Get to know: Lee Johnston

At the Forces Employment Charity, behind every phone call with a client, every specific piece of job advice, and every successful job placement, is a member of staff who empathises and values those who have served and the military families that support them. Each staff member has their own story to tell – how they got here, what attracted them to their current role, what makes them tick, and crucially, their motivation to support veterans, spouses, partners and dependants.

Continuing our monthly interviews with staff across departments such as employment advisors and operations we’re interviewing Lee Johnston, Families Programme Coordinator.

Read on to learn about Lee’s career, motivations and advice to military spouses.

Hi Lee, thanks for joining us today!

Thanks for asking me!

You are very welcome. To start with, what do you do at the Forces Employment Charity?

I am the Programme Coordinator for the Families Programme at the Forces Employment Charity.

Great – can you tell me about your career up until you started here?

Just before I started at the Forces Employment Charity, I worked in learning and development. I was an e-learning advisor within a naval and military base, I would help people gain their ECDL qualification (European Computer Driving Licence – an IT literacy qualification) as well as their functional skills in Maths and English. I was really fortunate to be able to do that at two different bases, I worked at Faslane for a few years and then at Yeovilton. It was at Yeovilton that I was promoted and moved from e-learning advisor to a learning and development advisor. I helped Serving personnel with clarity on their five year plan. This five year plan would include looking at what types of higher education and plans they could put in place for when the time came to leave. I would also support if they were hoping for more career progression within the Forces through more education.

How did you get from Learning Advisor to a Programme Coordinator at the Forces Employment Charity?

When my husband secured a new posting in Plymouth we all moved down to be with him. I hoped that that it would be third time lucky and that I would be able to slot into a Learning and Development Centre down here, especially with Plymouth being a bigger base. Unfortunately after exhausting a few avenues there was no position for me. So I had to leave my job in Yeovilton and became unemployed. And it was really disappointing as I had just started my level five coaching! So I tapped into my local Department of Work and Pensions, as I had been advised to, and looked at every avenue that I could. But it just felt like I was never going to find anything that I wanted to do, the only thing that I really would have loved was finding a role within the military community.

One day a friend who worked at a military charity called and told me she had just had “a fantastic chat with this amazing charity, the RFEA (Forces Employment Charity before the combination with the Officers Association in May 2022) and they are looking for someone to start on a new programme called the Families Programme that they’re launching soon”. She went on to say she thought I should apply and sent me the link. I did the usual military spouse thing, where we kind of look at it going “I can’t do that. No, I don’t have the skills!” But when I sat back and re-evaluated and wrote down everything they required and compared it to my skills, I realised that it all aligned. At this point it was 10pm and I remember thinking “who better to navigate and support a spouse out of work than a spouse out of work herself? Surely I’ve got all the personal attributes to be able to help someone else who is in the same position that I’m in right now.” So I put my application in. I was really fortunate to secure an interview and didn’t think for a minute that I would even have a look in but I ended up securing the role that week! I had already counted myself out so to get the role was just an indescribable feeling and it has been five years since!

Wow, what a story and quite a journey, especially as it was the day of the deadline!

It was only by chance that this contact had this conversation with someone from the charity about this programme. It was really lovely that she thought of me and thought I would be good at this. I had volunteered in the community before and had a lot of other roles, for example, I volunteered for FAFSA committee up in Scotland, which was the family and friends of deployed units and I have fundraised for the Royal Marines Charity. I have sort of been in the military family space and community but never physically worked for an organisation that was directly supporting them, and I thought maybe this is my time and I took my chance, and I was really fortunate to get it.

With all this in mind do you think volunteering is important for spouses?

Absolutely. It is a hugely beneficial thing to do for spouses who can’t find work or who are looking for work. I have had the opportunity to work with some incredible people who absolutely exceed in what they do for military families. Volunteering also gives people the ability to build up skill sets and build relationships with people in that network. Because you’re speaking to different organisations and you are dealing with people from all over the community.

Do you think volunteering is useful for specific future roles or just as a whole?

I think volunteering is helpful as a whole. It doesn’t have to be for one specific industry. There are lots of skills you can build up, for example it is perfect if you just want to build up your networking or your communication skills. We do both of these things on a daily basis and people don’t recognise that these are skills that we can transfer to a majority of the roles! So whether you go into it for something to do or you volunteer for a specific set of skills, I think volunteering as a whole can have a positive impact on anyone. It is definitely something that should be considered, even if you only have an hour a week.

What advice do you have for spouses who are job searching?

Think about what it is you actually want to achieve. If you don’t know yet, have a chat with an organisation like us who can help you. The reason I say this is because when I was job hunting it felt like a full-time job. I felt like I was constantly hitting brick walls and it was becoming quite onerous on my mental health because of the knockbacks.

Be patient. Take some time out for yourself and write down and focus on what it is you want to achieve. Set some goals. Even small goals can make you feel like you are achieving so much. Write down your achievements! A common thing for spouses and partners is a lack of understanding of the skillsets we actually have. We are a highly skilled group of people, we just need to understand what it is we have. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on the things we haven’t got rather than the things we have, so write down your skills! It can help spark ideas.

Don’t ever lose faith in yourself. On the families programme we can help keep you motivated and keep you on the right track.

Lastly, you can achieve anything you want! I never thought I would be in the place I am in now – the first advisor on a well-established programme.

Amazing tips Lee! With all that in mind, when is a good time to start job hunting?

Summer is a great time! There is a misconception that summer is a bad time because no one is hiring, but all that happens is it just slows down due to summer leave. So the most important thing to do is remain patient and be vigilant. People tend to slow the search down due to that summer period which means a little less competition! On top of all that, it’s also the time when some employers start looking at the past few months and start evaluating where they need support. Then there is the hidden jobs market.

Can you tell me more about the hidden jobs market?

Of course! So these jobs aren’t on local jobs boards but are found through your network. For example you move to a new patch and through a quick chat with someone you find out about an opportunity. They might introduce you to the employer or recommend you for the role and suddenly you have a connection or a job.

That’s so great – it’s all about the network! Moving on to more about you, what is your favourite part of your role?

I love every part of my job – the highs and the lows! But the most enjoyable part is the lightbulb moment when people realise what they have to give. I absolutely love it. When clients start to recognise what they have in terms of skills and when they start to see a plan and the light end of the tunnel, that eureka moment, that’s my favourite part.

What energizes and motivates you?

Being able to help people! That’s why I do what I do. But also the fact I don’t know who I’m going to meet every day. How I support people is different for every person because they have different needs which means no day is ever the same. I am motivated to give back to this community and provide something I didn’t have. Also my team is incredible!

Finally, what is the most interesting role you supported a client to obtain?

I supported someone from a project manager to a florist!

Find out more about the Families Programme and get to know Sarah Peñaluna advisor on the Programme here

Want to hear about our programmes, partnerships, events and ways that we could support you?