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Military is good for rail

Stewart Thorpe finds out why so many service leavers turn to and succeed in the industry

Come February 2020, Major Doug Hallam is set to call time on more than 35 years’ service in the British Army. In his current post, the 54-year-old supports the recovery of wounded, injured and sick personnel at the Ministry of Defence’s Chetwynd Barracks in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire. 

Gearing up for civilian life, Doug has already begun assessing his next steps and is, on the face of it, eyeing something quite different to his present work. As well as environmentally-focused organisations such as the National Trust, he’s looking at swapping the British Army for the Orange Army. 

According to the government, approximately 15,000 people leave the armed forces each year – and many of those will have considered a similar move to Doug into rail.

In April, 135 service leavers, including Doug, attended a careers event at the Derby Conference Centre to scope out the industry’s opportunities. Former military men spoke about their experience and 20 prospective employers were on the lookout for talent. The event, titled ‘Military is Good for Rail’, was organised by industry body Rail Forum Midlands in conjunction with employability services the Careers Transition Partnership and the Officers Association. 

Why rail? 

With a mixture of those who have successfully progressed into rail and those looking to follow in their footsteps, the day provided a great insight into what attracts ex-forces personnel to work on the railway. 

“Golden opportunities” in the local area with HS2 passing nearby and the NET tram system in Nottingham proved the initial draw for Doug, but, for him, there’s more to it. 

“I want fresh air and I want to be outside. I don’t mind getting cold and wet at all because I’m an infanteer by trade, so no formal engineering qualifications and all that. Would I go to college or university? Absolutely I would if the right job came along. 

“The rail network is similar to military because you’ve got structure. At some stage I want to be told what to do. When I know what to do then I can advise and tell other people what to do and how to do it. And that’s what drew me.”

Before the networking between recruiters and jobseekers began, a line-up of military personnel who have successfully resettled into rail shared their own experiences. 

Ex-Royal Navy marine engineer Elliott Watson was on the lookout for a new career, not just a job, when he left the armed forces. Unhappy with the prospects in the first job he landed, he eventually found what he was looking for when he joined Network Rail as a scheme project manager during a similar Military is Good for Rail event three years ago. 

“I came along just to have a look really and see what it was all about,” said Elliott. So far during his time at Network Rail he has held five jobs on one project and completed an engineering degree at Staffordshire University. “I didn’t really know anything about the rail industry, I didn’t really know if it was for me but after attending this I decided that, yeah, it was for me.

“Overall, I’d just like to say that the change that I made from what I was doing before into the rail industry has been really positive. And I really appreciate the time that the industry has spent, not just Network Rail but other people and contractors, in helping me feel at home and part of a team again, which is what I was missing in that first role I went into.”

It’s almost a decade since DB Cargo’s Mick Jackson left the Royal Engineers to become an engineering safety coordinator. 

He doesn’t think that rail attracts ex-forces personnel and believes that many get into rail by chance, much like his own story, and that more needs to be done to help them discover the great opportunities in rail. Mick was returning from a disappointing interview at Rolls-Royce when he received a call from a recruitment agency asking if he’d like to go for an interview at an engineering depot to fix locomotives. He did, and he was successful. 

“I don’t necessarily think rail attracts the military,” said Mick, now a health, safety and environmental manager. “Most people I speak to fall into it. 

“I don’t know what it’s like now but in 2009 I was based in Chilwell, Nottingham. When I was leaving, apart from Bombardier, I didn’t even know there was a rail industry in Derby as I’m not from there.

“I think it should be doing more on recruitment in general, certainly young people.

“If you take highways, for example, I think they advertise better as an industry.”

Suitability

Mike’s experience of “falling into rail” was also true for Simon Higgens, a fellow former Royal Engineer who retired after suffering lower-leg injuries while on operations in Afghanistan.

Almost 30 years in the British Army has been followed by a successful seven years in rail, where he has held senior roles at Babcock, ISS Labour, and now Amey as new business development manager. 

Simon, familiar with Derby from his time as CEO at ISS Labour, took to the stage to tell delegates how fitting the venue was to host such an event, as it was once a London Midland training school, which became a military school during World War Two. 

Building on this theme, he described at length exactly why military personnel with their transferrable skills are such a good fit for the industry. 

He said: “Why I joined the rail industry is because it’s not too dissimilar from the services. When I first joined the railways, I kept apologising to big rough railwaywomen and men, apologising that I knew nothing about the railway. And then after about three months this old, wizened railwayman said to me ‘Simon, stop apologising. You come from an industry that is manpower intensive. It’s dangerous and it deals with heavy machinery. And guess what, that’s what the railway is. It’s heavy machinery, it’s man power intensive and it is dangerous.’ Although we mitigate those risks all that we can, it’s not too dissimilar.”

Regardless of rank, trade, degree, branch or service, there is something for everyone, he added. 

The transferrable skills were touched on by a number of speakers, who mentioned services leavers’ ability to be agile, their work ethic, discipline, attention to detail, leadership traits and ability to succeed in a challenging, safety-critical environment as sought after skills. 

“Employers here all want to recruit you because they see the value, they see the worth that you bring,” Simon added.

A unique talent pool

In January, recruiter Morson launched a scheme to offer free rail training to ex-forces personnel as a way of helping them find employment. Similarly, in the past year engineering firm Jacobs and Network Rail have both reaffirmed their commitment to supporting the armed forces in starting new careers through re-signing the Armed Forces Covenant. 

A lot of efforts are made to assist military personnel on their resettlement journey but, according to Pete Liddle, engagement manager at the Officer’s Association, this way of thinking should be flipped on its head.

“Why is it called the Military is Good for Rail programme?” he said. “It’s to move it away from the idea of doing the right thing of helping out the guys who have served our country towards, actually, it makes business sense. 

“It’s a business case as to why we go to this unique talent pool to the advantage of these organisations.”

As the demand for skills within rail continues to grow, so does the importance of exploring other sectors for transferrable skills. Rather than helping them out in their time of need, it could be looked at as a case of service leavers helping rail in its time of need. 

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