Somewhere in a forestry block in Sennybridge on a Friday night and in hushed voices…
“Yep. Over here”
“This is John. He is a Reservist who’s just turned up from work. He’s with us for the next four weeks. He is going to do the next 2 hours so you can go and get your head down. See you at stand to”
“Oh. Ok I was supposed to be on for another hour but… if you’re sure”
“Yeah no dramas”
“Ok then. Let me take you through the sentry brief John…’
I cannot imagine any Soldier being anything but pleased to receive this sort of news whilst’stagging‘ on. This simplistic, tongue in cheek example highlights the old adage of ‘many hands making light work’ but events like this are rare. Opportunities for Reservists to train alongside Regular soldiers are ad hoc and my experience has been they are often offered at such short notice that only a select few Reservists can join. This happens in spite of the fact that Regular Army is undermanned and that many training events are planned months in advance, giving ample time for Reserves to be offered places and attend. An MOD website states: as a Reservist ‘you’ll train and deploy alongside your regular peers’ sotheargument for more of this kid of activity is evermore compelling.
There are many reasons why the Reserve rarely train alongside their Regular peers. The Commanding Officers (CO) of Reserve Units aren’t incentivised to make this happen or consider it too difficult to achieve because it is not happening at any scale. There is a lack of easily available, timely information to share and find these kind of opportunities. Two weeks notice is rarely enough to be able to make a truly meaningful contribution. Perhaps even, the Army has a lingering concern that Reserves are being seen as a bit of a gig economy. The Army is also reticent to work with business matching periods of low labour demand with opportunities to train for fear of appearing to either aid business or exploit the Reservist. Finally, Reservists continue to have a widespread reputation for being unreliable.
An Historic View
Having individual augmentees (as opposed to formed bodies) throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan campaign became the norm. The reason for this was that it worked, and it worked because individual Reservists were able to decide when they could afford to give up time away from their primary career; the career which pays the mortgage. The Regular Army has a tendency to think about capability in terms of formed bodies, which creates the scale required for training, and allows cohesive teams to be built. Taking individuals (individual augmentees) who have not gone through a full and uniform training pipeline seems time consuming, which is therefore more difficult when time is so scarce.
The (probably Regular) CO of Reserve Units normally structure their unit training around the traditional framework of an Annual Camp as it is the easiest option to generate training at scale and encourage unit cohesion. Unit cohesion has an intangible quality and is placed by most Commanders ay a premium over the utilisation of a limited number of Reserve Service Days to support the Regular Army. This, disinterest in a drip feed of reservist manpower to match regular demand is in part due to there being no incentive for Reserve CO’s to begin working in this way.
These ways of working currently leave the Reservist with something of an identity crisis – ‘Who am I – an individual augmentee or the member of a unit’? Reservists are keen to serve alongside Regular colleagues, but for obvious reason has to be around the constraints of their main job. They are relentlessly told to show (Reserve) career progression and profile growth so need to be a regular attender including Annual Camps, to receive a good report. Yet, limited by the constraints that holding down a primary career impose. Life would be much easier if there was a variety of training opportunities for Reservists to choose from.
Change the CO’s Incentives
Linking a CO’s annual report grade to the amount of time their Reservists spend training alongside Regular peers could radically change behaviours. The CO would be less Commander and more Head of Business Development, using their Regular network to find training opportunities for their Reservists. Unit cohesion would become a distant second to support to the Regular Army. When money is tight it seems right that it goes towards Regular support and it would probably be more satisfying for the Reservist. A supported Regular unit might need their more numerous qualified soldiers to support Reservists with particularly onerous pre–training requirements on weekends. Unpopular as this might be, it is much easier for a Regular soldier to be granted time-off–in-lieu than for a Reservist to take additional holiday days which are generally fixed to the working week.
Use Technology to Advertise Opportunities
Reservists are forced to find training opportunities with Regular personnel through unit ‘middle men‘. This can be glacially slow and inconsistent affecting their ability to plan time off with their main employer. Providing a booking portal for all training opportunities across the Army that looks up to six months in advance would be a huge leap forward for both Regular and Reserve. Modern Technology has made booking most things instant and there is no reason for the Army not to have a similar system. The Regular ‘customer’ could advertise opportunities and include pre training requirements. Once a Reservists registers an interest, their unit would automatically be notified and then have up to half a year to meet these requirements.
Regular soldiers prefer Reserve support to be for a medium (4-6 weeks) or long (6 months to a year) attachment as opposed to a short (2 week) one. Instead of the current 2 weeks every training year, a Reservist could be able to do 4-6 weeks every 2-3 years (if possible around their first career). This might tempt Reservists into medium length training or support which works better for the supported unit. Changes to the Annual Continuous Training policy would be needed to make it attractive.
Matching – Pay and Conditions and Supply and Demand
Concerns around Reservists becoming the Army’s gig economy are understandable but not insurmountable. The wider debate focuses on how pay and conditions compare to full time workers. To allay this, Regular and Reserve need to be on broadly the same terms of service. A conversation with any astute Private Soldier on an overseas training exercise will tell you that they know they are working (by the hour), for less than the minimum wage, and Reservists know this is true on training weekends. The Army will continue to be paid by the day not the hour so apples are being compared to apples. However a Regular Soldier is paid 7 days pay for a (usually) 5 day week. A Reservist is paid an additional day for every 10 days worked placing them at a financial disadvantage. Differences in medical, dental and pension provision (when looked at on a days served basis) would also need addressing.
Businesses are data rich and can, with a good deal of accuracy, predict labour demand and thus when they could release Reservists easily to train or support their Regular peers. The Army is not data driven in the same way and so doesn’t understand or have confidence in business. There is also an institutional mistrust of business, the assumption is that employee’s wellbeing and making a profit are mutually exclusive, which isn’t true. Matching low labour demand with being able to easily release Reservists, possibly for medium length attachments makes sense and everyone, including the Army wins. Assuming that the Reservist volunteered (which they would have to) then they would clearly not be exploited. Any concerns that the Army’s has that business is pushing Reservists out the door to save money in quiet periods (aside from that it would be illegal) are exaggerated.
Making Reservists More Reliable
Finally, Reservists need to work hard to shake the perception of unreliability. They must realise a commitment to train is exactly that and once made time and money is invested and there is an expectation for them to show. When they don’t the reputation of all Reservists suffer. Civilian companies penalise those that ‘don’t call, don’t show’. A similar system should be put in place for Reservists whereby a ‘no call no shows’ affect their eligibility for bounty.
When I didn’t have a job recently I turned to my unit and asked if there were opportunities to support the Regular Army. I worked on three separate projects of 8, 4 and 6 weeks in duration. I am lucky. As a former Regular officer I receive some cachet which makes meeasier to sell to Regulars who may be sceptical ofReservists competency. I live in a city with plenty of opportunities to support the military in a meaningful way. I am a member of a unit which (I believe) has an excellent reputation and which (I know) is packed with bright, high achievers. During interviews with civilian companies the fact that I was ‘working’ whilst job hunting was seen as a positive. I didn’t feel that the Army was exploiting me. If anything it was the reverse. Finally, in helped financially so it was win win.
If the Army, led by its Reserve Unit Commanding Officers makes better use of Reservists, use technology and provide the right catered individual support to meet pre training requirements the individual Reservist and the Army will benefit.
Given how sparse manning currently is, not making use of the Reserves in support of Regular training seems wasteful in such austere times.
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Chris has 16 years of leadership experience, in both the Regular Army and the Army Reserve. He has attended Staff College and commanded a Sub Unit.