Many of those wanting to find out more about a life in the British Armed Forces, already have a gut feeling about whether they are more interested in the Army, the Navy, or the RAF.
Of course the differences between the Services are more than whether your uniform is khaki, dark blue or light blue. But the similarities outweigh the differences. We were told several times, by members of all three Services, that “this is a lifestyle, not a job”. Also in common is the huge range of highly transferrable qualifications gained throughout every apprenticeship.
There is virtually no other field of work that both offers and demands so much. Again and again, the same words and phrases came up, whether we were talking to young recruits, their parents, or to senior staff :
Challenge. Discipline. Respect. Pride. Being part of a team. Friendships. Belonging. Learning new skills. Gaining transferrable qualifications. Hard work. Hands-on. Grit. Fitness and sport. Worldwide travel. Humanitarian aid. Variety. Progression.
But also in common to life in the Services is the inevitable disruption to family life, the unpredictability, communal living, the potential risk.
The three independent, warts-and-all Good Careers Guide reviews of apprenticeships in the RAF, Army and Navy aim to breathe life into what it is like to serve, whether that is in the air, on land, on or under the sea.
The Army - a snapshot
Regular soldiers provide the main body of personnel for one of the world’s elite fighting forces and serve a variety of important functions. They could be fighting in combat zones or providing peacekeeping and humanitarian services around the world. You name it, the Army does it.
'One minute I was in Afghanistan, the next I was doing flood defence work at Chickerell Beach in Dorset.’
Fit for a future king and his brother: both HRH Prince William and HRH Prince Harry trained and served with the British Army.
'It’s a point of honour being in the Army – I feel proud’ a Lance Corporal told us.
Of course the Army doesn’t just rest on the laurels of its illustrious past; it looks to the future by providing excellent training, apprenticeships and qualifications in more than 200 roles.
Roles that are essential to the Army and qualifications that are highly transferrable to the civilian workplace.
‘You can shape your career yourself, you can decide where you want to go – the possibilities are endless’, one young soldier told us. 'I’m a very outdoors person, so that appealed, as well as the travel. A lot of people from my hometown are stuck in a rut and I always wanted to break away, so this was an ideal opportunity.’
They may wear the same uniform, but there isn’t a singular ‘Army-type’. You certainly don’t have to be ultra-driven or an adrenaline junkie. All sorts of skills, talents and personalities serve the regiments and corps, although most share crucial characteristics – adaptability and initiative, consideration and compassion, loyalty and commitment.
The rewards are good, the ‘family’ lifestyle a reality, but equally it’s a serious commitment and the risks, responsibilities and disruption to home life should not be underestimated. However, if you strive to be the best you can, seek to work in a professional environment, and want to serve Queen and Country, a career in the Army is well worth investigating.
What the Army does
The British Army is actively engaged in operational duties at home and around the world. The work it does is incredibly diverse – from peacekeeping to providing humanitarian aid as part of the United Nations; from enforcing anti-terrorism measures to helping to combat the international drugs trade.
As the Army says, its mission is ‘Securing Britain in an uncertain world’.
The Army prides itself on the quality of its soldiers. There are currently over 80,000 soldiers and officers serving in the British Army and they have a worldwide presence.
Of course the soldiers on the frontline rightly grab the headlines, but they could not operate without all the other units working like clockwork, be they logistics experts, engineers, chefs, medics or drivers.
‘Humanitarian relief is a big part of what we do. There is no other job in the world where you help people to the degree that we do.’
Roles, and what’s on offer
There are over 200 roles within the Army so its recruits can specialise in anything from combat infantry to engineering, logistics to nursing, IT to mechanics – in other words, there’s something for everyone.
‘Once I told my dad about the trades and apprenticeships he was a bit more on board with me joining the Army.’
Most youngsters who sign up are attracted by the diverse career opportunities and by a desire for adventure. Every day is different – a point made by all the soldiers we met:
‘If you get bored easily, it’s the ideal job because there’s a lot of variation in what you do’ said one.
Careers advisers and assessment tests help to match recruits with jobs that suit their abilities. Once they join up they undergo training and gain qualifications that are recognised both inside and outside the Army.
‘The certificates accumulate to tick off the criteria that count towards your apprenticeship - I didn’t even realise it was happening because it ties in so well with your job.’
One young Signaller on deployment in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis recognised that doctors urgently needed to consult their specialist colleagues at home but had no phone or 3G signal to do so. He rapidly designed and built a microwave and internet solution and in doing so saved countless lives.
An officer said that his career highlights were almost too numerous to mention. He’d been to Afghanistan three times (one operation involved training and mentoring 160 Afghan officer cadets in Kabul), built wells and delivered aid in Kenya and even created a full-sized cricket pitch for a tribe of Masai Mara warriors.
‘We played three games of cricket, with them in full Masai Mara gear. We won two and lost one.'
Will the Army suit me?
‘It’s your career and you need to take it seriously. You need to know whether it’s the right thing for you.'
'It’s fantastic, but it’s a big responsibility as well.’
‘Sometimes you think “Why on earth have I got to do that at this time in the morning?” but you’ve just got to get on with it.’
‘Be the Best’ says the Army, but being the best takes hard work and dedication to duty. The conditions can be challenging, sometimes dangerous, and the work unpredictable - forget nine-to-five working with weekends off. You have to be able to cope with the unexpected, with taking orders and with moving every few years.
‘If you don’t like travelling, don’t bother. If you want a boring, regular job where it’s the same every single day, don’t bother. You need determination - there’s no time for an “I can’t do it” attitude here’ one young soldier told us. 'You’ve got to be committed to your job and balancing it with your relationship is quite difficult sometimes. Your family life does take a hit.’
The Army prides itself on being, as an officer put it ‘a shining example of diversity.’
Gender, race, ethnic origin or religious belief may not be important in the Army, but you do need to be disciplined and for many trades, practical. Ability to work as part of a team and think on your feet in challenging situations is important too. We were told about one recruit who was sent home shortly before finishing Specialist Training because on a tough training exercise he hadn’t shown cool judgement when tired - and that could have jeopardised the whole unit. Not everyone is confident about their skills when they join. If you really want to be the best, you’ll be supported all the way.
And the camaraderie and trust formed by working so closely together – after all, your life may depend on it - leads to life-long friendships. One parent told us: ‘Our daughter is quite reserved and joining the Army has brought her out of herself. She’s made loads of friends. You have to have a bit of grit about you - be robust. Not be afraid to get dirty and wet. And you need to like working in teams.’
Recruits are welcomed from 16, but it usually pays off to have a bit of life experience first.
One young soldier, whose younger brother was desperate to join the Army straight from school advised: ‘Take a year after school; work, see what civilian life is like. It gives you a bit of work ethic as well. That’s what I told my brother too and he did but he was just counting down the year til he could join the Army.’
Women in the Army
Currently, 8% of recruits are women. They are represented in most of the 200 roles in the Army, although there are a few front line and combat roles that women cannot currently take on.
Some units have higher percentages of women; the intake to the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, for example, which works with dogs for protection and search all over the world, is around 33% female and their Lieutenant Colonel said: ‘That diversity makes us stronger.’
One young female Engineer told us: ‘I thought it would be quite macho and you’d get shouted at a lot, which was true for Phase 1 and Phase 2 training, but when you get to your unit you’re looked after a lot more and I’m surprised by how concerned they are about your welfare and what sort of infrastructure is in place to support you and your family.’ She went on to say: ‘Some girls struggle with the phys – but we’re not always expected to be at the same standard as the men. It’s realistic and it’s doable – you don’t have to be superhuman.’
Being fit and being up for a challenge applies to anyone in the Army – it’s certainly not gender-specific.
One mother told us: ‘Basic Training is hard – learning the Army way. The days were long and tough, but our daughter loved it and was Top Recruit on her course.’
Training and Support
‘I expected Basic Training to be mad and it was about as mad as I expected it to be.’
New recruits, aged 17½ and over, take part in a 14-week Phase One training programme, often called Basic Training. This takes place at centres around the country and includes drill skills, map reading, first aid, weapons handling, field craft and night training, target practice and live training, fitness tests and adventure training. Recruits under 17½ complete a 6 or 9-month course.
‘A lot of the things I do now I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do before.’
Once Phase One training is complete, recruits move to their chosen regiment or corps to start specialist Phase Two training where they also work towards relevant qualifications in their particular trade.
The Army provides all the training that recruits need to do their job well, whether they’re building bridges, repairing tanks or driving vehicles. They also learn key soldiering skills, enabling them to operate safely in hostile environments.
After completing Specialist Training, apprentices join their new unit and are deemed ready for their first operational deployment.
‘On my first deployment, I proved to myself I really can do my job.’
Most recruits complete their intermediate apprenticeships within 12 months, while advanced apprenticeships usually take 36 to 42 months. Some go on to take foundation degrees or other degrees – funded by the Army.
One Lance Corporal reflected on the various stages of training : 'Basic Training was a shock to the system at first - being told what to do all the time, given five minutes to do it, treated like children. Then you realise you’ve got to change with it - and I very much enjoyed it’. He went on to say that by the time you start Specialist Training: ‘You’re just a bit more mature, you are given more freedom but you’re still treated like a teenager’. And he concluded that Further Training is: ‘Massively different – you’re treated like adults.’
Training is highly valued and expertly and continually delivered. Whatever the rank, however long you have served, expect to continue to train and to learn new skills. Recruits, soldiers and officers study for civilian qualifications as well as military ones - NVQs, BTECs, apprenticeships, Bachelors and Masters degrees. It’s also possible to gain professional qualifications that lead to Institute or Chartered status.
Don’t worry if you’re not an academic high-flyer; support is available, too, for those requiring help with reading, writing, maths and computer skills.
Many of the most valued skills are hands-on and practical; as one Sergeant told us : ‘These soldiers didn’t join the Army to stay in the classroom. I succeeded in getting a construction qualification called the Construction Plant Competence Scheme.’
Great emphasis is placed on pastoral support as well. A soldier explained that if anyone was upset or depressed, friends and colleagues try to help them, while their captain had an open door policy for anyone who wanted to talk. There are also dedicated welfare officers and padres in camp. ‘In a sense you are family and you look after each other’ he said.
Pay, Perks and Play
‘I spend a little on food and accommodation and the rest is disposable income.’
Typical starting salaries for soldiers are £14,492, but as recruits progress through the ranks they could earn up to £50,000.
Some specialist roles pay more and salaries rise every year, with additional pay for promotion and extra responsibilities. Soldiers can reach the rank of corporal within five years, earning a salary of £27,053 or more.
‘I have a friend who was an apprentice car mechanic; to start with he barely earned the minimum wage so he was envious of me.’
There are plenty of perks, including subsidised meals and accommodation, free medical and dental care, forces’ discounts in many stores, six weeks’ paid holiday a year, a pension, help with housing, travel and education and the opportunity to study for a degree or a range of other valued qualifications.
‘Free medical, free dental, pension, paying a lot less for married quarters than a civilian – pretty damn good.’
A career in the Army offers opportunities for travel, adventure and teamwork – and much, much more. The Army encourages soldiers and officers to play sport, reckoning that it enhances teamwork, leadership, initiative and fitness. ‘I don’t think there’s a sport the Army doesn’t do’ we were told and during our visits we met people who’d learned to fly, ski, dive, sail and ride. One soldier said: ‘We have to be fit, it’s an essential part of the job. There are regular fitness tests to pass - continued failure can end your career.’
The social side is a real perk for many. One young soldier, just back from her first deployment, said ‘It’s great waking up and being on a corridor with all your best mates. There’s always somebody about, always something to do, everyone’s doors are always open to you.’
Prospects – Life beyond the Apprenticeship
Promotion in the Army
The Army is keen on progression and fast movers are promoted. A 30-year-old Captain who had been in the Army for seven years said: ‘My first job was commanding 40 people. Now I lead a squadron of 226 people. They will fast track you as long as you have the aptitude for it.’
A young soldier in the Royal Signals, yet to go on his first tour of duty, told us he has options: if he stays in the Army, he would be interested in joining the Special Forces in a few years. But on top of his experience in computer networking and telecoms, he has qualified as a PT instructor and has a Hazardous Materials qualification – so he knows that he already has a number of extremely useful and transferrable skills and qualifications tucked in his back pocket, whether he progresses in the Army or works for a civilian company. ‘I’m learning a broad range of skills. Just because I’m in the Signals doesn’t mean that’s all I can do.’
Life after the Army
‘There is a recognition that people who’ve been in the Army turn up on time, look smart, are reliable, confident about what they do and are good at working as part of a team. We are a really good bet for employers.’
Every year nearly 8,000 people ‘transition’ out of the Army. They have skills that are directly transferable in Civvy Street and most find work quickly. ‘I haven’t seen anyone leave and not be employed within six months,’ said a Lance Corporal. ‘A driver who left the Army was applying for HGV drivers’ jobs but an employer recognised the skills he had and took him on as a fleet manager.’
And a young Private told us that her Dog Handling qualification could be used in the security industry and that she also wanted to qualify as a PT Instructor.
The Application Process
You can talk to Armed Forces Careers Advisers first, or just apply via the Army website. After applying online, applicants are invited to their local Armed Forces Careers Office to have a chat about life in the Army and to do a British Army Recruit Battery (BARB) test, which tests applicants on basic English, Maths and problem solving and matches them with trades that suit their abilities.
Once passed, you’d then be invited to an Assessment Centre for two days, where you’d do a range of medical, fitness and mental aptitude tests and get to grips with what life is really like in the Army.
Applicants must be aged between 16 and 33 (parental consent is needed for under-18s). There are no minimum qualifications required (except for certain technical jobs) but your GP would need to fill in a medical questionnaire and a security and reference check would be run before you’re offered a place in the Army.
It’s a good idea to do your own research before applying; go on careers forums, get fit and start thinking about which trade you might want to join.
How do I find out more?
Have a chat with an advisor at your local Armed Forces Careers Office, or visit the Army website – www.army.mod.uk – which gives details of everything you need to know about the roles available, training and education, operations and deployments and how to apply.
Don’t worry if you’re not quite sure what role might suit you or what you’d be good at. Once you’ve applied you’ll be helped to find what’s right for you. Not all trades have vacancies all the time, so you might have to wait for the right thing.
The Army holds careers events at schools all over the country and also takes part in Education Business Partnership events, giving young people a better understanding of what Army life is like.
‘It doesn’t matter if you are a technical wizard, a gym nut who wants to be a fitness instructor or someone who drives tanks and engages with the enemy. Everyone finds something they are good at.’
by Ralph Lucas