Can former service personnel help plug the construction skills gap? Total Contractor met up with three finalists from the recent BMI Redland and Icopal Apprentice of the Year competition – all ex-armed forces – to find out.
Every year 14,000 service personnel leave the armed forces. Many of them struggle to find jobs, often because would-be employers dismiss their military experience as irrelevant for roles in civilian life.
However, now the construction industry is looking to plug into this largely untapped resource to help it meet its skills shortages. Organisations such as BuildForce and CTP (see box) are working to link individuals with the right roles. They feel that former service personnel possess a host of skills and behaviours that can be successfully applied on construction projects and can make very motivated and focussed employees.
Evidence of this came in the list of finalists in this year’s BMI Apprentice of the Year competition, where three of the finalists had come from careers in the armed forces. Their stories illustrate why construction and ex-service personnel can be a good fit.
Oliver Drew made a conscious decision to leave the army in search of a trade. As a Scots Guard, based in London, he was missing his home in County Durham. As well as being part of a reconnaissance and sniper platoon, his role included guarding Buckingham Palace and Trooping the Colour.
One of the attributes that his five years in the army gave him is the determination to succeed. “I’m motivated to do my best, no matter what I am doing in life,” he says.
He found roofing almost by chance, when a friend suggested that he should apply to the roofing firm he was working for, Stanley firm Hodgson-Sayers.
Oliver won an apprenticeship after three rounds of selection at Hodgson-Sayers, thanks in part to the behaviours he had learnt in the army. “Time-keeping, good presentation, quality workmanship and a good standard of dress are all important,” says Glyn Neasham, the Regulatory Affairs Manager who manages the Hodgson-Sayers apprenticeship programme.
Oliver recognises many similarities between his former and current roles. “I love working outdoors and I like hard work,” he says. “All the things I’ve learnt are useful, like punctuality and discipline – you need that to make sure you’re safe while working.”
Ceiran Peer-Price had always wanted to join the army, and he hugely enjoyed the four years he spent as a gunner in a tank regiment. However, injuries to his knees while on active duty put paid to his dream career.
Ceiran’s route to roofing was through DIY. He and his wife bought a 1940s house on the Wirral which needed updating, they hired a builder to complete the work and Ceiran started to labour for him to save on costs and found that he enjoyed the work.
In and amongst a series of four knee operations, Ceiran completed a bricklaying course at his Bolton College – while simultaneously holding an apprenticeship with Les Perry Roofing Contractors which operates in the Wirral.
Now Ceiran runs his own business, Peel-Price Construction. “It’s a no-brainer for service people really, there are so many transferrable skills”, he says about his move from armed forces to construction.
Tom Thompson’s story illustrates some of the challenges that ex-service people face. Many of them are left with mental wounds that can often be exacerbated by the lack of a job to occupy mind and body.
Tom’s army career ended as the result of a hugely traumatic event that left him, and many of his fellow soldiers, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On July 10th 2009, soldiers from Tom’s unit – 9 Platoon, C Company, 2 Rifles – started out on a routine patrol from Forward Operating Base Wishtan, Sangin, Afghanistan but after only a short time were hit by a ‘daisy chain’ of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
On hearing the explosions, other members of 9 Platoon raced to the aid of their comrades. Having retrieved the wounded, the group was returning to base when it was hit by a second IED daisy chain. In a few short minutes, almost half of 9 Platoon’s strength of 30 had been killed or injured, with five men dead.
Tom’s PTSD meant that he was unable to continue in active service, so he switched to the role of physical training instructor and left the army at the end of his contract. He spent a difficult first six months, struggling to sleep, spending long hours in the gym and sometimes drinking too much. However, he then spotted a career in roofing – quite literally – through his window at home, while watching two roofers at work:
“I thought that's it: active, fast, skilled and a team! This is what I’m looking for,” says Tom. Tom found Melksham-based A. L. King, which was able to take Tom on as an apprentice. He did extremely well, even coming second in the national SkillBuild finals in 2017. He followed this up in 2018 with a Highly Commended place in the Pitched Roof category of the BMI Apprentice of the Year competition in June.
Tom explains why roofing works for him: “I knew I didn't want a job that was nine-to-five and I knew I needed a trade. I was looking for something that kept my mind working, hands busy and where I could be proud of the finished product.
“I would recommend it to anyone coming out of the services – and would say, never be afraid to re-train. There’s a lot of support available – I got tons from my tutor and training is there from manufacturers like BMI too.”
What these individuals’ stories illustrate is that there are plenty of similarities between construction and military careers. Both tend to involve a series of projects or postings. Both require punctuality, reliability and the ability to follow rules and procedures. Both require on strong team work to deliver successful outcomes.
For companies reading this who are looking to recruit motivated, hard-working team members, ex-service people are definitely worth a second look.
If your business could benefit from the skills and experience that ex-service personnel could bring, there are several organisations that can help make a match. It’s not just trade level roles that could be filled; there are people who could be managers, HR professionals, trainers, logistics experts, to name just a few.
Government-sponsored recruiter Career Transition Partnership (CTP) targets construction with its Forces in Construction Insight days. A recent one was held in North Wales in October in partnership with CITB, Coleg Cambria and Kier, and backed by a huge number construction companies including BMI.
BuildForce was set up in January 2017 with the remit of connecting ex service personnel with the relevant job vacancies construction companies. It now has nearly 70 members, among them main contractors, trade contractors, trade and professional organisations and charities.
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