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From front line to railway line

Suddenly, just a few months before he was about to leave the Army having spent almost 30 years as a soldier, something dawned on Simon Higgens: what happens now?

Straight out of school, he had joined the Armed Forces as an apprentice in the early ‘80s. He became a general fitter on diesel engines after completing two years at the Army Apprentice College in Chepstow with the Royal Engineers, beginning what would be a 29-year career in the military.

Throughout the 1980s, he went on operational tours around the world, to Belize, Kenya, South Georgia and Cyprus, before entering the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1992 to commence officer training.

During his 20 years as an officer within the Royal Engineers, Simon was deployed to Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as the Lebanon, Congo and Angola.

The role of a Royal Engineer is to deliver essential infrastructure in harsh, often hostile, environments. That was definitely the case in the Congo, where Simon was flown in by a C130 Hercules aircraft to draw up a plan to maintain and extend the runway of the airport in Bunia. The project was delivered, for which Simon was awarded an MBE, but it had to be done at the scene of a horrific massacre, between skirmishes with local militia.

Shortly afterwards, whilst on operations in Afghanistan, Simon suffered lower-leg injuries. He was flown back to the UK and taken to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham for his recovery. It was there that he began to consider what future he had in the Army.

Sudden realisation

Says Simon, ‘I’m a firm believer that if I’m a soldier, I should be able to soldier. I was nearing 45 and I wasn’t able to run as fast for as long, jump as high, be as quick, carry as much weight as 18-year- old soldiers that I was in command of.’

Simon made the decision to retire from the forces but the reality of this didn’t dawn on him until a few months before he was due to leave.

‘It was a realisation of, “My goodness. I’m going to leave the Army. What am I going to do?”

By the age of 45, most have become adept at updating CVs and responding to job adverts, but for Simon it was all new. He said it felt like starting over again. It meant embracing the LinkedIn age of self-promotion and drawing on the experience of colleagues who had already made the switch.

‘As a serviceman or woman you don’t really know what you’re good at, you don’t know what skills you bring, you don’t know what attributes and qualities that you have. You don’t know these things, or if you do, you keep them to yourself.

JPL_8698 [online]‘I know the answer to that question now but three-and-a-half years ago, I was struggling to think how can I best place my skills, which industry would want me.’

Various schemes and initiatives have been put in place to support service personnel in finding, and then adjusting to, civilian careers – a process known as resettlement. For Simon this included attending a three-day workshop organised by the Career Transition Partnership – the Ministry of Defence’s resettlement partner. Following this, Simon’s CV was distributed through resettlement networking channels to a number of employers, including Babcock Rail which offered him a position as a senior programme manager.

‘When I moved into the railway industry, I kept apologising,’ said Simon.

‘I’d say “sorry I’m new to the railway industry, I don’t know much about railways” and this bruff old, long- in-the-tooth railwayman said to me “Simon stop apologising, you’ve just left the Army where you’ve got heavy machinery, where you’ve got lots of manpower and you’re working in a dangerous environment. That’s exactly what you’re doing now”. ’

Soldiers turned rail workers

In 2014, Simon left Babcock to become the new chief executive of ISS Labour, which, among its recent achievements, was the principle labour supplier for the Box Tunnel track lowering works outside Bath. Simon’s story is of a successful transition and the rail industry is full of accomplished soldiers turned rail workers. ISS Labour itself has recently taken on two ex-servicemen, demonstrating again that rail is an industry receptive to the skill and enthusiasm of the ex-forces community, but there are no guarantees, says Simon.

‘There is this arrogance, and again I’m speaking generally, that you will walk straight into a job because you’re military, because people respect the military and, after all, why wouldn’t they give you a job? You’ve served the country.

‘Great, if you’re good and lucky enough to find someone who understands and appreciates your skills, but you’re competing with other people leaving the services or civilians who are looking for employment.

‘The point is it’s not easy leaving the services and finding a job, especially the longer you have served. But if you persevere, think about what you want to do when you leave and where your skills are best aligned, you will succeed.

‘Networking is key and luck plays a part too. Speak to those who have left before you and who have established themselves in civvy street and learn from them.

‘There are plenty of opportunities out there, and there are people who do appreciate what the service leaver can bring to any business, and this is especially relevant in the rail industry.’

He was also clear that although veterans possess many of the qualities needed by the railway, they aren’t a ready-made solution to the current skills shortage. But they are part of it.

‘The Army isn’t the sole answer to the problem. It’s not a case of militarisation of the railways, absolutely not.’

Single-minded approach

Retired general and a former Commander-in-Chief, Land Forces, Sir Nick Parker was recently quoted saying that commercial HR policies, coupled with a lack of confidence and poor presentation from candidates, were making the gap between employers and veterans feel like a ‘chasm’.

Simon’s advice to service leavers was to listen to advice, take any training that’s offered to you and plan your resettlement carefully.

‘When it comes to leaving the military you have to take a single-minded approach to your transition. The military will survive without you.

‘I’m now proud to say that I’m a railwayman who used to be a soldier.’

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