The skills, qualifications, licence and experience you need
Have you ever wondered what the life of a Private Investigator would be like? If you’re considering a career change, here’s what you need to know about how to become a Private Investigator.
Who is suited to becoming a Private Investigator?
There are a few traits and skills that make good Private Investigators. Particularly, you need an intense attention to tiny details. But you also need to be organised, skilled at research, and be able to build rapport with people.
Here are some of the important skills and traits that help you become a Private Investigator:
- Strong eye for details
- Interpersonal skills for interviewing witnesses
- Good at research, finding information and fact checking
- Report writing in a professional style, with correct spelling and grammar
- Skilled at videography and photography
- 24-hour availability
Many people become Private Investigators after careers in the police force, army or intelligence. A background in law studies, criminology or insurance is another pathway to work as a PI. Plus, reporters and investigative journalists may also make good investigators because they’re good at asking hard questions and writing reports.
Working as a Private Investigator can be very rewarding: you can reunite missing people with their families and solve factual investigations.
But while private investigation has moments of excitement, a lot of the work can be dull.
During surveillance operations, there can be a lot of sitting around in a car park, waiting for a subject to appear. And you can’t use that time to read a book or make phone calls, because if you’re distracted you might miss something important. Another harsh reality is that you might not be able to take bathroom breaks unless you have a colleague to take over from you.
Corporate investigation and factual investigation work includes a lot of preliminary research, report writing, and waiting for computer files to back up.
When you run your own business, there are phone calls to return, clients to chase for payment, plus your own business administration and bookkeeping.
So you can see it’s not always the high-stakes action that TV investigators portray. As long as you’re happy with the realities of the day-to-day work, let’s dig into the courses you can do to become a Private Investigator.
Registered training course to become a Private Investigator
The first step in becoming a Private Investigator is to take a registered training course. This is a requirement for gaining a Private Investigator’s licence.
The basic course is called:
CPP30607 Certificate III in Investigative Services – Private Investigator
The approximate cost of the Certificate III course is $2000. In some states, there is a version of this course that you can take entirely online, however, the online course isn’t suitable for investigators who want to work in Victoria or Western Australia. Find out more information about the Certificate III Investigative Services qualification here.
On successful completion of a relevant course and state licence application (click here for Victorian licences), you’d be qualified to work as a Private Investigator. People completing this Cert III course with a background in police or other law enforcement may be ready to hit the ground working for an Investigation business, or even apply for a business licence.
An investigations business licence; sometimes referred to as a master licence in some states, will allow you to advertise the services of an investigator and employ other investigators. Without a business Investigations licence, you will not be able to work for clients directly.
However, if this is your first experience working in investigations, you should consider working for an agency first. This gives you time to gain experience under the guidance of a mentor before you branch out on your own.
Depending on which area of investigation you want to specialise in, you may also need further training.
A surveillance course can be a 1-week intensive skills course or up to four weeks depending on your skill level. It’s usually run in a small group, with a lot of personalised teaching and hands-on practice following and photographing a surveillance subject.
In the surveillance course you’ll learn:
- How to follow a subject in a car, including technical driving practice (but no high speed chases, of course)
- How to follow or observe a subject on foot
- Staying unnoticed in plain sight
- Taking surveillance notes of your observations
- Recording video footage or taking photos without being noticed
- Communication methods for investigators working in a team
- Tools and gadgets that Private Investigators use
- Correct handling of any digital evidence you collect
- Continuity of evidence
Find out more information about surveillance courses to help you become a Private Investigator here.
Skip Trace training and Missing Persons cases
This advanced course is designed for people who are already working as a Private Investigator, and who have gained some experience. It’s run as a one-day in-person workshop, followed by coursework that you can complete in your own time.
In the Advanced Skip Tracing course you’ll learn:
- How to profile a missing person or skip trace subject
- How to master social engineering
- Running a skip trace business: who your clients are, what to charge etc
Find out more information about the advanced skip trace course here.
Private Investigators must hold a current Victorian Private Security licence to work in Victoria. One of the requirements for the license is that the investigator must complete an approved course from a registered training organisation, such as Certificate III in Investigative Services.
All Private Security Licences show the category of work that the investigator can conduct, just like a driver’s licence.
Victoria has strict licensing laws for Private Investigators, which means that PIs from other states might not have the legal right to offer their investigative services in Victoria under the Victorian Private Security Act 2004. It might also mean that a Private Investigator who trained and gained a license in Victoria might not be able to work in other states.
Starting your Private Investigator career
The first place to start your Private Investigator career is to get some experience working under the mentorship of an experienced private investigator by contracting your services to reputable Investigations company. There are many nuances of private investigation work that are hard to learn until you practice them on the job. At the very least, working for an agency for one to three years will teach you a lot of new skills and give you a good basis for your private investigator career.
Once you have gained the experience working as a freelance PI you’re ready to start your independent Private Investigation business. To be successful as a sole-trader, it’s not enough to be a good private investigator. You also need to be good at running the business side: find your own clients (other PI companies), charge the right amount and actually get paid for your work.
You can find information about setting up a business as a sole trader (of any kind, not just as a private investigator) on the Victorian Small Business information website or a similar site in your state. It includes information like setting up a legal business including ABN, registering a business name with ASIC, and proper record-keeping.
As a private investigator business, you’ll also need to arrange professional liability and indemnity insurance, WorkCover insurance and learn about superannuation payment. You’ll need a website and other ways to find clients. You’ll also need to learn how to grow your business, and be able to cope with peaks and troughs in your workload and cash flow.
There’s a lot to learn, and done well, you can enjoy a rewarding career as a Private Investigator.
How much does a Private Investigator earn?
The average income for a Private Investigator in Australia is between $50,000 and $80,000 depending on how many cases they take on. But as with many professions, the answer to how much you can actually earn is: it depends.
How much a Private Investigator earns depends on whether you’re planning to work for an agency or start your own business, and it depends on your speciality or niche, and the demand for that work.
A full-time Private Investigator with 1-3 years’ experience might earn a salary of about $60,000-$70,000 working for an agency or an insurance company. Transport investigators may earn in the $80,000-90,000s. Highly sought-after specialists such as criminal intelligence investigators may earn over $100,000. Here’s an article about how much Private Investigators earn in different speciality areas.
If you’re starting your own business, expect to earn far less than the average full-time salary in the early years while you grow your client base and your reputation. $90-$100 per hour is a normal rate for an experienced Private Investigator to charge clients. A freelance Private Investigator running an established, successful business may charge more per hour and could earn over $100,000 as their take-home income after business expenses.
Remember that as a sole trader you have to pay your own income tax and superannuation out of your gross income, whereas in an agency or when working for the government, your employer arranges your super.
So out of the $100 per hour you charge to the client, you might only get to keep $50 per hour (or less) after expenses, tax and superannuation. If you can work 40 billable hours per week at $50 net income, 48 weeks of the year (everyone needs holidays!) you’d earn $96,000 as your income. But it can take a long time to build your business to the point where you can bill 40 hours every week.