By Sharon Black

Considering working for the UK’s largest employer? We highlight the health career opportunities in the National Health Service.

As a member of the Armed Forces, you’ll be used to working, as part of a larger team, towards a common goal; indeed, you’ll be familiar with both command structures and the responsibility that comes with making and carrying out important decisions. You could well have some specific qualifications underlining your ‘trade’ or management skills. So, if you’re looking to work in a comparable environment, when you step out onto civvy street, why not consider a nationally recognised employer that depends upon teamwork across a whole range of professions to achieve the mutual goal of serving the health needs of the UK population.

The National Health Service (NHS) is the UK’s – indeed Europe’s – largest single employer, with over 1.3 million people – or about one in twenty of the adult working population – on the payroll. By its very nature, it is an employer that could offer a wide range of career opportunities for service leavers – and we’re certainly not just talking about those with an interest in medicine!

As the UK’s major healthcare provider, it’s no surprise that the NHS employs the majority of the UK’s nurses, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, midwives and health visitors; nor is the fact that, despite major recruitment campaigns over the last few years, they’re still looking for more!

Yet the NHS offers many more career opportunities: clinical staff make up slightly under half of the NHS’s total workforce. The NHS also employs people in Allied Health Professions (AHPs), such as physiotherapists,
radiographers, podiatrists (aka chiropodists), speech and language therapists, counsellors, occupational therapists and psychologists.

Then there are areas such as Biomedical Scientists (also known as Medical Laboratory Scientific Officers); after all, someone’s needed to carry out tests on samples from patients as part of the diagnostic process for conditions such as diabetes, HIV, meningitis and cancer.

Even all these, however, are not enough to keep our health service running on its own; the NHS employs over 35,000 people in management and administration, and over 164,000 ‘infrastructure’ staff ranging from cleaners to IT specialists. Indeed, the NHS offers employment in over seventy different professions. The main requirements for nigh on every single job in the NHS are good communication skills, and an ability to work in a range of environments, with a variety of people, both as part of a team and on your own.Now, does that sound at all familiar to you?

Truth be told, there’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ service leaver, so there’s no simple answer to the question of how you can enter the NHS; you may be heading for civvy street after only a few years, or you may have completed the minimum period to qualify for an immediate pension and are now looking for a new career to keep yourself busy. You may wish to begin or continue a clinical career, or one in management, each of which requires different qualifications.

Increasingly, decision-making and the allocation of resources within the NHS are now under more local control, with the vast majority of clinical staff working in NHS hospitals and healthcare centres employed by NHS Trusts or Primary Care Trusts (PCTs). Many vacancies will be advertised locally or through specialist publications – such as Nursing Times – as well as on the NHS’s own careers website.

If you’re already a Registered Nurse, Doctor or Consultant, you are in a very good position when it comes to finding clinical employment on civvy street. Indeed, thanks to the closure of separate military hospitals over the last few years, you’re likely to spend at least some of your military career working in NHS hospitals which host Ministry of Defence Hospital Units (MODHU).

According to Commodore Annette Bicton, Director of Resettlement at the Ministry of Defence: “Qualified doctors, dentists, consultants, nurses, technicians, etc. are so employable that it isn’t much of a challenge to resettle them. Many of them who do their full training with us train in civilian hospitals, so the training is very similar (to civilians).” That said, you may still wish to use the move to civilian life as an opportunity to further develop your career; for instance, Registered Nurses may choose to concentrate on areas such as children’s, mental health or learning disability nursing.

Nor is the NHS just an opportunity for medically-trained personnel; 21st century military forces require the particular management skills of Human Resources/Administration staff and logistics personnel. Working in these areas within organisations as large as the armed forces – often on a worldwide stage – will have given you highly transferable and marketable skills – and qualifications that would be well suited to the managerial side of the NHS – large hospitals, after all, need the most appropriate and cost-effective organisation of appropriate staff, supplies and equipment!

NHS staff at all levels can access eduational provider NHSU, which provides a variety of new learning opportunities for current employees, managers and those planning to join pre-employment programmes. Through the NHSU, you can work for qualifications ranging from NVQs to Foundation Degrees, depending upon your existing qualifications. The NHSU helpline – u-i – offers information and advice on learning opportunities, and the kind of support and funding that may be available.

No matter the length of time you spent in the services, at some point you are likely to have been given some basic first aid training; that may have wetted your appetite for working in the healthcare sector. Alternatively, you may already be working as a healthcare assistant or Combat Medical Technician (CMT) and wish to train to become a fully qualified Nurse. As a CMT, you are likely to hold, or be working towards, qualifications such as City & Guilds or National Vocational Qualifications (Levels 2 or 3) in subjects like Direct Care or Emergency Clinical Care; such qualifications can prove particularly useful if you’re now planning to enter a civilian nursing course, regardless of whether you opt for a Diploma in Nursing Studies, or a Nursing degree.

As part of their programme to recruit more Nursing staff, the NHS currently offers favourable funding arrangements for Nursing students, including the payment of course fees (at either diploma or degree level) – and the provision of a bursary.

Anyone looking to enter a Nursing programme should contact NHS Careers, or look through the prospectus of any trust or university of interest. Applications should be made through the Nursing and Midwifery Admissions Service (NMAS), which will also provide information about all nursing HE courses.

Three-year Nursing programmes are divided equally between theory and practice. The first year is the ‘Common Foundation Programme’, and it is taken by all students, regardless of branch choice. It includes core issues and topics in a wide variety of care environments. The second part – the ‘Branch Programme’ – concentrates on specific subjects and contains practice placements working in Adult, Children’s, Mental Health or Learning Disability Nursing.

At the end of the programme, newly qualified RNs will probably have a three-month period of supervised practice when they start their first real job. First steps after qualification will usually be spent in the specialisation developed during the second part of the training programme. All professional Nurses registered with the NMC are legally required to re-register every three years, and must also state that they have updated their knowledge and skills base.

The current Labour government has very much nailed its reputation on its increased investment in the National Health Service; this is set to continue over the next few years, and much of this continues to be concentrated on the recruitment and retention of staff. For, while the NHS may have already met initial targets for recruiting new Nurses, there remain significant shortfalls in the numbers of full-time staff working in the NHS; indeed, with many nurses working part-time, the situation is hardly improving. Meantime, the private medical sector is continuing to grow as a major employer of medical staff.

As a result, demand for nurses – as well as other clinical staff – is almost certain to rise, particularly with the continued development of helpline services NHS Direct (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and NHS 24 (in Scotland). There are also good opportunities for other clinical professions. NHS-employed Dieticians, for instance, can work in a wide range of environments, and the increase in their usage means that a newly qualified Dietician can rise to a Senior II position (earning between £18.9K-20.4K) in around only a year; chances of further promotion within two years are also good.

Even if a permanent job is not available or not wanted, part-time positions and job-shares are now very common. Most hospitals and a number of nursing homes run Nurse banks, a useful way of testing the environment while also earning, while a number of employment agencies specialise in Nursing and Allied Professions. “NHS Professionals” is an in-house agency that matches the preferred working patterns of staff with the clinical needs of hospitals and departments across the UK.

Pay and conditions in the NHS continue to improve, with increased emphasis on encouraging career progression. The following list offers a sample of minimum payments; how much individual staff will earn will depend upon their skills, experience, responsibilities and the hours that they work.

Newly qualified nurse: £17K.
Staff nurse: £20K.
Ward Sister: £27K.
Modern Matron: £26.6K – £34.9K.
Dietician: £18.9K – £20.4K.
Staff Doctors: £29.8K – £56.7K.
Consultants (Full time): £55.6K – £72.5K.
Primary Care Development Manager (PCT): £18.7K – £23.7K.
Clinical Site Manager: £23K – £27K.
Deputy Head of Supplies (procurement) NHS Trust: £30K.
Drama / Music / Art Therapist: £18K – £20K.
Senior Drama / Music / Art Therapist: £19K – £29.4K.

(Figures published by NHS Careers and British Medical Association.)
Since April 2002, many NHS employees have benefited from revised Cost of Living Supplements for those living in more costly parts of the UK. Eligible nurses in London and the South East, for instance, can claim an additional payment of 4% of their basic salary.

Employers also offer: a minimum four weeks annual leave, increasing with length of service; paid sick leave, increasing with length of service; occupational health and counselling services; and a range of other employment benefits. To encourage as diverse and skilled a workforce as possible, the NHS also increasingly offers flexible working patterns and other resources (such as affordable nursery provision, childminding networks, holiday play schemes; and after-school / breakfast clubs) for staff with family or care commitments that make the normal 9 – 5 pattern difficult; there is scope for part-time working, job sharing and term-time working, as well as evening and weekend work, and special leave policies for those caring for elderly or disabled relatives.


NHS Careers
Tel: 0845 606 0655

Nursing and Midwifery Admissions Service
Tel: 0870 112 2206

NHS Education in Scotland
Tel: 0131 226 7371

Health Professionals Wales
Tel: 029 2026 1400

Northern Ireland Practice and Education Council for Nursing and Midwifery
Tel: 028 9023 8152

u-i helpline: 08000 150 850