Nicolas Clark works in the defence and security sector and is an Army Reservist.
We need to learn from the United States and invest in our military veterans and overcome their challenges so that they can become our ‘secret weapon’ for international competitiveness.
We invest as a nation in the training and development of our armed forces over many years, yet do not maximise our return on investment when they join the civilian workforce.
Particularly with Brexit on the horizon, we should be looking to harness their abilities to contribute towards our international competitiveness. These are skilled, determined individuals that can make a meaningful contribution to business at all levels, and with a wealth of transferable skills to boot.
However, we do not do enough to help those who are ‘transitioning’ into the civilian world to overcome the varied and complex challenges that they face, and which directly impact on the ability of all military personnel to transition to civilian life and into employment. Not only is this a betrayal, it is also a waste of the money and time we have invested in them.
The Armed Forces charity sector has faced a challenging and changing environment over the last decade, relating both to welfare and perception. Demographic research by the Officers’ Association and the Forces in Mind Trust indicates that the future will present an increasingly complex set of societal, employment, and welfare challenges for Great Britain’s 2.56 million strong veteran community.
The relationship between our society and our Armed Forces reached its nadir when the decision was made to send them into Iraq and Afghanistan, which was met with widespread condemnation by the British public. Unjustly, the men and women of our Armed Forces were blamed by many for their role in these conflicts rather than the governments that sent them.
Military charities played a central role in transforming perception to a more positive understanding of the men and women sent to do their jobs. Much remains to be done, and the roles of military charities, business and the government are as important as ever.
By contrast, the neglect of veterans by the United States during and following the Vietnam War represents its own low point in this societal relationship. However, America has demonstrated since then how a society can completely change its attitude towards veterans, and this is something that we should look to replicate.
Despite our long and respectable military tradition, a lack of understanding still permeates our culture and seems more likely to worsen than improve. With the passing of the older World War Two, generation and the decline in the number of serving officers and soldiers as the Forces reduce in size, fewer civilians know people in the Armed Forces and, consequently, will have less understanding of military life.
The Armed Forces Covenant, signed by employers and local authorities, has arguably gone some way to improving the situation, but we have found there is a mismatch in the expectations of veterans and what the Covenant actually delivers.
To my mind, the Covenant needs to be further strengthened in law, and promoted more widely to make it an integral part of the employment and welfare landscape. One can still all too easily come across stories of reservists and veterans being passed up for jobs or offered lower positions than their abilities suggest as employers believe that they may suffer from PTSD (a myth) or need time off to train, without comprehending the benefits they bring to the workforce.
The above-mentioned demographic research shows an increasing turnover in the Armed Forces, which is likely to increase the need for support around transition. This includes finding accommodation and help with moving into civilian employment for veterans.
Other changes that will affect the composition of the veteran community are the increased reliance on reservists, some of whom undertake full-time roles and receive little career support, which is likely to be an ongoing and increasing need. In addition, the Strategic Defence Review in 2015 stated that by 2020 the Armed Forces will be recruiting at least 10 per cent Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic personnel, and at least 15 per cent women. These add further nuance to the transition picture.
The impact of the 2010 Strategic Defence Review will also continue to be felt by officers in particular, as they are more likely to be of working age when they leave the Services, often with 20 to 30 years more working life ahead of them before retirement.
Past and future changes to service pension schemes also means that, in the longer term, there is an increasing likelihood of Service leavers having to find employment regardless of the age at which they retire. While total veteran numbers will fall, tighter budgets in healthcare, social care, and welfare reforms mean the needs of veterans may become more complex and acute.
We must welcome the news that Tobias Ellwood, the Veterans Minister, has recently been on a fact-finding visit to the US, and is looking at initiatives to engage directly with industry in the same way as the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Labor. Other moves may also include accelerated hiring of veterans for civil service positions. In the US, veterans account for roughly a third of all federal government jobs.
Not only does government need to engage in further initiatives to improve societal integration with veterans, but former leaders of all ranks from within the Armed Forces need to champion the cause. Officers and senior NCOs lead and serve their men and women in the Services, and should continue to do this as veterans.
It is up to us all to ask that business society and governments properly consider the interests of all veterans, in our national interest.