What Private Security Contracting can Teach Us About Recruitment and Retention in the Armed Forces


—The data presented here was drawn from a large-scale study of armed private security contractors, of which this blog post is one aspect. The study set out to explore the perceptions and realities of being a private security contractor after military service. Of the men and women who completed the survey (n=1516), 86% had prior military experience, of which 65% served in the UK Armed Forces, 16% in the U.S. Armed Forces, and the remaining 19% were from countries other than the UK and US. This blog post focuses on the 65% of UK Armed Forces, herein referred to as the ‘sample population.’—

Recruitment and retention in the British Armed Forces has been undergoing fundamental changes in last ten years due to the operational intensity of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The National Audit Office found the main reasons for personnel leaving the Armed Forces to be: 1) separation from family and impact on family life; 2) intensity of deployment cycle; 3) quality of equipment, and 4) not feeling valued within the organisation. There is a small but not insignificant amount of concern among the Armed Forces – especially within the Army – about the effect the private security service provider industry has on the recruitment and retention of UK uniformed personnel. It appears, drawing from my sample population, that among commissioned officers it is the rank of Captain and Major who find security contracting the most appealing (74%, n=101), and from other ranks (OR), Sergeants and Corporals appeared to find security contracting more appealing than ranks above or below them (54%, n=468). For recruitment and retention, these ranks are at the heart of the British Armed Forces. If, though, one is to look at the conditions of private security contracting against the four reasons the NAO provided above, a gap becomes clear.

To put this gap in context, it is important to provide some background on the realities of being a private security contractor in hostile environments. In terms of risk to self, private security contractors are four and a half times more likely to die in hostile environments than uniformed soldiers – and they have – more contractors have died in Iraq and Afghanistan than uniformed personnel. Security contractors cannot call for back up as one might in the military, and for many there is no recourse for any physical or mental health problem when a contract is finished. Contractors of all functions, not only armed security contractors, have been found to suffer higher percentages of PTSD, yet experience one of the highest rates of insurance claim denials, making them a population that faces significant barriers to care, and therefore more vulnerable than serving personnel. For some the perception of gross economic gain as a private security contractor might serve to offset the negative consequences of this particular form of employment. Ann Jocelyn used earning figures from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and U.S. Department of Labour (DoL) to debunk this myth for U.S. security contractors. The Staff Sergeant earns more. See the numbers here. As one can see the risk is high and the reward not commensurate. With this in mind, understanding the reasons why people leave the British Armed Forces against the realities of security contracting, we can explore this gap below.

On the surface, becoming a private security contractor appears to hold great appeal to those who identify with the four reasons stated above, where being a contractor may be seen to be a lateral move where no additional skills or expertise are required and therefore a form of post-military employment that is easy to enter. Further, the perceived economic gain of private security contracting is considered by many to be a strong motivator. However, in comparison to the findings of the NAO, my research found 1) separation from family was similar if not greater as a private security contractor; 2) the deployment cycle can last up to two years on a three-month-on-one-month-off cycle; 3) quality of equipment was for some contractors of a lower standard than that of the U.K. military; and, 4) less than a quarter of my sample population agreed strongly they felt undervalued by the private security company (PSC) for whom they worked. What appeared to offset these four negative factors present both in the military and private security contracting was the 1) autonomy the individual perceived to have within the PSC as a private security contractor and, 2) the level of control over one’s time. I also found the existence of cultural norms similar to the military (if not the same) present to a high degree in these security contractors. While previous military experience of other contractors served for most as reassurance in terms of safety and sound mind, social customs like ‘military speak’ appeared to address what was felt as a profound loss in civilian life; the ease and ability to communicate with others. Provision of government provided transition services tend to overlook the significance of exchanging one language for another when a soldier becomes a civilian. The importance of being understood and understanding by way of a language that conveys not just words but similarity, acceptance, acknowledgement, worth and identity should not be underestimated. Many individuals in my cohort derived a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfilment by combining previous skills and experience in civilian life as a private contractor around like-peers; an experience they did not find in civilian life to the extent it was felt during military service.

For those who seek to utilise their military skills and experience outside of uniformed service, the PSC industry may be employing individuals who might otherwise struggle to translate their professional skills directly into civilian life. To be clear, I am not arguing military veterans-turned-private security contractors are not employable but that private security industry provides a labour market for those leaving the military that other forms of civilian employment do not. What can the military do to address those from their core ranks that seek to leave service early for the private security industry and that may be reducing their long-term civilian employability by doing so? One step would be the provision of information on the realistic earnings of a private security contractor that may allow the individual to make a more informed decision as they prepare to leave the military. However, it is important to note that my research did find the way in which a security contractor is paid (without deferred benefits, etc.) allowed many in my sample population to put a down payment on a house, send children to university or start or pad a retirement fund. It is not clear whether these positive economic effects offset the long-term employability consequences of the U.K. military veteran who becomes a private security contractor, where the individual’s market competitiveness has reduced as a result of employing skills already known versus new skills acquired as a contractor. I am not inclined to believe the provision of realistic information would serve to significantly influence patterns of behaviour, especially as the majority of those determined to leave the British Armed Forces do not prepare for military exit, and those who do are found to prepare much too late than the prescribed 12 to 24 months. Something to consider here are the socio-cultural attractions of private security contractor.

In light of these data, those concerned with recruitment and retention might understand ways in which the individual may exert greater autonomy and control in an effort to offset what the NAO found as the main reasons for leaving the Armed Forces. These are, though, significant institutional changes that may be unrealistic in terms of implementation. However, with the drawing down of thousands of those within the British Armed Forces, innovation in these terms is surely worth consideration. Otherwise, the next war may be fought by Captains, Majors, Sergeants and Corporals, but they will be called private security contractors, not soldiers. For some this is an easy thought. For those, especially within the military establishment, this may be a bitter pill to swallow.

Image: An Afghan National Police officer meets a British special security agent during a key leaders engagement between U.S. Marines of 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment and Nawa District officials in the Nawa District Bazaar, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, July 22, 2009, via wikimedia commons.

2 thoughts on “What Private Security Contracting can Teach Us About Recruitment and Retention in the Armed Forces

  1. I appreciate the information about what private security can teach you. I would imagine that you would find a lot of retired or past military members in a private security company. I would think that the culture is pretty much the same in some private security companies as it is in the military as well, in some cases.


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