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

Prison & Probation Service

Although their approaches are necessarily different, protecting the public from the actions of criminals is the main role of the UK’s Prison and Probation Services. How can a military background help you become part of their work?

During your time in the Armed Forces, your role has essentially been to help defend the United Kingdom of Great Britain, it’s territories and communities from external or even internal aggression. However, there are other threats and other ways to protect our communities, which is where the UK’s Prisons and Probation Services come to play.

These Services have the primary goal of protecting the general public from the actions of criminal individuals. The UK’s Prison Services do this principally through the safe and humane custody of offenders – in prisons, remand centres and young offenders institutions – and endeavour some degree of rehabilitation through a range of training courses. Probation Services, meantime, essentially ‘manage’ a wide range of offenders within a community setting – either after prison or as part of a non-custodial sentence – with often one-to-one programmes that aim to guide offenders away from their criminal behaviour. While prison staff may work in fairly isolated settings, the majority of probation staff are concentrated in urban areas.

Despite what you might think from some of their names, there are no single national prison or probation services operating across the whole of the UK. HM Prison Service and the National Probation Service operate only in England and Wales while the Northern Ireland Prison Service and NI Probation Service operate in the Province. North of the Border, the Scottish Prison Service and local authority social work departments have responsibilities respectively for prison and probation services.


Prison Service
The most publicly recognised profession in our prison system is that of the Prison Officer. Their main responsibility is keeping inmates secure; this can include assessing prisoners, carrying out security checks and search procedures, supporting vulnerable prisoners (particularly those deemed to be at risk of self-harm or suicide), supervising prisoners and keeping order – using ‘authorised physical control and restraint procedures’ where necessary.

According to Careers Transition Partnership (CTP) lecturer Bill Hodge, the uniformed, disciplined background of members of the Armed Forces – in particular their Òtransferable skills and dedication to dutyÓ – make them of particular interest to the Prison Service. The CTP runs regular courses to help members of the Armed Forces successfully complete the Prison Officer Selection Test (POST), which assesses skills including basic numeracy, writing and reading ability as well as comprehension and attention to detail.

Prisons, however, are not just about imprisonment; they are also intended to play a role in the rehabilitation of offenders before they return to the community, running programmes helping prisoners to gain new skills and qualifications, to recognise and change their offending behaviour, and also to give advice on welfare issues. Some qualified Prison Officers may well take part in vocational instruction in a wide range of work-related sectors from catering and horticulture to printing and tailoring – designed to reduce the chance of prisoners reoffending by increasing their employability.

Particularly within HM Prison Service, however, this kind of training is increasingly the responsibility of separately employed Instructional Officers. Career opportunities in the also exist for healthcare professionals, for chaplains from a wide range of faith traditions, qualified psychologists, and managerial and administrative staff. There are also a wide range of industrial careers covering agriculture, catering, building and allied trades which ensure the smooth running of the Prison Service and its premises.

Probation Service
Probation Officers (in Scotland, Criminal Justice Social Workers) supervise offenders, encouraging them to address their behaviour, comply with court orders and not reoffend. This is usually done in conjunction with other agencies including social services, the Police and the Prison Services. The work is both varied and challenging, including the preparation of pre-sentence reports (PSRs) which offer guidance on the most appropriate way to deal with offenders. All in all, Probation Officers are likely to spend a lot of time with offenders – not only before, during and after sentencing, but also while they remain ‘under supervision’. Responsibility for probation services in Scotland are held by local council Social Work departments.

In England and Wales, the National Probation Service also provides Victim Contact Teams who work exclusively with the victims of offenders who have been sentenced to twelve months imprisonment or more for sexual and other violent offences. This work is equally important; not only can these Officers help individuals rebuild their lives, they can also act a route for people to get information about the criminal justice process and the progress of the offender through their sentence. Victims can also comment on and influence the conditions of release through the Contact Teams and have the right to be informed when important changes take place – such as appeals.

Qualifications needed for posts in both Prison and Probation Services vary significantly, but desirable attributes across the board include strength of mind, physical fitness, good communication and people skills, maturity, confidence, personal integrity and a willingness to make a difference.

Each of the UK’s Prison Services have their own entry requirements. Regardless of any academic qualifications, all entrants in England and Wales must be able to pass POST. Those entering the profession in Scotland, in contrast, must have the equivalent of five Standard Grades (1-3, including Maths and English) or three years managerial experience, and be able to pass an interview, psychometric tests judging verbal and numerical reasoning and a situational judgment questionnaire to reflect your values and attitudes. Currently, you must be aged between 18.5 and 57 years old (20 and 57 in Scotland) at the time of your appointment. (The Northern Ireland Prison Service is not currently recruiting for any new positions.)

To qualify as a probation officer in England and Wales, you will need to obtain the Diploma in Probation Studies (DipPS) awarded by Skills for Justice; this is only open to those already employed as a trainee probation officer by a probation service, who have (if aged under 25) the equivalent of five GCSEs. (Candidates over 25 may be accepted without formal qualifications.)

In Scotland, entry to criminal justice work is through a four-year Honours Degree in Social Work awarded by the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC), for which qualifications will be specified by the course provider. A two year postgraduate programme is available, although the SSSC also runs a fast track scheme (running between 16 and 19 months) whilst employed as trainees.

The Probation Board for Northern Ireland is not currently recruiting for any new positions.


Prison Service
Staff are recruited regularly by HM Prison Services (covering England & Wales) and the Scottish Prison Service, but not the Northern Ireland Prison Service – which has been reducing its overall staffing levels in recent years. There are also, currently, eleven privately managed prisons in England run by companies including GSL, Premier and G4S Justice Services, all of which are ultimately responsible to the Home Office.

In England & Wales, current Home Office policy means that instructional and training duties are increasingly performed by civilian instructors, rather than Prison Officers, although there remain opportunities to move into specialist roles such as physical education instructor or dog handler. In Scotland, however, there remain real opportunities for prison officers to extend their experience beyond purely security work.

Across the UK, promotion to more senior officer posts (including governor grades) is by examination and interview, after a minimum of two years service.

Over the last two years, responsibility for commissioning healthcare services within prisons has been taken on by the local Primary Care Trusts, meaning that all healthcare professionals working in the prison system can enjoy the same career development opportunities as NHS staff.

Currently, prison officers salaries in England & Wales range from £17,319 to £26,433 depending on length of service, with salaries for Senior and Principal Officers ranging between £28,202 to £30,643. In Scotland, prison officer recruits start on £14,373; if they perform well during their probationary twelve month period, salaries will begin to rise to a current maximum of £19,130 (usually over a period of five years).

Probation Service
Probation Officers in England & Wales train in one of the National Probation Service’s 42 local service areas, with recruitment for these places most commonly taking place in the spring. Trainee salaries range from £14,476 to £15,351, with additional payments for those working in inner or outer London. After qualification, salaries for main grade Probation Officers are on a scale of £20,804 to £27,973. North of the Border, Criminal Justice Social Workers working within Scotland’s local authorities can earn between £17,000 and £28,000 a year, depending on experience and length of service.

Although the number of trainee posts is increasing – and qualified Probation Officers are very much in demand – competition for places, particularly in England and Wales, remains ‘fierce’. In contrast, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland is not currently recruiting for any new positions.

Promotion opportunities in the Probation Service can mean moving into management or to specialise in particular areas.

There’s no denying that moving from the Armed Forces into either the Prison or Probation Services will still involve a significant culture shock, even though shift work is still a 24/7 reality for the likes of prison officers. Nevertheless, they still offer an opportunity for you to protect the general public from a real and palpable threat. And, above all, they’re people-centred professions that are surprisingly wide-ranging in their scope and offer both a challenging and ultimately worthwhile career that can make a real difference to other people’s lives.


HM Prisons

National Probation Service
020 7217 0659

Northern Ireland Prison Service
028 9052 5065

Probation Board for Northern Ireland
028 9026 2400

Scottish Prison Service
0131 244 8745

Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC)
01382 207101


The UK’s Rail network is big business. Or, rather, it’s a collection of big businesses – and they’re always on the lookout for skilled and qualified staff. What technical, engineering and managerial opportunities are open to former Forces personnel in this remarkably expanding industry?

It’s over 180 years since the world’s first ever passenger rail service ran between Stockton and Darlington, but in that time the UK’s railways have redefined, transformed and expanded the world we live in. Nor have they become some overlooked relic of the past: with increasing fuel prices and road congestion, this ‘marvel of the 19th century’ is being transformed into a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly ‘new hope’ for the future of passenger and freight transport. Multi-billion pound investment – in projects such as the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line – are all proof of the industry’s continued relevance in the 21st century. Nor is this just in transport terms (although more people now travel between London and Paris by train than fly); it’s also as an employer!

Although many people still talk of ‘British Rail’ or ‘the railway’, the rail industry is in fact made up of numerous companies.

Network Rail is the Government-created company that owns (and is responsible for) the national rail infrastructure: this includes over 21,000 miles of track (‘the permanent way’); 9,000 level crossings; 40,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts; around 2,500 stations, depots and associated properties; a large retail portfolio and 10,000 advertising sites. After the privatisation of the railways in the Nineties, maintenance of this infrastructure was carried out under contract by either existing construction companies or the newly ‘privatised’ regional maintenance companies; in the last year, however, most of this work has been brought back ‘in-house’ in order to ‘deliver a more efficient, cost-effective and well coordinated programme nationwide’. Already, some 15,000 employees have transferred from the regional maintenance companies to Network Rail.

Train Operating Companies (TOCs) – including long-distance operators such as GNER and Virgin as well as regional and suburban operators such as Merseyrail and First Scotrail – run rail passenger services and may also lease and manage railway stations from Network Rail. Although subject to market forces, TOCs also receive input and direction from the appropriate government body – the Department of Transport, the Scottish Executive and Northern Ireland Office. Meantime, freight companies – such as English, Welsh and Scottish Railways – have the responsibility of both transporting non-passenger goods – ranging from petro-chemicals and steel to cars and food.

Many TOCs do not actually own or maintain the trains they run; these are owned by Rolling Stock Companies – such as HSBC Rail, Angel Trains and Porterbrook Leasing – who then lease them to the TOCs and ensure that available engines, carriages and trucks are what are required in both the short and longer term. Rolling Stock Companies also have a responsibility to help TOCs develop their services through the phasing out of old rolling stock and its replacement with more modern, accessible and safer trains.

The UK’s rail sector directly employs some 180,000 people, and indirectly employs thousands more, through manufacturers and contracted service providers. As a result, it is an industry that is able to offer former members of the Armed Forces a wide range of career opportunities for people who can not only cope but actually thrive in a challenging and (often literally) fast-moving environment.

Career opportunities come in one of four areas:

Operations cover all those involved in keeping the railways running effectively and efficiently, from those who plan the routes and schedule services to those who drive the trains and operate the signalling and control equipment.

Operations staff have an immediate responsibility for the safety of passengers and freight, so must be used to responsibility and working on both their own and as part of a larger team. Drivers and Control Room staff, in particular, must have the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, be able to react quickly when required, and have the ability to quickly understand quite complex systems. Most will also be working shift pattern rather than the traditional 9 – 5. All of these are attributes and experiences that military personnel can bring to the industry. Logistical experience from the Armed Forces (such as in the Royal Logistics Corps) would be of particular value in planning and scheduling; alternatively, a degree in transport planning or logistics is increasingly a route into supervisory or managerial work.

Technical & Engineering
From the days of steam, the railways have always needed mechanical engineers, but as technology has advanced, so has the range of skills needed to keep the trains moving. Thanks to the advent of micro-processor controlled systems, high speed locomotives, state-of-the-art communication systems, computerised customer services and interactive websites, the UK’s rail industry now needs people skilled and practised in Information Technology and electronics just as much as mechanical or civil engineering – responsible, respectively, for the rolling stock and buildings, and track, bridges and tunnels.

Technical and engineering staff must be able to work in a wide variety of locations, both individually and as part of a team, and be willing to work to differing shift patterns. Workers must have a well-founded and developed knowledge of their particular field of expertise, with engineering staff in particular expected to have professional qualifications such as Chartered Engineer. Engineering and Electrical Engineering qualifications earned within the Armed Forces would obviously be of value for anyone wishing to enter this sector.

Customer facing
Customers are, of course, at the heart of the rail business, and recent years have seen growing numbers of people and freight once again travelling by rail. ‘Customer facing’ roles take in sales staff, ‘revenue protection’ (issuing and checking tickets), catering and the general staffing of stations. These are roles that require excellent communication skills, an understanding of customer service, reliability, an acceptance of possible shift work and extensive travel, and an ability to understand the complex system that is the modern rail network – with ticketing that can apply over a number of different rail companies, each with their own fare structures and special offers.

Most stations and many TOCs contract outside firms to carry out their catering provision, but others still employ their own staff in roles as varied as on-board trolley service to high quality chefs; these can require the ability and experience to work in often cramped and otherwise challenging locations – or on the move at over 100 miles an hour!

Like any other ‘people-focused’ industry, even the most effective and efficient work of railway staff can be largely undone by poor planning and leadership; indeed, the quality of management can make the difference between overall success and failure, which is why there are plenty of opportunities for Armed Forces personnel with excellent leadership skills.

First Line Managers – often called Supervisors or Team Leaders – are the ‘middle managers’ of the industry. Management and communication skills are highly important, along with an effective understanding of not only their own role and specialisms but also Health & Safety law and existing legislation covering the likes of Equal Opportunities and disability rights. General management – covering the likes of sales, marketing and finance – and operations management – with responsibility for scheduling and running trains and stations, or supervising the day-to-day maintenance work – provide opportunities across the rail industry.

Attributes for management include reliability and a willingness to take on responsibility, good people-management skills, an acceptance of shift-work patterns (certainly for First Line Managers) and some practical experience of the sector. However, while recruitment is often from within the industry, more graduates are entering directly at the level of First Line Management.

GoSkills, the Sector Skills Council for Passenger Transport, recently merged with the Centre for Rail Skills (CfRS) to ensure that National Occupational Standards being developed for the rail industry will be on a par with those across the whole public transport sector. The GoSkills website includes a database that links jobs within the rail industry and describes career routes, including the vocational training schemes required for most operational roles.

In general terms, though, required qualifications will vary depending on the job. Those working in direct ‘customer-facing’ roles may need little in terms of paper qualifications, but must be able to clearly show they have good communication and customer skills. In contrast, engineers will be expected to be qualified to HND or degree level, while those working in general or operations management, will almost certainly need to have the relevant professional qualifications – for example, a management qualification from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – or membership of an appropriate professional body (such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales).

Salaries across the rail industry depend on an individual’s profession, location, hours and grade. According to the ‘careers in rail’ website, train drivers can earn between £20K to over £30K a year; control room operators, planners and schedulers can earn between £10K to £30K (for the most senior staff); ‘revenue protection’ staff can earn between £9K and £22K depending on seniority.

Although Britain would be guaranteed a gold medal if complaining about our railways ever becomes an Olympic sport, the fact is that our railways are an industry that is ‘on the up’ with companies, as a result, crying out for enthusiastic, alert and conscientious personnel that have the maturity and self-motivation natural to most people leaving the Armed Forces. Although there remain problems – from limits on resources to general health and safety – the rail industry offers a real challenge to anyone looking to get stuck in and help sort things out!


Association of Train Operating Companies
020 7841 8000

Careers in Rail

0121 635 5520

Network Rail
020 7557 8000

Search & Rescue

We conclude our series on the Emergency Services by looking at opportunities for paid and voluntary work within the UK’s search and rescue operations.

It’s seldom mentioned nowadays but at the start of the Second World War the number of aircrew killed during operations was almost equalled by those lost during training. In particular many young airmen died because they were involved in crashes that took place in remote areas of the UK, and there was no properly trained or equipped response. As a result the RAF established its own search and rescue operation in 1941.

To this day RAF crews continue to fly in search and rescue operations in and around the UK. But nowadays, while their primary role remains the recovery of RAF and other military personnel, most of the 1,000+ call-outs they answer every year are civilian incidents. These can range from rescuing walkers who have become lost in the hills to large-scale operations such as the 2004 flood relief for Boscastle in Cornwall. And while search and rescue within the UK is organised and provided through an amalgam of government departments, agencies and a range of voluntary and charitable organisations, it remains the emergency service most closely linked with the Armed Forces. Partly for historic reasons, it is also the service that is most reliant on the efforts of volunteers.

Responsibility for civilian search and rescue in the UK is ultimately held by the Department for Transport, but in practice such responsibilities are delegated; coastal and sea-based search and rescue is delegated to the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) and in turn is undertaken by HM Coastguard, which has the authority “to initiate and coordinate search and rescue operations.” This includes mobilising, organising and implementing adequate resources to aid anyone at risk of death or injury either at sea or along the UK’s shoreline. Inland search and rescue is delegated to teams operated by the police, RAF or civilian volunteers.

HM Coastguard has 19 Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres located around the UK Coast, forming a command and control network which can respond to reports of maritime and coastal distress – through either the 999 emergency system or on recognised distress radio frequencies. Although it does employ full-time staff, HM Coastguard also relies on the support of some 3,000 volunteers around the UK. Another important association which provides valuable search and rescue services is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), a voluntary organisation incorporated by Royal Charter for the purpose of saving lives and promoting safety at sea. The RNLI’s core role is the provision, maintenance and crewing of a fleet of lifeboats located at strategic points around the British Isles which, again, are operated by volunteers.

More than 60 land-based search and rescue teams operate across the UK, helping save lives in the country’s most wild and remote places – including mountains, caves and lowland areas. Operationally, such teams are responsible to – and work under the authority of – their local police services, and usually consist of between 30 and 40 volunteers. Common interests are represented by regional groupings and national bodies including the Mountain Rescue Council of England and Wales, the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland, the British Cave Rescue Council and the Association of Lowland Search and Rescue.

Recruitment for search and rescue operations is invariably done at a local level; most people working in salaried roles for HM Coastguard start as coastguard watch assistants and carry out both administrative and operational work – such as handling 999 calls, monitoring equipment, updating logs and providing information to the public. Coastguard watch assistants do not need any formal qualifications or previous experience; recruitment is through the 19 Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres around the British coastline, although some initial training will be completed at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency Centre at Highcliffe in Dorset.

Having started as a coastguard watch assistant, it is possible to be promoted to coastguard watch officer and sector manager, with further training supporting progression into higher management. Watch officers will be expected to have extensive maritime experience, although additional training is provided. Academic qualifications and physical fitness are important, as is a valid UK driving licence for Group A–E vehicles. In most cases, coastguard vacancies will be advertised in the local press.

If such full-time vacancies are not available, you may be interested in becoming a rescue officer volunteer. The MCA’s headquarters in Southampton also employ a wide range of people skilled in IT, human resources, telecommunications and administration.

RNLI boat crews must be medically fit (with excellent eyesight), live and work within four minutes of the nearest lifeboat station and be prepared to respond to a call-out at any time of the day or night. “The vast majority of our crews don’t now have a maritime background before they join us,” says RNLI divisional inspector Andy Clift. “The more important thing that the stations look for is the commitment from the person and whether they will fit in with the crew. We require certain qualifications for the mechanics and the coxswains but, apart from that, we provide all the training that is necessary; in theory we can take someone all the way through to mechanic or coxswain.”

Members of mountain, cave and lowland search and rescue teams tend to be aged between 30 and 50. “Usually teams look for experienced all-weather mountaineers to start with,” says Andy Simpson of the Mountain Rescue Council of England and Wales. “The criteria does vary from team to team because the terrain they work in varies, but what you don’t want is a situation where you’ve got team-members on the hill who become a liability because of their own inexperience. They’ve got to be able to at least look after themselves.
“Training is usually within the teams; sometimes teams will get together regionally to run courses; there are certain national standards, particularly where medical skills are concerned. There is a national standard set by the Council that you have to reach before you’re able to do anything more than basic first aid and CPR. Courses are organised by the Council, but are delivered by the teams or the regions.”

Paid opportunities within search and rescue are farely rare, and few people wake up wanting to volunteer in search and rescue; most mountain teams are made up of mountaineers who want to give something back to their peers. But there can be great rewards to volunteering in this sector and it is highly likely that you will be able to bring valuable experience from your time in the military. “You’re used to working with people, and you have the kind of nature that gets on with the job,” says RAF Warrant Officer David Whalley, Assistant Controller at the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) at RAF Kinloss and a man with more than 30 years’ experience in search and rescue. “You’ve got a lot of key skills that you don’t realise are there until you actually leave the Services.”

“There’s a bit of self-discipline and motivation needed as well,” adds Andy Clift, “because – as a volunteer – there’s nobody standing over your shoulder saying you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. I would say Service leavers usually have quite a few of the qualities that stations look for; a lot of people will be used to talking on the radio, and may have done some sort of first aid training.”

And Services personnel are also good at taking orders. “You do need to be able to rely on people doing exactly what they’re asked to do,” adds the Mountain Rescue Council’s Andy Simpson, “whether they’re happy about it or not. I suppose the difference between us and the Armed Forces is that you get the chance to complain afterwards if you’re not happy about something. Some people from the Armed Forces have a little difficulty getting their heads round that.”

The similarities between military service and civilian search and rescue can make volunteering in this sector an appealing pursuit, particularly when it comes to the camaraderie that exists between team members. “You’re in a family when you’re in the military,” says David Whalley “and when you go out, search and rescue is another big family, which is quite unique.”

Also, search and rescue teams are being called upon for an increasing range of missions – with mountain teams, for example, increasingly called out to help with missing person searches in lowland areas. As a result, they are viewed as a real asset to their communities. “It’s a phenomenal way to get into your local community; search and rescue teams are very well respected,” David adds.

But not all search and rescue positions are unpaid. Coastguard watch assistants can earn between £12k and £15k, while watch officers can earn around £20k, with additional rank being awarded along standard civil service bands. Although coastguard volunteers are not on a salary, they do receive an hourly payment for any official duties they carry out. All coastguards in the UK work for HM Coastguard.

Salaried positions elsewhere in the search and rescue sector are far more limited; nevertheless, the RNLI does employ skilled engineers, technicians and the inspectors who train the crews. However, all civilian mountain search and rescue is undertaken by volunteers, with team running costs usually covered by public donations. “Mountain rescue started off originally, 75 years ago, with climbers rescuing other climbers; that ethos is still present today,” says Andy Clift. “You do have to be very committed to it, because it impinges heavily on your spare time and your private life. Your family have got to be very supportive as well.”

Search and rescue demands both teamwork and the ability to make important decisions quickly. In that respect at least, it can offer an environment familiar to those in the Services. Although paid career options are limited, if you’re looking for a challenging voluntary activity, search and rescue could provide rewarding opportunities.


Association of Lowland Search and Rescue

British Cave Rescue Council

Maritime and Coastguard Agency
0870 600 6505

Mountain Rescue Council of England and Wales

Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland

Northern Ireland Mountain, Cave and Cliff Rescue Co-ordinating Committee

Royal National Lifeboat Institution
0845 122 6999


Heard about someone’s mate who left the Services to earn “squillions in Iraq” as a “private contractor?” So have we. But what is the reality of the modern day private security sector, and what opportunities does it really offer Service leavers?

“If you asked the average guy on the street what a private security company does, the mental image they will have – thanks to the media – will be of heavily armoured 4x4s in Baghdad with men standing round with AK47s,” says Andy Bearpark CBE, the Director General of the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC). “But that’s not what most of the work is about.”

“That image makes good news broadcasts and documentaries,” adds Julian Roe, a director of the National Association of Security Professionals (NASP), “but the reality is that the guys in the sunglasses have probably spent thousands of pounds on their own security training in the UK. They’ve not only accredited themselves with the licences they need from the Security Industry Authority (SIA), they’ve also gone through various phases in order to be up to speed with hostile environments overseas and commercial environments in the UK and Europe. The finished article is a well-rounded professional person, and most of them – I’d say probably 80% of people – are ex-military.”

Although independent groups have provided professional military services to governments and other clients for centuries (sometimes operating at the outer fringes of ethical acceptability and the law), modern day private security companies work only in an advisory or protective security role. This can include risk, security and intelligence assessments; IT security; personnel vetting; investigations; surveillance and counter-surveillance; kidnap and ransom advice; the procurement and/or installation of security equipment; static guarding and close protection.

Indeed, according to the BAPSC, private security companies are increasingly providing ‘turnkey’ solutions; they don’t simply protect people and expensive hardware from harm, but help organizations plan to reduce the risk of such attacks in the first place, and so leave a lasting legacy of improved security. Most clients tend to be large organizations which work in dangerous or unstable parts of the world – such as ‘extractive industries’ (oil, gas and mining companies), government embassies, non-governmental organisations and other international peace and security organizations, as well as VIPs.

“There are some companies that operate in both the UK and overseas,” says Andy Bearpark, “but there are probably more examples of private security companies who consider themselves either international or domestic. The government has already established the SIA, which regulates the sector in the UK. There is no equivalent for the overseas industry, and no basis of legislation for British companies operating overseas. If you like, that’s the raison d’etre for the BAPSC.”

Broadly speaking, private security companies employ two kinds of staff: security operatives and the permanent employees who provide the management and administration you’d expect to see in any organization.
A military background is unlikely to give you a competitive edge in the administrative side as companies tend to look for appropriately qualified professionals. “For instance, if a big private security company is looking for a computer expert, then there’s no real reason why they should look to former military people,” admits Andy Bearpark. “They’ll want the best computer expert they can find. However, if you’re working on the operations side, then former British military are always the first and preferred port of call, because companies want people who understand standard operating procedures, who understand each others’ ways of thinking.”

“If someone’s got a military background,” adds Julian Rose, “they’ve already got a lot of training when they go into a security profession environment or security training environment. They’ve been in inhospitable environments, under pressure – they’ve probably been shot at. That, mentally, will give them an edge over people who are doing a close protection or other security course from a civilian background. Military experience is not an automatic transfer, but it’s a good rule of thumb; for my own business I would always look for ex-military people first of all, because you know they’ve attained a standard, whichever unit they’re in.”

Possibly the biggest difference when working for private security companies is that work is by no means guaranteed: unlike HM Armed Forces, they hire on the strength of current and future contracts, and do not employ people on a standby basis.

Andy Bearpark believes that the ‘Baghdad boom’ – the massive increase in the number of private security companies operating in Iraq following the US-led invasion – is now over. “You had such enormous contracts out there in Iraq in the last two or three years that they were quite simply not sustainable, and the industry will have to shrink again, and deal with the consequences of that. Some firms will have to buy each other out, some firms will go to the wall, just as would happen in any business.

“However I would say – in crystal-ball-gazing terms – that companies will be looking to diversify their activities. We’re already seeing some of that, as companies try and move more into post-conflict reconstruction activities rather than purely security, and so, broadly speaking, we categorize the activities of private security companies into four areas: there’s outsourcing from the British military; there’s working for corporate firms; there’s protecting post-conflict or stabilization activities; and there’s actually undertaking those activities themselves.”

This is contributing to the development of the industry. “It’s grown and matured and become a normal business,” adds Andy Bearpark. “It may look unusual, but it’s a normal business and it’s now of such a size and of such a variety that self regulation becomes an important feature.”

Thanks in part to the establishment of the Security Industry Authority and its licensing structure within the UK, British private security companies are playing a leading role in the global security industry. In February 2006, the leading UK companies formed the BAPSC, which currently acts as a trade association – setting standards and acting as a voice for the industry in shaping any future regulation. NASP, meanwhile, was formed in 2005, based on the success of a Close Protection Forum which had been running since 2001. “We found that there was an overriding desire for mutual support within the industry on the shop floor,” says Julian Roe. “While we’re not a union, it’s a very useful forum for security professionals who want to speak to like-minded people.”

According to the BAPSC, most private security companies either own – or have partnership agreements with – training providers, which employ highly experienced personnel to train individuals in areas such as close protection (establishing and maintaining a safe environment in which an individual can live and work, while continually minimising risk), weapons familiarisation, tactical use of firearms, communications, surveillance and medical emergency procedures. Some companies offer courses which can lead to Security Industry Authority accreditation, allowing individuals to operate as close protection operatives in the UK. Private security companies value this qualification, although there is currently no formal requirement under UK law to be licensed in order to operate as an armed contractor overseas.

Passing a suitable course is usually a pre-requisite before employment in a private security company can commence. The courses are not cheap – a full close protection course may cost in the region of £2,000. However, some providers are registered with the Department of Education & Skills, so students can take advantage of Enhanced Learning Credits, Career Development Loans or other government-led initiatives. In addition, some companies offer mechanisms by which the cost is spread over the first few months’ wages.

Contrary to what you might think, private security is not a route to quick riches; contractors are paid only what the market will bear, and with increased competition between a whole armada of smaller private security companies, wages are not as high as they once were. That said, it can be highly challenging and dangerous work, so individuals are remunerated accordingly, depending on skills, experience and operational risk. The BAPSC estimates that pay currently ranges from around £250 – £550 for a day’s work.

According to the BAPSC, the private security industry looks primarily for the correct professional attitude as well as demonstrable experience and knowledge. “These days responsible PSCs are looking for maturity and reliability backed up by appropriate skills and knowledge, and will normally expect any claims to be supported by clear evidence. The ownership of a maroon or green beret is no longer sufficient to walk into a private security company role and potential PSC employees need to be able to show that they are qualified for task.”

Working in private security is not about veterans being able to play soldiers again; it relies as much on avoiding situations as dealing with them. It can offer a challenging career with real prospects, but stories of fortunes being made are all too often just that – stories. “I think the Iraq bubble has burst,” Andy Bearpark says, and – as the former Director of Operations and Infrastructure for the Coalition Provisional Authority – he should know. “Equally I think the world is a more dangerous place than it once was. The need for private security companies will continue to exist.”


As a trade association, BAPSC is not able to respond to individual requests for specific advice on gaining employment within the industry. Members of the BAPSC can be contacted through their websites by following the links from

Security Industry Authority
08702 430100

National Association of Security Professionals