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 RAF - a snapshot
Interested in maths and science? Enjoy problem solving? For those for whom adventure and living away from home are more attractive options than staying on at school after GCSEs, RAF engineering apprenticeships offer outstanding training in an exceptionally supportive environment.
‘I couldn’t wait to get away from home and do something exciting’
The RAF is not so much a career as a way of life. Discipline and teamwork are key: ‘Fighters first, engineers second,’ is how the RAF sees its apprentices.
What is asked of RAF technicians is a questioning (but always respectful) obedience. Apprentices are expected to ‘speak up’ and are told ‘you have a right to respond.’ On the front line they must have the confidence to flag up problems. Lives could depend on it.
‘Lots of my friends have got degrees but are not doing the jobs they hoped for’ - Apprentice
The RAF offers around 1500 apprenticeships each year in most trades; 600 of these are engineering apprenticeships, with a new intake starting every seven to ten days. You can specialise in avionics, mechanical, weapons, ICT tech and survival equipment.
At the RAF’s radio school, you can become a Communications Infrastructure Technician or an ICT Technician. You can join at 16 but most recruits are slightly older; many have taken AS Levels or have worked since leaving school.
‘He has landed in a good place doing exactly what he wants. He is moving forward and has qualifications’ - Parent
What the RAF does
‘Our people lie at the heart of our capability. We rely upon their professionalism, dedication and courage’
It’s certainly not all about ‘bandits at 2 o’clock’. As the UK’s aerial, peacekeeping and fighting force, the RAF’s role is to defend UK airspace as well as work in trouble spots around the globe, including supporting peacekeeping and reconstruction initiatives and flying in humanitarian aid to victims of war and natural disaster.
In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Nepal in 2015, an RAF Hercules flew a successful aid mission to the area. During the busiest period of the deployment, crew flew missions of up to 16 hours, delivering World Food Program high energy rations, 10 tonnes of shelters and tents as well as essential water purification equipment for use by the British Gurkha Engineers in Nepal. As the Detachment Commander said:
‘It has been a real privilege to command this detachment; challenging at times, but also incredibly rewarding.' Together, every member of the team has contributed 100 per cent to deliver much needed aid to the people of Nepal safely, and they all go home in the knowledge that they have made a difference.’
Roles and what’s on offer
‘After five years, apprentices have hands-on practical experience, they’re motivated, have been trained to a high standard and have seen a bit of the world – it is the whole package and a lot more than simply getting an engineering qualification’ - Station Commander
The fact is, the RAF couldn’t function without its engineers. Several million pounds’-worth of fighter plane isn’t going anywhere, unless the Mechanical Technicians have repaired and maintained the aircraft; the Avionics Technicians have checked the complex electrical, electronic and sensory systems that are its brains; the Weapons Technicians have armed it and the aerial, radar and communications systems are all in perfect working order, courtesy of the Communications Infrastructure Technicians. It’s the ultimate in teamwork.
Quick-thinking but thorough and prepared to get their hands dirty, apprentices are motivated by wanting to get the job done properly first time round. You need to be methodical and determined – the type of person who enjoys the challenge of solving a problem, sometimes quickly and under pressure. If you are the first to figure out how to work the complex new TV remote control at Christmas, then one of these apprenticeships might suit you.
Aircraft Avionics Technician
If you are hungry for power, becoming an Avionics Technician could be for you. Apprentices in this role service the power and electrical systems on aircraft. So if a technical fault means an aircraft needs its complex electronic and electrical equipment checked out, or an aircraft can’t fly because its reconnaissance equipment has a fault, you are in the front line for getting it sorted.
It is important that you are comfortable working in confined spaces as this comes with the job when conducting fault diagnosis and replacing components. And in a combat situation, pressure really mounts to find a quick solution. Not only is the aircraft out of action but other technicians can’t complete their jobs until you finish.
‘Though he’s bright, my son lost interest in his A Levels after the AS year. He could have got avionics experience locally but it would have meant him staying at home and he wanted to travel and do something exciting’ - Parent
Aircraft Mechanical Technician
If getting your hands dirty and messing around with machinery is your idea of heaven, the RAF has lots of high-tech equipment to keep you busy.
Mechanical Technicians are responsible for keeping the aircraft structure and propulsion equipment in tip-top condition. It helps to be agile and resilient as you could be working on any part of the aircraft and the work is often difficult, fiddly and dirty. But cracking a difficult mechanical problem and getting a jet, helicopter or transport aircraft back in operation requires teamwork and dedication and is a lot more rewarding than trying to get your dad’s old banger back on the road.
This job is not for the faint-hearted but that is part of its appeal. Forget a gung-ho attitude to explosives, this job requires care, precision and accuracy. Whether you are arming aircraft with bombs, smart weapons and missiles, loading aircraft guns or servicing high performance weapons like machine guns and mortars, there is no room for error.
Later in your career, if you have steady nerves and hands, you can volunteer to do bomb disposal.
‘Going to uni and getting a good degree is no guarantee of a job. In the RAF he has prospects, a pension and a future’ - Parent
Survival Equipment Specialists
Want to save lives? So does the RAF.
At the title suggests, this role is at the heart of the RAF. When it comes to anything about survival equipment – either on a person or an aircraft – these specialists know it all.
From testing night vision devices to repairing emergency parachutes and life rafts, a Survival Equipment Specialist’s workload is huge and extremely varied. It’s a bit like being Q in James Bond – but as with so many jobs in the RAF, there is no room for error.
Communications Infrastructure Technician
Does the idea of developing, repairing and maintaining the most up-to-date and complex battlefield communications in the world appeal?
If so, this job could be ideal for you.
The importance of maintaining reliable communications, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, cannot be overstated. The success of the most advanced fast jet is reliant on excellent battlefield communications. It also means that whether you’re working on cyber security, long-range surveillance radar or satellite and data communications, you will never be idle.
The RAF wants self-starters who can both understand the needs of the aircrew and come up with innovative solutions.
But be warned, the ability to work at heights is vital.
You will also need to be able to work outdoors, exposed to the elements, while maintaining mission-critical communications, possibly in a war zone.
You will be expected to work with other nations, setting standards and working with authority and responsibility.
Short trips abroad are par for the course, as is the excitement of never knowing exactly what the next day will hold.
‘Our son has a degree and though he considered joining the Police, he always came back to the RAF. He was 24-years-old when he joined and we were thrilled to bits’ – Parent
Tactical satellite systems and airfield radars don’t work without your expertise.
Working on communication, radar and information systems means you could be deployed anywhere around the world to ensure that these systems are maintained and repaired.
Working as part of a tight-knit team, this role requires a logical and precise mind but one that can handle the dynamic and demanding environments of RAF life.
Of all the trades, that of ICT Technician is one of the most diverse, with nine different employment fields, ranging from deploying mission-critical communications and information, to providing operational support to an operational commander, whether in the UK or abroad.
ICT Technicians are an essential part of the RAF, using their skills to design, build, sustain, protect and recover communications and information systems.
‘I liked the idea of getting paid to get qualified rather than racking up student debt’ - Apprentice
Will the RAF suit me?
‘Motivation is the most important quality; we can train technical skills’ - Station Commander
The RAF is different in many ways from civilian life – but that is what makes a career in it interesting. It has its tensions though; homesickness, regular relocation and unsocial hours can be stressful for you and your family.
Service life offers history, comradeship and belonging. It can be a shock to begin with, but most adapt to it – those who cannot, usually realise that they have made the wrong choice after a few weeks of Basic Training.
You learn that communal living can lead to lifelong friendships - but may also require you step away from confrontation.
As one Station Commander put it: ‘It helps to be a ‘stable extrovert’ - the sort of person who can engage with those around them but maintain good sense and judgement under pressure.
And if saluting someone younger than you is an issue, think again about joining the RAF. Rank is important in the RAF but it does come with respect. We found that approachability and mutual respect amongst staff, across all ranks, was something that stood out.
With entry requirements of GCSEs (or equivalent) in Maths, English and an approved science/technology-based subject, joining the RAF may look easy. Don’t be misled. Courses are no walkover; hard work, commitment, problem solving skills and a lot of thinking are required.
If you’ve got these attributes, it really does not matter what twists and turns your life has taken so far. If the RAF thinks you have what it takes, they will take you on.
‘We don’t have any background in the Forces and he didn’t go to the ATC but once he’d found out about the RAF, he really wanted to join. He didn’t get through Basic Training until his third attempt. He loves the RAF and hasn’t looked back’ - Parent
Women in the RAF
The RAF is keen to welcome and encourage women to join up. The message seems to be getting across as women currently make up 13 per cent of its apprentices. We found that while on some courses there were only one or two women attending, on others women made up a quarter of the class.
Although it is traditionally a male-orientated environment, the ethos of respect in the RAF means that being a female apprentice is now much more accepted and indeed unremarkable. Participation in the Women in Science and Engineering Scheme (WISE - www.wisecampaign.org.uk) is one way the RAF encourages women to take up engineering. In the meantime, it is putting time and effort into welfare initiatives for women that are supported by senior female welfare officers.
Training and Support
The RAF were awarded ‘Outstanding Training Provider’ grading by Ofsted following an inspection in December 2014.
Good support is essential at the start of any career. Is it available at the RAF?
Perhaps surprisingly (it being a military organisation), the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. It was clear from our interviews with apprentices and RAF staff that welfare within the RAF is exceptional, with a great emphasis on pastoral attention. This is a point reinforced by parents. Clearly the RAF lives up to its mantra of ‘select well and nurture through’.
‘I feel like he has got two families’ - Parent
Recruits spend 9 action-packed weeks at RAF Halton near Aylesbury, learning about RAF life, including fire fighting, first aid, using and maintaining a weapon, looking after your kit, teamwork and discipline.
This can be a shock – even for the hardiest. Days are long, physical and testing. 5.30am starts and 10pm finishes are typical. There’s a tough adventure training weekend too.
But the RAF sees it as a necessary introduction to the discipline and rigour expected in RAF life.
It aims to test candidates mentally and physically and leaves them in no doubt that RAF life is different to Civvy Street.
‘Having to run one and a half miles on a treadmill for Basic Training was brutal’ - Apprentice
The RAF has produced a series of YouTube videos filmed by recruits showing a ‘warts and all’ view of the Basic recruit training course. The Good Careers Guide particularly enjoyed watching the fly-on-the-wall diaries of AC Laura Skinner and AC Chris Marchant. A ‘must’ watch for potential recruits, these videos don’t pull any punches. Amateur videos also appear on YouTube and offer interesting insights.
‘His passing-out parade was amazing and we were so proud. We think he has found his vocation’ - Parent
Once they’ve completed their Basic Training, recruits transfer to dedicated RAF training centres to learn their specialist skills. Recruits are screened for learning difficulties (such as dyslexia) when they arrive. All study and must pass level 2 functional skills in English and Maths (GCSE or equivalent), even if they have A Levels or a degree.
Specialist training is not school; apprentices are expected to treat their training as a job. Classes are small – up to 16 people in total – so there is no hiding at the back of the classroom. Experienced instructors (mostly former technicians) work in computer-filled, state-of-the art classrooms. Later on, working in groups of four, apprentices learn hands-on engineering on former combat jets.
Instructors get to know apprentices well; most apprentices need support at some point so there’s no stigma about getting a bit of one-to-one tuition. The ethos reiterated by all the instructors we spoke to was ‘we’re on your side.’
Following Basic Training and Specialist Training, technicians undertake several years in the workplace and further specialist Technician Training, before qualifying as Advanced Apprentices. It is worth noting that RAF apprenticeships vary in length; Avionics Technicians and Mechanical Technicians take approximately five years, while Weapons Technicians, Survival Equipment Specialists, Communications Infrastructure Technicians and ICT Technicians take around three years.
Pay, Perks and Play
Starting salaries for apprentices are pretty competitive. Basic recruit training salaries are more than £14,400 pa, but rise on passing the course to £17,845. Add to this an overseas allowance when serving abroad, benefits from subsidised housing and food, an attractive RAF housing package, a pension, as well as entitlement to a further education allowance designed to encourage apprentices to extend their qualifications privately.
Five years on and qualified, the salary for Aircraft Avionics Apprentices, for example, rises to £29,000 plus allowances, and there are good promotion prospects.
For those taking a three-year apprenticeship, salaries rise to approximately £24,600 after qualification.
As airmen progress through the ranks they could earn up to £50,000.
Being fit and keeping fit go with the job. Having said that, you don’t need to be an Olympian to join the RAF; there is a multitude of sports on offer to all, from football and volleyball to badminton; ice hockey to paragliding; sailing to judo.
Prospects – Life beyond the Apprenticeship
‘After five years apprentices have hands-on practical experience, they’re motivated, have been trained to a high standard and have seen a bit of the world – it is the whole package and a lot more than simply getting an engineering qualification’ - RAF Station Commander
Promotion within the RAF
The RAF is good at keeping its people. Part of the reason is that two or three markedly different careers can be had within the RAF without leaving the service.
Joining as an apprentice might appeal in your 20s, but the idea of being an instructor or working for welfare or management might be attractive in your 30s and 40s. Alternatively, you might consider training to become an officer.
‘He intends to stay in the RAF but it is good to know that he could do jobs outside the service if that changes’ - Parent
Life after the RAF
‘We know we can find work in engineering companies, on rigs and at companies like BAE’ - Apprentice
Apprentices we spoke to were confident about their ability to find a job outside the RAF, not least because the apprenticeships and other qualifications they gain in the RAF are so sought after in the civilian world. It is clear that employers value the RAF’s rigorous training and discipline.
All RAF technical courses include a strong thread of leadership and management, which is essential for work on operations but also a great advantage in civilian life.
The Application Process
You can apply via the RAF website. Applicants must sit the Airmen Selection Test (AST) in basic English, Maths, problem solving and mechanics. Successful applicants are invited to an interview with a careers adviser to discuss which RAF trade they’d like to join and would best suit. They must also pass medical, eye and fitness tests and a security and reference check.
Once through that hoop, recruits attend a free, three-day pre-joining course to get a feel for RAF life. They do fitness tests (including completing a 2.4km run in a specific time) and get their heads round RAF-style discipline.
Advice for would-be applicants included: do your research; go on careers forums; get fit and figure out which trade you want to join.
How do I find out more?
Your local Armed Forces Careers Office will be happy to tell you more, or you can look at the RAF website – www.raf.mod.uk – which has a wealth of information, including details of what the RAF does, the trades you can join and how to apply.
If a career in the RAF appeals there’s probably a job or role to suit you. Don’t worry if you’re not quite sure what that is or what you would be good at. Once you’ve applied you’ll be helped and guided 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 RAF holds a range of careers events at schools and also takes part in Education Business Partnership events, giving young people a better understanding of what life in the RAF is like.