Why service leavers should dream bigger

Military service leavers should not limit their second-career ambitions. There is a huge breadth of opportunities waiting for those with the confidence and awareness to pursue them, says British Ex-Forces in Business Awards finalist Neil Usborne.

How do you go from minehunting in the Gulf to managing a large IT project for the government’s environment department? The answer, as Neil Usborne has discovered first hand, is by not limiting your transition to a second career in business following a stint serving in the Royal Navy. 

Neil is eager for other service leavers to know the breadth of opportunities available to them after leaving the Armed Forces, if they have the confidence to pursue them as well as some understanding of how to present their military experiences in a way that employers understand.

His own military story is familiar to many thousands of current and former service members. Coming from a military family – his father served in the Navy for 35 years – he felt many military traits were ingrained in his upbringing and it was little surprise when he joined the Navy in 2011.

SEE MORE: FDM gives service leavers a soft landing in the corporate world

He has fond memories of six years as a warfare officer. “I went to sea on loads of deployments, learnt the trade of how to drive a ship and specialised in navigation. I loved it,” he says. “My main jobs after that were navigating a minehunter in the Gulf, which was very different to anything I’ve done before or since.” 

Neil’s reason for leaving the Navy in 2017 was also familiar to many other service leavers. In a long-term relationship by that stage, and faced with another decade spent predominantly at sea if he wanted to progress his naval career further, he felt the time was right to jump back to civilian life.

Changing mindset

Through his 12-month notice period, Neil found his mindset changing. “At the 12-month point you’re thinking ‘I’m a lieutenant in the Navy, I’ll easily find a job’. You’ve learned loads and had lots of useful experiences. But then you go through the job application processes and start to think, I’ve got experience but is it relevant? Is it translatable? It goes in waves.”

Fortunately, Neil did secure a job and three days after officially leaving the Navy he began his new role as a security manager at Gatwick Airport, managing a team of 30. Yet while the experience was a positive one, residing near Portsmouth and leaving the house at 2am to drive to Gatwick Airport soon took its toll. 

A successful first year out of the military, however, gave Neil the confidence and time to consider what he wanted to do longer term. A conversation with FDM Group, a global leader in the recruit, train and deploy model, set him off on a path he didn’t previously think was possible.

“I was struggling to find a way into other employers because people didn’t understand my experience on my CV,” he says. “I also don’t think I was selling myself properly. You can say on a CV you spent six years in the Navy as a navigator but what does that really mean? I was putting in the details that meant something to me, but it didn’t necessarily mean something to an employer. It looked like FDM would be able to open some doors, which they definitely have.”

Climbing the ladder

FDM trains service leavers in IT and business consulting specialisations, with most operating in the project environment. Through a two-year process with the company, a dedicated ex-forces team provide support and professional development to individuals who are placed with FDM’s clients, gaining hands-on commercial experience. 

Neil’s first FDM placement was with Lewisham Council as an Armed Forces Covenant Project Manager, delivering an instrumental programme to promote defence people across all 32 London boroughs, advocating the Armed Forces Covenant. Thanks to Neil’s work, 31 of the boroughs signed up with the project goals within eight months. He also more than doubled the number of boroughs engaging with the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme while driving significant cost savings.

“People really do want to employ you so don’t limit yourself by what you think you can’t do”

Neil’s work sooned earned him wider recognition as a finalist for Rising Star of the Year at the 2020 British Ex-Forces in Business Awards, the world’s largest celebration of veterans in second careers. His stint with FDM later saw him move to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to manage a large IT project, and having completed his FDM programme he has recently moved onto a new role as Agile Project Manager at construction and engineering company Costain.

The crucial work the Ex-Forces in Business Awards does to promote the vast range of possibilities available to service leavers, and educate employers on the synergies between military skills and values and business success, gives servicemen and women the confidence to think bigger, Neil says.

“The Ex-Forces in Business Awards really do show what you can do,” he adds. “Just having a look at the list of finalists each year is really impactful. The sheer breadth of organisations and different roles people are doing is just immense. If that doesn’t show that you can do anything you want, I don’t know what does. People really do want to employ you so don’t limit yourself by what you think you can’t do.

“Revisit your CV, demilitarise it, but understand that you’ve got such a wide array of experience that you can bring forward. Don’t just look at the obvious qualifications that you’ve gained. The teamwork, leadership and communication skills you’ve learned are really important. But you’ve got to learn to sell yourself in a civilian way, changing your language both on your CV and in interviews. There are courses and programmes, like FDM, to help you, so use them.”

For more information, visit fdmgroup.com/careers/ex-forces