Why military training could boost your business

GB wrapped up warm and headed for the Arctic Circle to learn about employing military reservists


 To find out if having staff available for military service can benefit entrepreneurial employers, GB wrapped up warm and joined a Royal Marine Reserve training camp in the Arctic Circle

Beyond unhealthy obsessions with Twitter, references to boozy lunches and PR parties, business writers don’t really do gonzo journalism.

In what I imagine as a brave and selfless effort to reverse this trend, I accept an invitation from the MoD to join a group of employers dropping in on 82 recruits from the Royal Marine Reserve (RMR) and Territorial Army – their staff – who are halfway through a punishing two week camp on a mountain in Norway, somewhere in the Arctic Circle.

It’s soon apparent that a Bond-style adventure is not on the cards. Even if it’s mercifully mild for the duration of our three night stay, this is one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet, and we’re cosseted accordingly. The Marines rib us about the unseasonably balmy weather we’re getting, but say it can change suddenly, and even at zero, the wind-chill can easily make it feel like minus 15C.

While the reservists jump into a frozen lake through a metre-thick hole in the ice, wearing skis and a hefty Bergen, then skin, gut and cook reindeers and later dig ‘snow graves’ (caves in the snow to sleep in) we’re being spoon-fed ration packs and contemplating the forbidding logistical operation going for a wee will entail. In the Arctic Circle, everything requires careful forethought.

Earlier, in a troubling but somehow comic episode, with little warning or explanation, the employers and press pack had been collectively stripped of civilian clothing in a large hangar and given a forbidding amount of kit to carry, including three pairs of gloves, two pairs of trousers, two coats, boots to go over our boots and arctic socks that make my feet feel like they’re burning up. I wonder if we’re going into space.

A couple of hours later, as the snow gusts sideways and our boots sink several feet with every step, I can understand why every bit of it is necessary. What’s less obvious is why we’re in the Arctic Circle when our Armed Forces are more familiar with desert warfare. If you can survive and fight here, you can do it in Afghanistan, we’re told. The tough environment and the organisational and leadership qualities it forces reserves to develop are directly transferable. But is the same true of business?

Twice the employee

Famously, The Office’s geeky and delusional Gareth is in the TA: “A lot of people think that those in the Territorial Army are not real soldiers. We are. We are well trained, highly disciplined fighting machines ready for war. We’re just not available during the week.”

Jokes of that sort about ‘weekend soldiers’ have become increasingly redundant in recent years as Britain leans on its reservists to deliver support for operations in Afghanistan, and until last month, Iraq. Over the past six years, approximately 50% of Britain’s 39,000 reservists have been mobilised for full time service and have fought and died alongside their full time counterparts. This also represents a considerable sacrifice from their employers, but the MoD is at pains to point out that businesses can benefit from having those committed to military service in their workforce.

Winston Churchill once called reservists “twice the citizen,” and Lieutenant-Colonel Phil Sampson, commanding officer of the exercise in Norway, says they’re twice the employee, too. “We spend a lot of money training people in leadership. If you’ve got a junior NCO in charge of eight guys in a tent out here, look at the responsibility of that when the weather changes. The wrong decision can lead to someone getting killed. That’s decision making. Employers get their staff developed at our expense.”

If larger businesses can more readily afford to cover for staff absent for training or operations, a small business employing a reservist is faced with a bigger challenge to absorb the loss.

Richard Calthrop-Owen, managing director of £3.5m turnover GPS device firm Satmap Systems, says he employed a marine reservist, Jamie Anderson, despite knowing it would be an issue. “It is a problem for the business, as it’s not yet large enough to easily operate full cover for absences. We rely on the goodwill of other members of staff to provide cover,” he says.

However, Calthrop-Owen notes that any time out of the office is more than made up for by the benefits he receives from an improved employee. “He brings us a skills set that includes a strong work ethic, good organisation and good problem solving skills, all of which are the sort of traits that strike us as being developed by his time in the military. “The sort of training he receives cannot be replicated outside. It provides a unique environment for individuals to develop personal and interpersonal skills which are directly beneficial to employment in the civilian sector.”

Mobilising support

Jamie Anderson says his time management skills are “much, much better” thanks to his RMR experience, which involves a minimum commitment of two weeks’ ‘annual camp’ training as well as evenings and weekends. Many employers support this with additional paid or unpaid leave, but this is not an obligation, and for staff in smaller companies, reservists may have to use their own holiday allowance.

If an employee is mobilised, there is no obligation for employers to pay them anything during their deployment, and the company can claim on any additional costs incurred, including agency fees, costs of advertising for cover, overtime payments or higher salary rates for temporary staff. While the MoD may have to work harder to communicate this – Calthrop-Owen tells me he’s “not aware of any support on offer by the MoD” and thinks they should “make a contribution to the cost of hiring temporary staff” – it is making a genuine effort to meet large and small employers halfway, as Prince Michael of Kent, Commodore-in-Chief of the Maritime Reserve, tells me.

“[The MOD is] flexible enough to be able to cope with individual circumstances. Maybe [a reservist’s] company is in the middle of a takeover or management buyout, and he’s vital to a small team of people who can’t afford for him to be away for weeks on end because the company will suffer. We can negotiate, understand and maybe try again in a different month of the year.”

Fighting talk

Balancing the demands of family, military and working life is a remarkable feat, and incredibly, some entrepreneurs manage to do the same. Captain Aston Woodward set up commercial property firm Oxygen Asset Management in 2004, and has been balancing the demands of growing the company with RMR life ever since. “There’s no two ways. It has an effect on what happens at work. I can’t replace myself. Business has to go on without me and that’s the trade off.”

He also notes that he has been able to apply his leadership training at work, and feels that his experiences in Afghanistan in 2007 made him a “better, more understanding person”.

Isn’t there a danger that the skills marines tell their employers they’ve developed are all rather soft and unspecific? “It’s sometimes difficult to identify them as tangible things, but most of the guys in the reserves do pretty well in their civilian careers,” says Lieutenant Colonel Gavin Richards, founder of insurance broker Grosvenor Accident & Health. There are some compelling specifics though, as Richards points out. “I get involved in reservists getting mobilised, so I have to know about the compensation that employers get. I was sent on a four day tax course, all paid for by the MoD, which was very useful.”

Both Woodward and Richards say they’d be supportive if any of their own employees wanted to join the reserve forces. “These guys’ skills for time management, problem solving and working to deadlines are very good,” says Richards. “Organisation and presentation skills are developed at every level of the military. Whether you’re briefing people, giving them orders or persuading troops to do things, they will question why you’re doing something so you have to sell them the idea. It’s the same in business.”

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