Michael Billings is in security, which entails military consultation and training, business security in hostile environments, risk analysis and market penetration, personal protection and special intelligence. His career has spanned more than 25 years across the African continent, working as a soldier for the SADF and then for various companies that provided security services. Michael currently works as a freelance security advisor to governments and business entities and had a few minutes to spare to fill us in on what he does in a day.
What are your working hours?
Ha, ha, ha, don’t expect an 8am to 5pm job in this business; it’s all hours as and when you are needed. Moving from the role of soldier into consultancy, I anticipated a more controlled schedule and more free time; alas, that is far from the reality. Dealing with clients over multiple time zones means meetings or conference calls when others are sleeping, and interrupted sleeping patterns.
What does this job entail?
There are so many aspects to security. The short answer would be planning, strategy and implementation of decisions taken. This in turn is broken up into manpower, equipment and logistics, communications, diplomacy and political interaction.
What are the mundane aspects?
In the military we had a saying: “Hurry up and wait” – that pretty much sums it up. Most people have a movie rolling in their minds when they picture what we do. The reality is they experience our entire world wrapped up in a one-and-a-half-hour serving. For us our world is made of days and weeks travelling, marching, establishing camps, logistical movement and, and, and…
What are some of the personality attributes required to manage this career?
Discipline of the mind and mouth. An ability to thrive under pressure and a positive approach to problem-solving will get you far in this game.
The physical pressure that is brought to bear in early training highlights the individual’s ability to cope with stress. This is turn highlights traits that earmark individuals and groups. Leaders are identified, specialists in certain fields emerge and for some a career path is chosen.
What are the different aspects a person could get involved with in this career field?
From catering to international diplomacy, physical security and soldiering to espionage and counter espionage. It really is a very wide field that includes aviation, naval and ground personnel. From mechanics and truck drivers to medical staff, all have a role to play in the game. Not everyone is a former soldier but almost all are specialists in their fields. Computers and the IT industry are a case in point. International crime syndicates and terrorists use social media to communicate and market themselves; so a counter industry need has arisen.
What are some of the huge no-nos in this industry?
Loose lips sink battleships. Careless disclosure of information. There is an old saying that knowledge is power; however, today it is knowledge is instant, what you do with that knowledge is power.
Where could you find yourself in this career?
Running our own company or rising to leadership in an international company. The nature of this business means you come into contact with many different people of all religious and political persuasions. These contacts allow you to grow into an industry which is an ongoing business.
What did you study to get into this line of work?
I entered into military service at 18 and my study began and never ended. I have studied International Relations and Industrial Psychology, which have helped me understand the politics of security and the global dynamic of international politics.
Security at its essence is the study of human nature and the cause and effect of people’s interaction.
For those wanting to get into the business, you would need a solid background in the military infantry, special forces, military intelligence, and the like, or law enforcement, that is police, VIP protection services, task force is essential in my opinion, as they gain training and knowledge, AND, very importantly, experience. Within a regulated environment specialist courses and leadership training are provided that aid in the experience/learning curve.
Many courses are available for those not wishing to the military or law enforcement route; most of these are offered by former military or law enforcement members. In a way it helps to shortcut the learning process, but there is no shortcut to experience.
Is this a very stressful career?
Indeed it is; any time you take responsibility for human life there is stress. The nature of the business means you will be putting yourself in danger and that is stress already without anything happening. The anticipation of an event is sometimes more stressful than any action.
What can I expect to earn in this career?
In the beginning, as a recruit in the military or law enforcement organisation, very little. Once you have graduated and built experience and specialist training, the demand for your skill set will allow you to earn a good income. As with most things in life, the higher the risk, the higher the rewards, and more so in the security industry.
What are the benefits of this career?
Adventure, travel, a chance to experience a camaraderie not encountered anywhere else. The fact that you are able to make a difference in securing people’s lives and their wellbeing is reward in itself. This type of security is used to bring stability to areas of conflict and protect the population in those areas from attack and harm.
What is the job market like in terms of jobs and competition?
The market is very competitive internationally with those providing the best incomes. Smaller companies are providing second and third tier support so the market is pretty wide.
Jobs in the industry are a constant, with the basic security guard positions being filled locally with people having done security industry qualifications.
The international market is a lot more demanding in terms of training, exposure and experience. It is a difficult industry to break into if you do not have a military or law enforcement background. If you do have this background, make sure you are current, have the necessary paperwork and build a concise and professional CV.
Oh yes, you remember I spoke about camaraderie? Now is the time to reach out to your friends who are in the industry already to give you a helping hand through the door. It is harder to make friends than it is to make enemies; a good character will help you make easy choices.
Is this a very dangerous career?
Of course, you are putting yourself in the line of fire every time you take an assignment, whether as a ground soldier or as a consultant. You are visiting hostile environments where physical threats are an everyday reality.
What types of clients do you generally work with?
Generally business enterprises that wish to enter into new markets in emerging economies and those countries’ governments.
Is this type of work anything like they depict in the movies?
It is quite far removed; some films have tried to capture the essence of conflict and have told these stories well. The action genre, however, seems to miss the point in pursuit of instant gratification and glorifies the violence.
Is this a profession for guys only?
Heck no, we have a number of women who work in the close protection field operating in hostile and austere environments. Others are working on equal terms in all of the support tiers and operational deployments.
Any tips for teens who may want to pursue a career in security?
Start with a martial art as it helps in preparing the body and mind for what lies ahead. I recommend starting in one of the government security branches to gain the training and experience, either locally or internationally. Do some medical aid courses now to gain knowledge early and practice.
Study and get good marks. A strong mind will allow you to be promoted and rise in the ranks to leadership, whether in security or in the private sector.
Define your goals and plan. Identify short-, medium- and long-term goals and within each a beginning, middle and end plan to achieve this. This way you don’t waste time and can change your mind as your orientation changes. You may start off wanting to be a VIP bodyguard and find you have a taste for medicine and become a nurse, medicine or doctor.
Don’t limit yourself, ever!