· 6 min read · Features

Telling the boss they have been called up is a tough call for TA reservists

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For reservists, having to tell their boss they have been called up for an 11-month tour of duty can be almost as tough as the assignment itself.

Bosses can view it as a disruption to business rather than a chance for the employee to gain new skills. Peter Crush donned his bullet-proof vest to join reservists in Afghanistan to hear the pros and cons first-hand.

Luck: in the cold and dust and bleakness of the Afghanistan desert this is as precious an entity as any amount of missiles and armour. This was what guided the bullet Simon Bull - a reservist with the 4th Yorks Battalion - told me he nearly took. It went straight through a fold in his sleeve, missing his body by millimetres. Luck is what 'Paul', also a reservist, says must have intervened when the Improvised Explosive Device that blew up under his 25 tonne truck, lifting it clear off the ground, reduced everything but his cabin to a twisted, mangled wreck. Four of his team of six Territorial Army (TA) reservists have been hit like this; all of them have walked free. But the look in their eyes, on their war-hardened faces, tells you they know luck is a pitiless mistress.

Bad luck: between November 2008 and November 2009, three TAs died and 18 were flown home because of their injuries. According to Captain Gareth Thomas, at Joint Force Support in Camp Bastion, my home too for three days, the number killed in action or who died from their wounds was 2.1 times higher in 2009 than 2008. Wounded in action rates are 1.7 times higher. Demand for blood has been 3.4 times higher. One soldier was so badly injured he needed 137 pints.

'Just my luck': sadly this is the view some businesses take when reservists are called up. It's an opinion confirmed by scores of TAs in Bastion, Kandahar and Kabul. There are approximately 600 in Afghanistan, all of them are regular employees back home - 10% of the total force. Many employers, who can now expect reservist staff to be called up for a tour of duty every three years, still only see disruption to business continuity; it's yet another firing line they have to suffer.

"I was a teacher," says one reservist who asks to remain anonymous. "I was on an annual contract and when the head teacher found out I was in the TA he asked me to leave." Another says: "My CV is littered with mobilisations. I constantly have to justify it at job interviews."

SaBRE (Supporting Britain's Reservists and Employers), an arm of the MoD, helps smooth tension between bosses and reservists, by providing advice and support on reservist issues, as well as financial assistance - firms can claim financial assistance up to £40,000 to cover additional salary costs incurred of a called-up employee. But with pressure to increase the frequency TA staff can be called up (the 'Aeromeds' air-medics based in Kandahar are now taking TAs for a six-month tour every two years), and time away from the office actually nearly a full year because of the preand post-deployment readiness training, there is considerable strain on the system.

"On my first tour my boss was not at all supportive," says corporal Daniel Morris, of 504 Auxiliaries (RAF reservists), responsible for servicing telecommunication equipment. A prison officer back home, Morris is now on this third tour, his first in Afghanistan, but he says his "other career" has only recently got easier by having a change in management at the gaol. "Even there, though," he adds, "I'm lucky because I'm the only RAauxF. It would be a problem if there were more of us."

Joining me in Afghanistan were employers that either had staff in 'theatre' now (the front line was only 15 kilometres from camp Bastion), or employ reservists. SaBRE's mantra is very much that, by performing their duties, staff return to the workplace as exceptional managers although as John Wright, chair of the Federation of Small Businesses - which is supportive of reservists - observed, bosses "get the benefits of TAs in a trickle, but suffer the pain (of losing them) in one big blow." Philip Lay, retail director at Welsh brewer Brain & Co, noted that, while his firm is more supportive than most of reservists - Ed Brain, the son of the former chairman, is a Lt Col in the Welsh TA - seeing two TA directors out of seven go in quick succession was a blow. "They're both area managers," he says, "with 25 pubs and 300 people each under their control. They have the very get up-and-go type of qualities that make them join the TA but they are also our very best people. They're not easily replaceable. We just have to get by."

The concern of visiting employers was the lack of documentation TAs bring back to work, spelling out exactly the skills (even qualifications) they have gained that could assist them to rise in a company or help them find better jobs elsewhere. (The MoD has now begun mapping transferable skills, and an official announcement on this will come in the next few months). "This has not been a priority," admits Major Reece Jones, a police officer back home in North Wales, "but neither do most employers know what we do out here."

Until such a 'skills gained' checklist exists, he believes reservists generally undersell their acquired skills, but Jones also displays a characteristic I found to be surprisingly common in Afghanistan: most I spoke to don't want to climb the career ladder. "I want to do another tour in three years' time," Jones says. "If it means I have to stay being a constable, rather than rising up the ranks, that's fine with me."

"I don't aspire to be a leader," adds Ralph Oram, an operations manager at Kettering-based DIY store Walls & Floors, now RAF auxiliary officer at Camp Bastion. "This gives me the opportunity to take a step back, and have others do the thinking for me," he says. "There's a chance I could be promoted back home next year, but I'm not certain I'll take it." Another soldier says: "The TA is part of my life; employers will have to accept it's part of the package." Another conceded: "We've chosen a military career ahead of a conventional one - I can't blame employers for wondering if we are equally committed to them."

When soldiers themselves doubt the relevance of what they do back at the workplace, it's no surprise employers have suspicions too. One reservist at Kandahar is a hotel manager back home, but at Camp Bastion his job is a repetitive 10-hour day of packing and unpacking supplies - post, ammunition, food. He honestly feels there are no additional skills he brings back. "I'm lugging stuff around. You can't dress that up," he says.

Behind the bravado of the bullet-proof helmets and armour-plated flak-jackets, it is clear TAs stationed in Helmand are simply doing a job - it is different from their day-to-day civvy one and they do whatever they are told. It may annoy employers, but it is not the Army's job to up-skill reservists for when they get back. Save for Bastion's TA-led field hospital, where the experience of the 90 TA doctors there transfers directly to the workplace (TA Danielle Mackie, from Guys & St Thomas's A&E department in London, says: "I've seen more trauma injuries here in three months than you'd expect in three years, which I know will open up opportunities when I'm back"), another surprise is that the Army does not systematically assess the corporate skills TAs have that they could bring to theatre. Major Ian Galliers, of the Rifles, who runs his own engineering consultancy, says he was originally posted as a watch-keeper until his skills were accidentally identified and he was put into a more useful logistics role. Sergeant Paul Metcalf, of the Royal Engineers, is employed at Atkins but also believes he is underused. "The Army tends to assign jobs according to rank rather than the skills individuals may have; I'm 'only' a sergeant."

So, if bosses cannot expect their staff's skills to have been enhanced, nor can they pinpoint new skills they are equipped with, can reservists ever be more than an HR headache?

If this trip has taught me anything, it is that barriers need to be broken down. TAs underestimate the benefits to employers of the skills they gain just by doing their job out there. Employers, meanwhile, underestimate exactly what they do. Some TAs may want to take a step back, but there will equally be others that will use their time there to enhance their own skills. Jones might well want to limit his own police career aspirations, but he knows he'll still be a better constable when he returns.

Jones is in charge of one of five non-commissioned officer-training bases around Kabul that will train more than 4,000 Afghan National Army members in how to work with British and American forces to defeat the Taliban. "My management skills - and everyone else's - will be so much better," he says. "One day I was suddenly told I had to train 800 men. My men produced a solution within an hour; 32 of the 68 trainers are TAs. Stick these in the public sector, and they'll outshine any manager in minutes."

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