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From veteran to vacuum excavation: how former brave soldiers are finding a new career with VAC UK

13th Nov 2020


“When the jobs came through from the British Legion, I saw Vac Ex and thought, what’s that?”

After a stellar 17-year career as a paratrooper serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, Michael Brown was given a medical discharge. He initially worked as a delivery driver, then started his own jet washing business, but a further operation on his spine left him unable to continue, and two years ago he turned to the British Legion for help in finding a new job.

“First of all, I thought ex might mean exercise – that’s what it stood for in the army,” he explains. “I’d worked back up to a good level of fitness after my injuries, so I decided to YouTube it and see. But when I saw the vacuum excavators I thought, that’s not bad. You’re basically on a computer with a flipping big hoover on the back.”

Michael immediately took to the work, and is now one of VAC UK’s best drivers. Operating a vacuum excavator during the nightshift on a highways job in Hull might seems a far cry from manning a foxhole under Afghan skies, but transferable skills honed in the military including punctuality, professionalism and a drive to excel have seen him succeed in his civilian role.

“The highlight of the job for me is when the client looks at your work and says, you’ve done a fantastic job – better than the other vacuum excavation companies. That’s the best bit.”

Michael’s childhood dream was to be a professional footballer, and at 17 years old he was playing for Manchester City. But determined to prove his mother’s boyfriend – an ex-paratrooper who had told him he’d never make it in the Army – wrong, he signed up.

Evidence that he definitely was made of the right stuff to serve in an elite regiment was to follow, with active service as a paratrooper in Iraq and Afghanistan, a UN tour in Cyprus and peacekeeping in Northern Ireland.

The British Army was also quick to spot Michael’s sporting prowess, and he played football for his regiment, the infantry, the Army, and for the Combined Forces – one of just 25 squad members from across the Army, Navy and Air Force. This gave him the opportunity to travel, with matches in the US, Australia and Mauritius. When knee injuries put a stop to his football, he took up boxing and won the Army Light Heavyweight title.

Transitioning from the Army to civilian life isn’t always easy, and is something Michael says he is still getting used to, with challenges that are both psychological and practical. “You leave the Army and you have no idea how everyday life works,” he says. “You don’t know how to pay a bill or manage your money.”

Finding a job is a big step, and Michael believes ex-forces personnel are well-suited to the construction industry, with most already licensed to drive HGVs and used to giving 100% commitment when at work.


VAC UK’s new recruits can start as ‘second men’; working alongside the main vacuum excavator operator as back up. This is a great training opportunity to learn through a structured and industry-approved programme.

VAC UK has teamed up with BuildForce, a UK employer-led initiative that helps former armed services personnel find rewarding careers in the construction and built environment sectors. It connects the military community to construction careers through a UK-wide alliance of employers, industry bodies and charities, supported by government. It is part-funded by the CITB Structured & Flexible Fund, and is also backed by its founding partners: Crossrail, EY, Lendlease, Morgan Sindall and Wilson James.

VAC UK has successfully recruited two further ex-Army vacuum excavator drivers, and believes the initiative could offer a solution to both the construction industry skills crisis and to the 14,000 members of the armed forces who leave each year in need of a second career.

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