The veterans community - employability, skills and learning

Third report from the Scottish Veterans Commissioner advising Scottish Ministers on improving employment and learning opportunities for veterans in Scotland.

Chapter 2 Qualifications and Skills

In the previous chapter, I made much of my conviction that finding suitable work is the critical step during any transition from a military career into civilian life. Service Leavers and members of the veterans community are little different from the rest of the population as they seek meaningful employment but there are several specific issues which add unnecessary complications and, in some cases, present significant barriers to those who've been part of the military 'family'. This chapter highlights a number of these difficulties, with a particular focus on qualifications and skills, and suggests measures which may help mitigate the most serious.


Any pathway to suitable employment will depend initially on being able to demonstrate to employers: a minimum level of academic accomplishment, including adequate levels of literacy and numeracy; an appropriate set of technical and/or management skills; and, a broad range of personal qualities. This is not an easy or straightforward thing to do but there is no doubt that early success in securing meaningful work provides a sound basis for healthy, happy and financially secure lives.

Once in employment, even if just on the first rung of the ladder, there will be opportunities for greater responsibility and reward, but this will only be possible by first demonstrating core levels of literacy, numeracy and academic achievement.

Literacy and Numeracy

In preparing this report, I was surprised to discover the number of Service Leavers and veterans who still fail to find civilian employment because of their struggle to read, write and work with numbers. In most cases this can be attributed to some difficult years in school and often an overriding desire to escape the confines of their community and classroom at the earliest chance. For many, the Armed Forces - especially the Army infantry regiments with their lower academic entry requirements - have provided an attractive alternative with the obvious lure of travel, excitement, comradeship and a good salary. The disadvantages come later as individuals transition to civilian life and look for employment in a world that can often appear harsh and unforgiving.

Lord Ashcroft, in his 2014 report The Veterans' Transition Review, highlighted this issue extensively, citing Forces in Mind Trust's ( FiMT) Transition Mapping Study, which included the statement that "close to half of Army recruits (as opposed to Navy or RAF recruits) are classified as having literacy and numeracy skills…equivalent to the expected reading and numerate age of an 11 year old as they leave primary school".

This is a stark finding that will resonate in many parts of Scotland, particularly in those areas where there is a significant number of Army veterans. It indicates the scale of the issue and the level of disadvantage that many of those who have served could well be facing.

For those who want or need to improve levels of literacy and numeracy, and are still serving in uniform, the onus is with their education unit and military chain of command. Each of the main base areas in Scotland already offer classes and individual support to address educational shortfalls, with specific help being available for those with dyslexia and other learning difficulties. It is important that this support continues.

Recently, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has also reinvigorated and broadened its apprenticeship schemes across the Armed Forces. Those now joining with low levels of literacy and numeracy attend compulsory classes, which aim to bring them up to a standard in preparation for promotion and later transition into civilian employment. Young soldiers, airmen and sailors will not advance to the next stage of training, and be allowed to join operational units, until they achieve these standards. Such measures are very welcome and will go a considerable way in addressing the issues highlighted by Lord Ashcroft, FiMT and others.

For those who are no longer serving in the military, help is available from a variety of different sources, including Local Authority community-based support services, colleges, Skills Development Scotland ( SDS) and a number of third sector organisations. The 'Big Plus' initiative is intended for anyone who wants to improve their reading, writing or ability to use numbers. It offers nationwide, community-based tuition at no cost but, regrettably, few Service Leavers and members of the veterans community consider enrolling or even appear aware of the support available.

The MoD in Scotland and the Careers Transition Partnership ( CTP) could, therefore, make a marked difference by renewing efforts to promote the 'Big Plus' and other community-based schemes to Service Leavers during their resettlement and transition processes. Material could be more prominently displayed around barracks and on the CTP website, and every opportunity must be taken to direct individuals towards these resources whenever there is a need or request.

Similarly, SDS should recognise that a proportion of ex-Service personnel - especially Early Service Leavers or those who joined from school with minimal educational qualifications - may be struggling to find civilian work because of their low levels of literacy and numeracy. I would encourage them to find ways to target this group and make it easier for all members of the veterans community to access support. Close co-operation with CTP, better promotion and greater awareness of the issue amongst their careers advisors would all be positive steps forward.

Recommendation 7 - Improving Literacy and Numeracy

The Career Transition Partnership ( CTP), Local Authority community-based support services, colleges, Skills Development Scotland ( SDS) and charities should promote the benefits of improved literacy and numeracy skills amongst Service Leavers and veterans, directing them to appropriate community-based support, including the 'Big Plus' initiative. The aim should be to generate greater awareness amongst veterans with specific needs, their families and employers in order that learning opportunities can be accessed more readily.

Military Training and Qualifications

The British military is renowned for the quality of its people and the training undertaken at every stage of their careers. From the day a recruit joins, he or she is exposed to a constant drumbeat of courses that will improve their professional competencies and personal qualities. This is an enormous investment which teaches technical, management and leadership skills that also have significant applicability in later life for those competing in the civilian job market. Those who have benefited from this training are well-placed to fill a growing demand for high- calibre, well-trained and motivated people, and to help address the skills gap in Scotland.

Of all the military training programmes, the one that is likely to have the greatest impact in the future is the new apprenticeship scheme that is mentioned above. Previously, only those embarking on technical careers in the Armed Forces had the opportunity to complete this type of training but the recent introduction of apprenticeships for all recruits is a major advance. They are built around the needs of basic military training but, for the first time, also lead to widely-recognised SVQ/ NVQ qualifications.

The benefits of these apprenticeships have yet to come to the fore but I anticipate them soon having a lasting effect on the overall quality of our military, and the skills and formal qualifications of the next generation of Service Leavers and veterans.

It is also worth highlighting the higher-level skills that exist amongst some Service Leavers and veterans. These are typically demonstrated by those who have enjoyed long and successful careers in the military. Their qualifications have been gained as a result of extensive practical experience, typically combined with advanced technical and staff training, which can equate to a Masters degree level in other professions. Although relatively few in numbers, these individuals have the potential to make a substantial and lasting impact across different roles, for example, project management, engineering, IT, finance and education. All will have extensive management and leadership capabilities, and some will have worked at Board level for several years. Once again, more can be made of this cohort.

I think service leavers can undersell themselves terribly sometimes. Many come to us with a complete transferable skillset already, they just don't know it. We help them realise their full potential and ensure they emphasise the quality of their military training in interviews. Army training is second-to-none and I think this is something more employers should realise.

Norman Yarwood, FDM Group Scotland and veteran ( case study 4)

Recognition of Qualifications and Skills

There is broad acceptance that employers, colleges, universities and others see formal qualifications, both academic and vocational, as an objective measure of the knowledge and skills an individual has to offer. These qualifications are also often taken as an indication of an ability to learn and take on new challenges - highly desirable qualities that give an indication of future performance and potential. It is, therefore, unfortunate that a significant proportion of these civilian organisations still have difficulty in recognising many of the qualifications obtained during a military career and little understanding of what this offers in the way of relevant skills and personal attributes.

This issue is one that has been raised frequently with me during discussions with employers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises ( SMEs). In most cases, few have the expertise or time to spend on understanding every military qualification or attribute, and when recruiting will look no further than Service Leavers and veterans' academic records, easily recognisable technical skills and/or a degree. Given that SMEs comprise the bulk of businesses in Scotland, and therefore should offer a variety of employment possibilities for the veterans community, I believe there is a missed opportunity here.

During the past few years the MoD has, however, made inroads into addressing some of these problems. Training received through the Services is now routinely mapped across to the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework ( SCQF), while promotion and career courses are typically recognised by organisations such as the Institute of Leadership & Management, the Chartered Management Institute and City & Guilds. This is starting to have an effect but much of the work is being done in a piecemeal fashion - often through individual Services and branches

- which can still lead to confusion amongst employers who are left struggling to recognise the relevance, and importance, of military qualifications presented by applicants.

Also, at an individual and local level, CTP and military charities, specifically the Regular Forces Employment Association ( RFEA) and Officers Association Scotland ( OA Scotland) provide vital help to Service Leavers and veterans in translating military qualifications into a more readily understood equivalent for a civilian employer. Like many veterans, I personally benefited from this support when I left the Royal Navy and recognise how valuable it can be.

Notwithstanding this encouraging level of support, and policy changes by MoD, I still come across considerable frustration amongst groups of veterans who believe skills and qualifications gained in the military are neither properly understood nor appreciated. I understand this sentiment but also have sympathy with employers who are unlikely to have had much exposure to the Armed Forces or to know about the benefits of recruiting Service personnel. Unfortunately, this problem is often compounded by veterans being unable to present or explain their achievements in the appropriate and convincing manner, either in applications or at interview. These issues all combine to complicate and hinder the pathway into meaningful employment for many Service Leavers and veterans.

It is, therefore, vital that more is done to ensure that qualifications and skills gained while serving are better understood and more widely recognised by employers in Scotland. This is a challenging undertaking which will require us to break new ground, specifically by including far wider representation from across the public and private sectors. As such, I believe there is a central role for the Veterans Employability Strategic Working Group (see Recommendation 1) in co-ordinating efforts and developing a plan that delivers this aim.

Recommendation 8 - Recognition of Qualifications and Skills

The Veterans Employability Strategic Working Group (see Recommendation 1) should produce a plan for building understanding and recognition amongst Scottish employers (especially SMEs) of the skills and qualifications gained in the military. The Group should also consider whether the current system for translating and mapping qualifications could be simplified and how it might be better utilised and understood.

'Falling Between the Gaps'

Despite an overall picture of improving educational standards amongst those making the transition after a military career, and better in-Service learning and training, there remain a number of veterans who will never have benefited from these opportunities. These individuals will typically fall into one of two categories, either (1) the Early Service Leavers who depart the military without completing an apprenticeship or their basic training, or (2) the older Service Leavers and veterans who will have missed the apprenticeship scheme altogether and never taken advantage of the learning and training offered when they were serving.

Although some in the latter group may well have offset their educational limitations with skills picked up during years of work, both are still likely to find barriers to securing meaningful and sustained civilian employment in later life.

For these groups of veterans, the relationship between CTP and SDS will be critical if they are to benefit from seamless, ongoing employability support when they leave the Services. At present most new veterans will enjoy up to two years of support from the MoD before responsibility for careers advice passes to SDS. It is reassuring that there is already dialogue between the two organisations and a better understanding of their respective roles. I welcome this common-sense approach and would, in particular, encourage them to develop a practical means of providing seamless support to these groups who are otherwise in danger of 'falling between the gaps'.

Recommendation 9 - Support for the Long-Term

The Career Transition Partnership ( CTP) and Skills Development Scotland ( SDS) should build on their existing relationship with the aim of ensuring Service Leavers and veterans have seamless access to SDS once their period of support from CTP comes to an end. This will be particularly important for Early Service Leavers and others in danger of 'falling between the gaps'.

However, there is also a third group of veterans who face challenges in the job market, consisting the minority of veterans who may be struggling to cope with civilian life for a range of health and social issues. This includes the homeless, those with drink or drug dependencies and those who suffer from mental health problems. Many find it extremely difficult to present a positive impression to potential employers and it is often only thanks to charities like SAMH and Poppyscotland, with their Employ-Able scheme, that they find work that suits their particular circumstances. For such a cohort, this sort of opportunity often provides a powerful antidote to some difficult and debilitating circumstances. Though relatively few in number, individuals in this group should not be overlooked and I am particularly keen that they are kept in mind as this broader agenda starts to deliver changes for the wider community.


… is a programme that provides one-to-one and group support for veterans, helping them to improve their personal and employability skills, identify a vocational goal and find employment no matter their health or circumstances. It is a partnership between Poppyscotland and the Scottish Association for Mental Health ( SAMH) that works closely with the public sector, RFEA, Veterans First Point and other charities to tailor training, identify volunteering opportunities, secure work placements for veterans struggling to 'move forward' after leaving the Armed Forces.


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