was able to glean information from them. It was time, and it was support from staff, that helped me.” Although mentorship and the ability to learn on the job were key to Phil’s development, he was also urged to complete further training at college. “They encouraged me to want to do well for myself,” he says.

During his time in the Army, Phil travelled across the world: Kuwait, Florida, and Sierra Leone to name just a few places. So, sitting at a desk didn’t come naturally. However, with time, that aspect of his role also became more comfortable. He says, “There was an element of having a bit of security and putting some foundations down.” He liked having his own independence, and not being “part of the machine” that is the Army.

Learning from others was how Paul overcame his initial struggle. He says, “Graft always pays. I was perfectly aware of the gaps in my knowledge and I worked hard to fill them. I wasn’t afraid to ask a stupid question and learn from it, but also learn the theory and get qualified.”

The skills

Despite the difficult transition, their military background taught Phil, Victoria and Paul skills that have helped them to progress in their civilian careers at Siemens. “Teamwork and leadership translate across any division and any workplace,” Paul says.

For Victoria, it was about social skills. “You become more gelled as a team in the Navy, there’s a lot of socializing,” she says. Now, whichever team she manages, she’ll ensure she creates a social aspect for people to get to know each other outside of an office environment.

For Phil, it’s his dedication to climbing the career ladder. He says, “In the military, you’re always encouraged to aspire to do more. There’s natural progression in the military of rank and that’s stuck with me – looking up and wanting to progress.” And what advice would Phil give someone about to leave the military to start their career in civvy street? “Go in with a broad mind – and rather than fear the change, embrace it.”

There was a difference in the fundamental stuff, but I thought, ‘That’s OK; I don’t understand, but I will soon. I’ll fix it, and I’ll do it quickly.’
Paul Bryden

The future for military leavers in the UK

  • 85,000 personnel are estimated to leave the military by 2021 (a figure equivalent to the number of people currently employed in the UK’s creative, arts and entertainment sector)
  • A study by Barclays predicts that more than one in five service leavers will face employment challenges, with a potential loss of £1.5 billion to the UK economy in the next five years
  • The study suggests that two thirds of employers are expected to experience deficits in soft skills (people skills including communication, self-motivation and leadership), within the next five years, with more than 600,000 jobs left unfilled
  • Siemens has launched a strategy to increase ex-military hires from 5% to 10% by the end of 2017
  • The Armed Forces Covenant is a commitment set out by businesses, local authorities and charities to support members of the armed forces. In signing the Covenant, Siemens is focused on supporting service leavers find employment
  • 1,500 organizations across the UK have signed the Covenant, a pledge to treat ex-military personnel fairly

Ex-military personnel have highly transferrable skills that are relevant to many roles and industries within Siemens, including the transport sector. In 2017, Siemens signed the Armed Forces Covenant which recognizes the company’s commitment to helping service leavers find employment to utilize their skills

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