Private Investigation

The Private Detective may have become one of our culture’s stock characters, but what is it about the real-life profession that could appeal to Service Leavers? Civvy Street investigates…

From Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple to Sam Spade and Philip Marlow, the Private Investigator – the Private Eye or ‘Private Dick’ – has long been a popular figure in novels, films and television series. Over the years, the media’s constant need to find a new hook on the profession has given us everything from the ghostly humour of Randell & Hopkirk (Deceased) – two down-at-heel detectives, one of whom’s a ghost! – to the high-healed glamour of Charlie’s Angels – who, despite jumping out of planes, and piloting speedboats, generally manage an alluring, slow motion hair toss even in the middle of the fight scene!

As you’ve probably guessed, real life private investigators don’t usually lead such fantastical Hollywood lives. Their days are more likely to be spent on the telephone or in front of a computer screen rather than becoming entangled with murderous femme fatales; clients are as likely to be solicitors, insurance companies and councils as private companies and individuals. Many investigators become involved in ‘process serving’, presenting legal documents to individuals or companies, or specialise in becoming certificated bailiffs involved in the tracing of elusive debtors and the collection of overdue debts. Nevertheless, more general private investigation work can still involve surveillance (for fraud investigations as much as checking on errant partners), missing persons enquiries, the checking of insurance claims and background vetting of personnel.

So, why is private investigation likely to appeal as a career to someone from the Armed Forces? Nicola Amsel, of the Institute of Professional Investigators (IPI), certainly believes that there is a potential skills match. “They do require an awareness for the need for security, and discretion, of surveillance techniques. Not everyone would automatically be suitable, but I do very much reaffirm that to go from the Armed Forces into our industry is quite a natural progression, and that there are quite a number of ex-Armed Forces people there.”

Peter Heims, who is one of the most respected private investigators in the UK and a former president of the Association of British Investigators (ABI), would certainly agree. A private investigator for over fifty years (after six years in the Parachute Regiment), he has invariably looked for potential new investigators from the ranks of the Armed Forces and still gives regular talks to interested Service leavers through the Career Transition Partnership. The reason: he believes they have the necessary maturity to cope with all the job can throw at them. If they’ve worked in the Military Police, they will already have practical experience of many of the investigative techniques that a private investigator needs to master.

Successful private investigators need a whole range of skills that can be honed during your time in the Armed Forces. These include strong communication skills, both spoken and written – as Peter points out:

“Many of my clients never meet me, relying instead on the comprehensive report I provide.” Other important attributes include excellent observational skills, a high level of physical fitness, honesty and integrity, patience and perseverance, self-confidence (as you are likely to present information in court) and the ability to work independently. Above all, though, according to Peter: “You need common sense, a logical mind and a non-judgmental disposition.”

Of course, it also helps that you’re familiar with long and irregular working hours, and late night and weekend shifts – either office-based, or outside travelling around gathering information.

Ideally, anyone considering private investigation as a new career should have a good general education, while some experience in a related field – such as military or other security work – is considered advantageous. Many private investigators will learn some kind of self-defence, even although it is rarely needed in practice. As most people working in the sector are also self-employed, it has been pointed out to us that some understanding of running a business could also prove invaluable.

Most organised training takes place on the job, with some investigators working towards NVQ / SVQ / City & Guild qualifications. The IPI offers two-day foundation courses aimed at newcomers to the profession: these cover topics ranging from criminal and civil law to basic evidence gathering, from surveillance techniques to setting up in business. The IPI also runs seminars, up and down the country, which are open to anyone interested in the profession. The Institute is also close to finalising a new investigation module as part of the City & Guilds Qualification, in conjunction with the UK-based International Institute of Security (IISec).

While the ABI and IPI have, for many years, successfully endeavoured to ensure the industry adheres to agreed professional standards, there is currently no legal requirement for a private investigator to hold any particular qualifications. The industry was – indeed still is, to a point – self regulated. This will change, however, at some point next year.

Amongst its various elements, the Private Security Industry Act (PSIA) 2001 requires anyone involved in surveillance, inquiries or investigations (which aim to obtain information on, or about the activities of, a particular individual) to possess a licence issued by the Security Industry Authority (SIA), the independent supervisory organisation itself set up under the auspices of the PSIA.

At the time of writing, though, the exact nature of this licensing has yet to be decided. The SIA’s Robert Buxton told us: “We’re currently speaking with the industry, getting their views and opinions, before sending out an official Impact Assessment Report at the end of the year. After that comes back, we’ll look at how regulation and licensing will be implemented. There will be a training course assessment; there will be identity and criminal record checks, but to what level – that has yet to be decided.”

While the ABI had long lobbied for official recognition and regulation of private investigators, Board member Nicola Amsel admits that the current situation leaves the industry “in a state of limbo”. She told us: “We’re still waiting for the SIA to tell us what the compentency criteria are; we’re still waiting to know what the criteria are to have a licence in the first place.”

Estimates of the number of private investigators do vary, but it has been suggested that there are currently some 10,000 in the UK. Opportunities for work have increased in recent years, largely because private investigators are taking on more work which was previously carried out by the police. However, it doesn’t automatically follow that this means there is any less competition for work.

Because private investigators are often self-employed sole-traders, or run their own agencies, there are obvious limits to career promotion in the traditional sense; in larger agencies, promotion is possible to senior investigator, or the management of a team of detectives. As your reputation builds, however, it is also possible for work to take you overseas – commercial piracy, for instance, is an international problem that could present opportunities for travel. Details of reputable agencies can be obtained from the ABI and IPI. If you are looking to be your own boss, but at the same time enjoy the support of a larger company, it is even possible to take on a franchise from Nationwide Investigations Group Limited, a full member of the British Franchise Association.

Salaries range widely in the profession, in part because it is dominated by self-employed individual. According to the Government careers body Learn Direct, those starting out in the profession may earn only between £10,000 and £12,000 a year, with salaried private investigators bringing in between £14,000 to £20,000, depending on the size and scope of the company. Experienced self-employed investigators could earn in the region of £20,000 to £25,000 a year, although those working at the top level of corporate investigation can earn between £50,000 to £100,000 a year.

According to the Eighties Dire Straits song, which played on the film noir image of the private investigator, this is a profession that leaves you with only “a bottle of whisky and a new set of lies, blinds on the windows and a pain behind the eyes”. However, for those involved in the profession, the successful completion of a case can provide real job satisfaction – which is why Peter Heims continues to work at an age when most other people would be grateful for retirement. Not only that, it also offers an excellent opportunity to build on many of your skills and experience from your time in the Armed Forces.


Association of British Investigators (ABI)
Tel: 0871 474 0006

The Institute of Professional Investigators (IPI)
Tel: 0870 330 8622

Secret Industry Authority (SIA)
Tel: 0870 243 0100