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

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