How I Made It: 'I retrained as a bomb disposal officer aged 48'

Welcome back to How I Made It,’s weekly career journey series.

This week we’re chatting with Bridget Forster, 53, who has reinvented her career over and over again – proving it’s never too late to try something new. If the desire is there, it’s worth exploring.

Based between the Isle of Wight and Cork in the Republic of Ireland, Bridget now works in career consultancy – but not before working for the armed forces, then as a barrister, and then as a bomb disposal officer.

Constantly adapting, Bridget is keen to help women build their careers too through her company Be The Bridge Today, delivering leadership training and advising businesses on female representation at senior levels.

Here’s how she made it happen.

Hey Bridget. What jobs have you held?

I’ve had a number of careers, and in hindsight I have always been fighting against female stereotypes.

I joined the Army after university and trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

I was an Officer in the Royal Corps of Signals, one of the first women allowed to join the Corps directly rather than through the Women’s Royal Army Corps.

I served mainly in Germany, leading a troop that delivered mobile, secure communications to the multi-national Army Corps, and did a tour as a liaison officer with the Joint Commission Observers with the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia during the war.

When I left the Armed Forces I retrained as a barrister and specialised in Planning and Public Law for over 10 years.

By chance I met an ex-military colleague when I was on holiday in New York, and he was working for the United Nations with the Mine Action Service (UNMAS). He persuaded me to apply for a post working with UNMAS in Libya as a Project Manager.

After a few years I trained in Explosive Ordnance Disposal and moved to Palestine to take over managing the Mine Action Programme there.

During my time in the UN I trained in hostage incident management, security and risk management, project management and training in the humanitarian management systems as well as undertaking a number of UN leadership trainings.

Wow – an impressive CV. As you’ve career switched often, has that held you back in progressing at all? How do you manage it?

I think there is always a reset cost when you change careers as you have to take a few steps back when you start, but transferrable skills and experience make the learning curve easier to manage so the cost can be mitigated to an extent.

You just have to be prepared to put in the time to understand the new culture and language at the beginning. I have never been too proud to ask questions or explain that I don’t understand something.

I’m an avid knowledge gatherer and can speed read thanks to my time as a barrister – that certainly helps. Networking does too.

Was it hard retraining as a bomb disposal officer at the age of 48?

There was a real need to increase female representation in the sector.

I was supported to apply for an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Level 3 course, which is an intensive five-week programme. It was a tough five weeks, both physically and mentally.

I was the only woman and the oldest person on the course and going through the peri-menopause.

Though I’m glad I worked in that job, I suffered from burnout and took some time off work after the May 2021 bombing of Gaza and when I returned to work I realised that I needed to put boundaries in place to manage my recovery.

As I worked to do that, I became less tolerant of a leadership culture that paid lip service to achieving equal representation of women at all leadership levels but didn’t create the environment that was conducive to retention of female talent.

The culture was not supportive of boundaries between work and personal life. There was a lot of trauma experienced by my team too.

With the help of a coach, I realised my values didn’t align with my work, so I resigned.

Is this why you wanted to set up the business you have now? Again, was it hard to make such a big shift?

It was a frightening leap to go from a very well paid, on the face of it ‘glamorous’, or at least ‘adventurous’ job, to this nebulous idea of being a female founder of a business.

The macho power structures that suggest people are failures or can’t hack it if they ask for help or challenge the status quo result in people – particularly women – being afraid to admit they were not coping, and suffering burnout at a frightening rate.

I think it’s time I worked to create cultures that encourage retention of female talent and can empower women to move into leadership roles, to break the cycle that prevents the equal representation of women in senior management roles.

What’s the best career advice you have?

Not everyone’s opinion matters. Choose carefully who you are influenced by.

And don’t worry if you don’t have a five-year plan.

Focus on your values, focus on keeping curious and continuously learning, be on the look out for and open to possibilities when they appear.

An average day in the working life of Bridget Forster

9.30am-12pm: The morning is spent on her book, either working on research or writing.

1pm-4pm: She plans, designs and writes webinars for her company Be the Bridge Today.

Bridget likes trying different techniques to help her focus (Picture: Bridget Forster)

She also works on training sessions and recording for a podcast that will be released soon, as well as catching up with her mentees.

4.30pm: She calls it a day and will head to the gym to wind down.

What do you love most about your job?

I get control over my time and I get to spend more time with my husband, my family and friends.

I think when you have spent a long time lost in the emotional and physical demands of a job there is something really precious about simple things like cooking dinner together, joining a community club, or being able to grow vegetables in your garden.

What do you like the least about your job?

Sometimes it’s difficult to walk the talk when you are working for yourself.

It can be lonely and overwhelming. I still suffer from insecurities and indulge in bad habits, like procrastination and doom scrolling first thing in the morning, but I have strong female networks and some amazing male allies who can help me see myself through their eyes and guide me back into healthier behaviours and remind me to look for the joy in things.

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