Forces personnel bring skills construction lacks

26 June 2018

Colonel Gary Sullivan in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Ahead of Armed Forces Day on 30 June, Gary Sullivan explains why recruiting from the armed services can work so well for the construction industry.

The Armed Forces are not unlike construction; you turn up in someone else’s back yard, you bring change, some organised chaos and then you get to the task of completing an objective, bringing an improvement to the operational environment you have been working in. You do it in the extremes of weather and with very little by way of thanks and after you have left you are quickly forgotten.  Similarities that should lead you to consider employing those that leave our military.

However, don’t offer jobs to former service men and women out of pity or some misplaced loyalty to our armed services; employ them because they are competent, ambitious, hardworking and quick to adapt; employ them because our industry needs good people.

So let us start with dispelling some myths. Ipsos MORI and King’s College published a report in late 2016 that tested (mis)perceptions against the facts which included outcomes of those returning to civilian life after military service.

What about PTSD?

The survey showed that two thirds of the British public believe the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is more common among the armed forces than the general public. The reality is that levels are remarkably similar.

Over half those surveyed believed the suicide rate is higher among those who have served, when it is in fact lower. Similarly, the perception is that service personnel are more likely to go to prison, when the facts tell you those who have served are much less likely to end up in jail.

We are all concerned about the impact of Brexit and we all know we have a shortage of good people in all aspects of construction.

We can find great role models of former military folk who have succeeded at the highest level, but what we need are those men and women who are skilled trades people, those who will be good solid performers as supervisors, managers and leaders.

Skills void

It could be argued that self-employment combined with construction management and the destruction of proper apprenticeships have all contributed to a skills void. That skills void is in leadership, logistics and site management.

Once upon a time when the larger tier one contractors had their own work force, you learned about putting trades to work at the coalface. There were veterans who learned their craft on the tools for the 20 years before going into management.

There is less of that in today’s world and that’s where the (ex) military folk have something to offer. The military still train people, develop skills and critical thinking; they give supervised responsibility to young men and women, support them and foster the team ethic. They also provide first class technical training.

Most servicemen and women choose to serve between six and 12 years. Some 14,000 return to civilian life every year, so why would our industry not want to tap into that talent pool?

But service personnel are not the finished article. You will still need to teach them how we do things, upskill them and exploit their transferable skills. What you will get is a cohort that can learn quickly, that will be motivated and understand loyalty. On that note, be aware. They will have been stretched and challenged, they will be robust and they will have an expectation of being treated well. If you want their loyalty you will have to earn it.

Gary Sullivan OBE is chairman of construction logistics contractor Wilson James and a colonel in the Engineer & Logistics Staff Corps.


The most profitable job that I was involved which were a series of subcontracts with a major USA EMCP firms for a very large new coal in the Canadian Rockies All the site management and supervision were Ex Military Every one respected each other for their roles and understood the various roles of authority

Roger Ward FCIOB PQS(F), 26 June 2018

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