What are your first thoughts when you think of ex-Service personnel? According to a study by Lord Ashcroft, “scarred for life”, “damaged goods” and “PTSD” were some of the first words and phrases that came to mind when people were asked to think of someone who had been in the Armed Forces (Perceptions of Service Leavers and Veterans Report, 2017). Such perceptions may well be fuelled by fictional portrayals of ex-military and ex-police personnel. Films and television programmes such as American Sniper and the BBC’s Bodyguard have highlighted the challenges some ex-Service personnel can face adjusting to civilian life. The UK veterans minister and former army captain, Tobias Ellwood, commented in 2018 that the TV and film portrayals of veterans were “unhelpful” and that Armed Forces veterans’ career prospects are being damaged by such depictions. Antony Bridges, Alison McGuffog and Sara Asady explore the issues surrounding the recruitment of ex-Service personnel into the aviation security industry.

However popular and successful films and TV dramas have become, they fortunately do not depict the experiences of most ex-Service personnel from both military and law enforcement backgrounds. The House of Commons Defence Committee Mental Health and the Armed Forces Report (2019) highlighted ‘the perception that most service personnel leave the Armed Forces ‘mad, bad or sad’ is, however, not only a myth but harmful to veterans. The vast majority leave with no ill-effects and have a positive experience from their time in service’.

Why Recruit From the Military and Police?

Finding capable, motivated personnel who are prepared to take on the challenges of an aviation security role is not always easy. In recent interviews with airports, employers have highlighted the challenges in attracting and retaining security staff. In many locations, retail organisations offer salaries that are competitive with security officer pay and offer a less demanding role, often with more manageable working hours. With thousands of ex-Service personnel joining the employment market every year there is an opportunity for those in the aviation security domain to recruit from an experienced and diverse pool of potential recruits. Personnel are also leaving the military and law enforcement organisations early with many years of potential work ahead of them. Law enforcement will include those already familiar with aspects of aviation as a result of aviation policing roles. It will include those already familiar with aspects of criminal activity in aviation as a result of counter terrorism or covert surveillance activity. Military personnel may come from military aviation operations so already be familiar with international regulations around aviation security. These are perhaps the most obvious areas to target; however, consideration should be given to the wider skills and competencies that ex-Service personnel hold. So, what are the pros and cons of employing ex-Service personnel from the military or law enforcement?

Important Skills

The first issue for any recruiter will be the skills and abilities needed for the role. Andy Blackwell has held a number of senior roles with DHL and Virgin Atlantic before becoming an independent security consultant focusing on transport security, threat and risk management. As a former Detective Sergeant with British Transport Police seconded to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, Andy successfully made the transition from policing to the private sector. He highlighted some of the transferable ‘police’ skills of great use to the commercial world, such as “comprehensive knowledge of the criminal law and police practices, robust investigatory and analytical ability, strong communication, networking and influencing skills; and the ability to quickly gain trust at all levels”.

Nina Smith, Head of Aviation Security Training and Human Factors at Civil Aviation Authority, joined the world of aviation security from the Armed Forces. “Security Officers work in a very dynamic, pressured, noisy environment. Queues can suddenly build, private searches may need to be conducted and passengers may be disputing a decision whilst there is still a need to keep an eye on the team. Ex-Service people come with life experience; they are experienced in dealing with potentially stressful and dynamic situations and have the resilience to do it on a day to day basis”.

A potential challenge for ex-Service personnel is that there are clear differences between the role of law enforcement and military personnel and that of a security officer. Passenger experience and customer service is a key focus of airports competing to attract passengers to their location. Whilst candidates from both Service and civil backgrounds will have mixed experience when it comes to children, elderly and those with disabilities, generally, in the forces, individuals find themselves working with other fit adults. Customer service skills and the ability to work with children and those with disabilities should not be assumed and emphasis may need to be placed on this area during training for many candidates.

“…customer service skills and the ability to work with children and those with disabilities should not be assumed…”

There are a range of aviation security roles, from strategic management to technical jobs and those engaged in daily interactions with passengers. Therefore, defining what skills are needed in aviation security management is not simple. Andy Blackwell found that, in his experience, those officers with a specialist policing background such as counter terrorism, aviation policing, close-protection, organised crime, cyber and economic crime tend to find it easier to transition their skills to the commercial sector. That said, he emphasised the focus for recruitment should be the individual skills and match to the job regardless of background or role in the Services.

The Challenge of Transition

Another challenge, particularly for ex-military personnel, is that transitioning from the Services to the commercial world is a significant step. Nina Smith reported on her own experiences, “I had never owned a house; being in the forces is not a job, it is a lifestyle. On a base you work and socialise with the same people and know everyone around you. When I left, I found at the end of the day everyone just went home. I had all this free time and didn’t know anyone around me. You lose some part of your life when you join a normal job”.

To help with this transition, in the UK there has been a considerable focus on improving the experience of Service personnel leaving the Armed Forces since the publication of the Armed Forces Covenant in 2000. Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT) was established to help ex-Service personnel to lead fulfilled civilian lives and it has commissioned research to help support this by improving the transition process. FiMT highlight that a successful transition ‘enables ex-Service personnel to be sufficiently resilient to adapt successfully to civilian life, both now and in the future. This resilience includes financial, psychological, and emotional resilience, and encompasses the ex-Service person and their immediate families’.

Without the right support, there is a risk that the transition results in the employee finding it difficult to adapt and make the most of their skills. For some the transition from the military and police organisations and cultures with clear hierarchies, identified routes for promotion and a focussed purpose can be challenging. One former military employer now working in security complained that, in his commercial organisation, it did not seem possible to tell anyone to do anything; everything involved convincing multiple departments that a change should be made and individuals seemed to ‘get away’ with not doing what they were asked by choosing their own priorities.

Nina Smith also highlighted the need to keep an eye on staff as they go through the employment transition. The CAA provides buddies and mentors with similar backgrounds to the new starters as it is recognised that new recruits from the Services have lost much of their old support network. They are able to help the recruit make sense of their new organisation. “There is a culture in the forces to work till the job is done,” Nina recounted, whereby “we have to keep an eye on colleagues to ensure they aren’t working excessive hours”.

Indeed, one of the benefits employers can have in employing ex-Service staff, especially directly from the military, is the support available to assist that individual in the transition to your organisation.

One process that can help with the transition is work experience placements. This ‘try before you buy’ idea can be dual-sided: the employer gets an idea of the capability and fit of the potential employee and the individual gets a much clearer insight into whether that job and organisation is right for them. Our own organisation, QinetiQ, provides practice interviews, insight days and CV reviews to help Service personnel with the transition. Employers are recognised for this support through different approaches. Organisations can sign up to the Armed Forces Covenant. By doing this, an organisation demonstrates its intention to support the Armed Forces community and provides the opportunity to be recognised by the Employer Recognition Scheme (ERS) award. The Emergency Service Career Transition organisation offers similar opportunities for those organisations showing support to existing award schemes, which demonstrate companies’ commitment to the emergency services.

A Comfortable Fit

One of the challenges all organisations face when recruiting a new member of staff is person-organisation fit. It is the ‘compatibility between people and organizations that occurs when at least one entity provides what the other needs or they share similar fundamental characteristics or both’ (Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman & Johnson, 2005, p.4-51). It is widely established that personnel who do not fit within an organisation are more likely to leave.

“…we have heard harrowing descriptions from individuals who have lost friends and colleagues in IED attacks, those who recovered the victims of the Lockerbie attack and those who have witnessed the aftermath of atrocities…”

Philippa Riley, Product Development Director at Propel International, underlined that, “understanding the motivation of individuals applying for security-related roles is as important as identifying the correct skills. Those who have worked in policing or defence may be more likely to be motivated by roles in aviation security. They may well hold many of the core organisational values required of security professionals”.

“…already familiar with aspects of criminal activity in aviation as a result of counter terrorism or covert surveillance activity…”

To attract and retain the right people, organisations must be open and honest about the job and the wider work environment. Portraying a falsely positive picture about a job and organisational culture can lead to dissatisfaction and increased turnover and ultimately higher recruitment and training costs.

This is known as providing a realistic job preview. It is something that is being used by police forces and by the Armed Services and can be a very powerful tool for allowing individuals to assess their fit to an organisation and self-select, thereby reducing time and resource waste. Providing realistic job previews has three key benefits. Firstly, it allows you to engage with potential employees early in the recruitment process. Secondly, it allows individuals to self-select, or make an informed choice about whether to apply for a job. If they understand what a job entails, and what the organisational culture and values are, they can decide for themselves whether they wish to pursue the opportunity. This has an advantage for the employer too – those who continue in the recruitment process are more likely to be a good fit and this means you spend less time, and less money, filtering out unsuitable applicants later on in the process. The third advantage of realistic job previews is that individuals will start work with realistic expectations of the role, with knowledge of any potential negative aspects, such as shift patterns or uniform requirements, which will mean they are more likely to be engaged with the job and remain for longer as satisfied employees.

Andy Blackwell also commented on the overall team makeup: “In my previous commercial security roles with DHL and Virgin Atlantic I recruited a number of ex-police officers who performed to an exceptional level. The key, like most things in life, is achieving the appropriate balance for the team. The right blend of ex-police/military with people from within the business or industry makes for a very strong team”.


We started this article with a reference to the fictional portrayal of ex-Service personnel and references to potential mental health challenges. Ex-law enforcement and ex-military personnel may have faced challenging, life threatening and disturbing situations. As psychologists working in defence and security, we have heard harrowing descriptions from individuals who have lost friends and colleagues in IED attacks, those who recovered the victims of the Lockerbie attack and those who have witnessed the aftermath of atrocities. Just as employers should provide mental health support to non-Service personnel, individuals who have served may benefit from support networks within and outside of their organisation. Consideration should be given to how employees are made aware of potential support organisations; approaches such as those adopted by the CAA to provide buddies or coaches with similar backgrounds are likely to be helpful.

From airport and airline security managers to security officers, security consultants and equipment engineers, ex-Service personnel are already successfully engaged in the aviation industry. With so many potential recruits transitioning from the Services, there is an opportunity for the industry to attract and target this pool of potential candidates. Through schemes such as the Employer Recognition Scheme (ERS) award and the Emergency Service Career Transition organisation there are also opportunities to formalise your organisation’s interest and support for this potential recruitment pool. However, as with any candidate for any job, the focus needs to be on finding people with the right skills and fit and successfully transitioning them into your own organisation.

Antony Bridges

Antony Bridges is Group Leader for Human Performance at QinetiQ. He has worked in aviation security for the last 20 years on a range of topics including insider threat, cyber security, enhancing search comb efficiency and selection.

Alison McGuffog

Alison McGuffog has been applying psychology to transport security and defence settings for nearly 20 years. She specialises in understanding the human requirements for security roles and in measuring competence and job performance.

Sara Asady

Sara Asady is a business psychologist with over seven years’ experience in the private sector, working with a diverse range of industry sectors. Her expertise cuts across assessment design and development, as well as psychometric analysis.

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