Releasing staff to do their duty

By the time you read this, I should be wandering around the desert in Iraq. Last summer, Personnel Today went to Basra to learn how the Army educates its troops in the field (Personnel Today, 9 August 2005). This time, I will be finding out about the reserve forces, who have been mobilised in their thousands to back up the Army in conflicts and peace-keeping missions across the world.

Of the many soldiers I met on my previous trip, one stood out. He was in charge of logistics, and from the moment I (along with several hundred other troops) landed at Basra airport, he moved, shepherded and harassed us into being in the right place at the right time. This was no mean feat in the middle of the night in the baking Iraq heat. He then promptly delivered us all to the right places at the right times and went on his way.

The next time I saw him, he was organising helicopters so I and hundreds more troops could get back to the airport and home.

I was surprised to learn he was a member of the Territorial Army – a part-time soldier. In a couple of months, he was going home to Bradford and returning to his job as a bailiff.

He was the consummate professional soldier, and everything would have been chaos without him. But while his input was invaluable, should he have been there at all? Shouldn’t he have been at work in England as he was originally hired and paid to do?

A lot of employers would agree with this sentiment, and it is understandable. You pay to recruit, train and develop a person, and all of a sudden they’re off to fight in foreign lands. It takes about nine months from call-up to serve in Iraq until you get your staff back again – presuming you still want them. If you don’t, you could be in trouble, because the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985 says terminating a person’s contract because they are called up can lead to compensation and fines.

Duty calls

The numbers of reservists that have been mobilised is staggering – 12,500 have served since January 2003, and more than 800 are on operations in Iraq alone at the moment.

While employers may harbour doubts about sending people into battle, there is no doubt about whether reservists should leave their day jobs to go and serve if they are called up, according to Lord Glenarthur.

As chairman of the National Employer Advisory Board (NEAB), the employer-led group that gives independent advice to the government on issues surrounding the employment of reservists, he is well placed to comment.

“Reservists have a very valuable role – we can no longer afford to have a massive standing Army,” he told Personnel Today. “Reservists need to play their part from time to time.”

But along with NEAB members including the CBI, the Institute of Directors and manufacturers’ organisation EEF, Glenarthur is also well aware of the problems that losing staff can cause employers.

“It’s understandable that an employer might feel reluctant [to let staff go] – especially when they are key staff,” he said. “Small employers in particular might find it extremely difficult.”

Yet Glenarthur unequivocally believes the benefits gained by reservists outweigh the hassle of employers losing them. “There are employers who recognise the leadership, motivational and communication skills that the military way of life enhances enormously,” he said. “Reservists can bring back all sorts of benefits to their civilian experience.”

This can amount to a money-saving exercise for employers. In 2002, Leeds Business School estimated that the average amount of training a reservist receives would cost an employer 9,152 if bought commercially. And separate research from Liverpool John Moores, Leeds Metropolitan and Bradford universities last year found that almost all employers (97%) found returning reservists had better teamwork skills, more self-confidence (95%) and greater leadership qualities (95%).

With survey after survey showing staff in the UK have no confidence in their managers, one wonders whether management courses might not be combined with a short stint in Basra.

And this may not be as dangerous as it sounds. The NEAB is working hard to make sure reservists’ actual involvement on the front line is kept to a minimum. The Reserve Forces Act (1996) stipulates that reservists can only be compulsorily mobilised for 12 months in a three-year period.

Glenarthur is on record in the House of Lords saying that if anybody needs to be mobilised for more than one year in five, then either there aren’t enough regulars or reservists, or there are too many commitments.

Glenarthur also recognises that the world of work is changing. The NEAB is investigating the viability of forming strategic partnerships with firms that are already involved with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to transfer staff back and forth between military and civilian roles.

Flexible contracts

There are also questions around whether or not people with essential skills should have flexibility tied into their reserve contracts to stop skills gaps opening up back home and the individuals suffering ‘skills drain’ while they are away.

The Department of Health and the MoD already have plans to allow doctors and nurses flexibility in their terms of service.

There is no doubt the employers responsible for voicing business’ concerns are in favour of the mobilisation of reservists. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, which is why Personnel Today is going back to Basra with a group of employers to see their staff, who are serving as paratoopers in Iraq. The real test will be whether both staff and employers on the ground are convinced.

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