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 Navy - a snapshot
The Royal Navy offers opportunities that you simply can’t get elsewhere – from policing the world’s oceans and preventing conflict to delivering humanitarian aid and safeguarding trade routes, no two days are the same.
‘Joining the Navy means that I‘m not just an engineer, I’m in the Navy too.’
The Navy - which includes the Royal Marines - prides itself on the first-class training it offers. Progression is excellent - good sailors can achieve several promotions within five years. They gain valuable qualifications that are recognized in the civilian workplace and, providing they have the appropriate academic qualifications, they can do a university degree – at no cost to themselves.
‘I joined as a weapons engineering technician, worked in HMS Illustrious and HMS Albion and got paid to do a university degree.’
A Leading Hand told us that going home and seeing friends stuck in boring dead-end jobs made him realise that he’d done the right thing. He told us:
‘I have a future, I can make progress, get promoted, go places, do things’.
Everyone we spoke to at one of the training bases, HMS Collingwood, emphasised that a Navy career is ‘a lifestyle, not a job,’ while a sub-lieutenant (Commissioned Officer) who had worked his way up the ranks (or rates, as the Navy calls them) said:
‘If you have got an inquiring mind, a spirit of adventure and the capability to work hard, then the Navy is definitely for you.’
If that sounds like you, then the Navy’s apprenticeship programme could be the springboard to an exciting and unique career, bringing adventure and rewards.
What the Navy does
That probably seems blindingly obvious, but not so fast. To quote the Navy:
‘We are first and foremost a fighting force, serving alongside our allies in conflicts around the world. We also protect Britain’s ports, fishing grounds and merchant ships and help tackle international smuggling, terrorism and piracy. Increasingly, we’re involved in humanitarian and relief missions, where our skills, discipline and resourcefulness make a real difference to people’s lives.’
Such a varied and important role requires a multitude of talents. Engineers, communicators and aircrew help keep the Navy afloat, while chaplains, chefs and medics are amongst those attending to mind, body and soul.
In total there are 38,000 ratings and officers in the Royal Navy, including the Royal Marines. Ships operate out of three main naval bases – Portsmouth, Devonport and Faslane (Scotland) – and are deployed across the world, from UK waters to the Southern Ocean.
Roles and what’s on offer
‘The saddest thing is unfulfilled potential – discover your talents, make the most of the opportunities’ - Rear Admiral
There’s something for virtually everyone, at every level, working above or below water, on land or in the air.
Recruits sign up as engineers, IT technicians, nurses, chefs, logistics experts and more. New recruits join the Royal Navy as ratings or officers, specialising in fields such as warfare, engineering, logistics and aviation.
The Royal Navy’s apprenticeship programme started in 1998, trains 2,500 apprentices across a vast range of trades (or ‘branches’ as the Navy calls them) every year and has featured several times in the top 100 apprenticeship employers. The manager of the Royal Navy’s apprenticeship programme at HMS Collingwood told us:
‘It’s a very good career because the progression is built in. If you’ve got drive and ambition, you can be earning a lot of money in a short time.’
Applicants can join most Royal Navy branches between the ages of 16-37. A few join after GCSEs (one boy we met left school on the Friday and started at HMS Raleigh on the Monday) but the majority are over 18. Some have A Levels and/or degrees while others seek a career change. A group of engineering technicians we spoke to included an ex-baker and a former estate agent in his 30s who’d always dreamed of being a submariner.
'It’s awesome,’ he told us, ‘although it’s a bit humbling when you first go onboard’.
Will the Navy suit me?
‘Be open-minded and be prepared to have some difficult days – but remember that you get to do things that you would pay a fortune to do’ - Rating.
A career in the Royal Navy isn’t something to be undertaken lightly. The Navy has exacting standards and requires grit, hard work and dedication. You train, live and work with others and this fosters a cameraderie that is second to none. After all, your lives may depend on each other.
‘When you start on a new ship, it’s only hours before you’re taking the mick out of each other’ – Leading Hand
There isn’t a ‘Navy type’– you will meet people of every personality, background, race and creed.
So if you have a sense of adventure, get on well with others, are open-minded, fit, hardworking and willing to learn, the Navy could be perfect for you. You’ll be supported, but will have to think for yourself too.
‘It’s great for anybody who wants structure in their lives. My daughter has good leadership skills but also has no problem obeying orders’ - Parent of rating
Initiative is vital, but so is being able to follow orders. And it’s not the life for home birds, loners who like their own space or couch potatoes. Ratings can be away for up to six months at a time, sometimes at short notice and even when you’re in port, you won’t be able to pop home every weekend.
Family and friends can visit when you’re in port but it’ll be at their own expense.
‘It can be frustrating for families not knowing whether you’re going to be at home for Christmas. We try to communicate as much as we can but it’s not always possible’ – Rear Admiral
That said, the days of being out of contact for months on end are long gone. Everyone is encouraged to connect with their families and ships do have broadband, although being miles out to sea means the connection is unreliable at best. And messes are comfortable nowadays, with four-man bunks, iPod connections and Xboxes.
In true Navy-banter style, one new recruit said anyone joining up should ‘have a love of potatoes’ while a trainer dispelled the myth that you need good sea legs to join the Navy. ‘You’d be surprised how many get sea-sick, but it stops eventually,’ he said cheerily.
Everyone we met at HMS Collingwood and HMS Sultan – able seamen, petty officers and sub-lieutenants alike – stressed that a career in the Navy may be hugely rewarding but only if you really want it.
‘Only do it for yourself, not to please others.’
If you’re a tough Bear Grylls type, the Marine Commandos or Special Boat Service might be for you. Exceptionally sporty? The Navy offers elite training (a Royal Marine won a judo gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games) and if you’re something of a musical maestro you can combine performing with frontline service.
Women in the Navy
‘No-one in our family is in the Services. Initially our daughter was interested in the Police but joining the Navy has been the best decision she’s made in her life. I’m very proud’ – Parent of rating
Currently, over 10% of recruits are women and they are expected do exactly the same as males. ‘In terms of diversity and inclusion there are no barriers’ we were told.
However, there are more women in some branches than others. We spotted four females in a 15-strong class of communications and information systems technicians but none at all in a class of weapons engineers. Recruiters are keen to redress the balance.
‘Finishing her Specialist Training has given my daughter more confidence’ - Parent of rating
A female officer we met joined the Navy as a rating eight years ago. With A Levels in maths, psychology and sociology, she liked the fact that she could apply her mathematical ability in ‘the real world.’ She worked in HMS Illustrious and HMS Albion, was recommended for officer training and was paid to do an electronic engineering degree at Portsmouth University.
‘I wanted to work my way up,’ she said. ‘If you put in the hard work you get the rewards at the end.’
Training and Support
‘When I went home my mum said that I do things totally differently now; I used to leave my bedroom in a shocking state. Now I can’t go out without ironing everything’ - Rating
Royal Navy recruits join as ratings or as officers, specialising in fields such as warfare, engineering, logistics and aviation. Ratings spend 10 action-packed weeks at HMS Raleigh in Torpoint, Devon, learning about naval life, including fire fighting, first aid, using and maintaining a weapon, looking after your kit, teamwork and discipline.
Days are long, physical and testing. 5.30am starts and 10pm finishes are typical. There’s a tough adventure training weekend too.
‘Trekking across Dartmoor with a 30kg backpack and taking part in a flood simulation exercise was quite a shock to the system,’ Rating.
The passing out parade at the end of the 10 weeks is a proud day for ratings and their families alike.
After completing basic training, ratings transfer to centres such as HMS Collingwood in Fareham or HMS Sultan in Gosport to learn their specialist skills over 16 weeks. 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 equivalent), even if they have A Levels or a degree.
Training is delivered in modern classrooms and vast workshops filled with bits of ships, helicopters and planes - very Boys’ Own we thought. But this isn’t a male-only domain; women more than hold their own.
Highly-trained teachers also act as coaches and mentors, dealing with welfare, pastoral and career issues.‘We are the eyes and ears for any concerns’ an experienced trainer told us.
Many of those nearing the end of their 16-week training reckoned that life at HMS Collingwood was like being at college or university – but with a peppering of military skills (including a fair amount of marching) and a salary. A young weapons engineer said he’d grown up and become independent at HMS Collingwood.
At her son’s passing-out ceremony, one parent told us ‘I’m very impressed by the training - it teaches them so much and the camaraderie is fantastic.'
After completing Specialist Training, apprentices are deemed ready for their first operational deployment, which involves two years at sea, although there’s often a wait to be allocated a ship.
Most recruits complete their intermediate apprenticeships within 12 months, while advanced apprenticeships (completed out at sea) usually take 36 to 42 months. Some go on to take foundation degrees or other degrees – paid for by the Navy.
Pay, Perks and Play
‘You get paid well, but you have to earn it’.
Typical starting salaries for ratings are £14,492, but as recruits progress through the rates they could earn up to £50,000.
Extra ‘trade-pay’ is offered to submariners, pilots and aircrew, mine clearance divers and nurses.
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, pay for being at sea, help with housing, travel and education, the opportunity to study for a degree or a range of other valued qualifications and a pension.
Navy personnel are expected to look immaculate at all times and uniforms are provided.
Being fit and keeping fit are essential job requirements. But it’s not just about gym work and gruelling runs. An air engineering technician we spoke to represented the combined forces at cricket and football while a sub-lieutenant played rugby at Twickenham and gained qualifications in power-boating and sailing.
‘The Navy is very pro-sport and there are so many opportunities,’ he said. ‘I’ve done everything from gliding to riding – and you are still safeguarding the country.’
Prospects – life beyond the Apprenticeship
Promotion in the Navy
The Navy is a firm believer in merited progression and good people move up the rates very speedily. Those who join as ratings and do well can be selected for officer training and fast tracked - a third of all officers start this way; the other two-thirds train as officers from the start.
Promotion doesn’t just mean becoming a Commissioned Officer, though; some prefer to progress into senior Non-Commissioned Officer roles. As one NCO said, it’s quite simple:
‘If you work hard and show aptitude you go up’.
Life after the Navy
Unlike most jobs, having some thoughts about what you might do when you leave is actively encouraged.
Most stay the course but ‘resettlement’, help and support is given to all who leave, regardless of how long they’ve been in the Navy. Lots of courses offered by the Navy lead to widely recognised qualifications – so recruits can easily transfer their skills when they move into the civilian job market.
The Application Process
You can apply via the Royal Navy website. Applicants must sit the recruit test (RT) in basic English, Maths, problem solving and mechanics. Successful applicants are invited to an interview with a careers adviser to discuss which Navy branch 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, four-day pre-joining course to get a feel for Navy life. They visit a ship, do some fitness tests (like complete a 2.4km run in a specific time and swim 50 metres in under four minutes) and get their heads round Navy-style discipline. ‘It shows what’s expected of you,’ said one fresh-faced recruit. Another said that the four-day induction course was tougher than Basic Training.
The process is different for the Royal Marines : because of the especially demanding nature of their role, aspiring Royal Marines have to attend and pass a 2 ½ day assessment – the Potential Royal Marines Course (PRMC) - to gauge their physical and mental strength, before they can start their training.
Advice for would-be applicants included: do your research; go on careers forums; get fit and work out which branch you want to join.
‘Listen to advice about what trade to learn but don’t be swayed if you know what you want to do.’
How do I find out more?
Your local Armed Forces Careers Office will be happy to tell you more, or visit the Royal Navy website – www.royalnavy.mod.uk – which has a wealth of information, including details of what the Navy - including the Royal Marines - does, the branches you can join and how to apply.
If a Navy career appeals, there’s probably a role to suit you. Don’t worry if you’re not quite sure what that is 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 Navy 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 Navy life is like.
‘Everyone thinks that if you join the Navy all you do is sail a bit but there are so many other things going on underneath,’ we were told.