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Employers in the front line as Army mobilises

RESERVISTS

Employing armed forces reservists used to mean little more than hearing about their weekend exploits of yomping round the Salisbury Plain with a rifle and a bivvy bag. But with reservists now playing a much more active role in military operations, concerns are being raised on how employers might be affected.

Alasdair Reisner reports

'WHEN it started letters were landing fast and furious within our unit. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time. It arrived one Saturday and I had four weeks notice to get my life in order and get on my way.' Andy Beckett ref lects on a day that could have thrown a major spanner in the works of his career.

He is the managing director of Atom RF, a recently formed specialist metal fabrication firm in Speke on Merseyside. For most new company bosses the risks to the business come from poor cash f low or lack of work in hand. Few have to deal with the prospect of being sent to Iraq to help with the conf lict and ongoing peace-keeping operation.

Yet as a sergeant in the Territorial Army that is precisely what he and a growing number of those involved in the construction industry have found themselves doing.

Since January 2003, 11,000 members of the UK's reservists ? including members of the Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Marines Reserve and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force alongside the TA ? have been called up to serve in Operat ion Telic, the British codename for the invasion of Iraq and subsequent peacekeeping operations.

With around 40,000 members of the UK reserve forces, that means that around one in four has been called to serve in the Middle East.

But where does that leave employers? In the past the reserve forces were seen as weekend warriors that did their volunteering in their own time. The worst case scenario might be losing a staff member for a two-week training camp once a year. But this is no longer true. Now the reserve forces make up a quarter of the country's fighting strength and are the first choice for mobilisation in future operat ions. Make no m istake, if you employ staff that are members of the voluntary reserve there is an increasing chance that they will be called up.

The potential for this to cause conf lict between employers and the MoD is huge. As a result new rules have been put in place to reduce the blow.

The f irst aspect of this is employer not if icat ion.

Until earlier this year reservists were under no compunction, although it was recommended, to inform their employer that they were even in the TA or equivalent. Since April 1 all reservists must now give their permission to the MoD to contact their employers when joining or re-enlisting, giving employers an opportunity to start planning for the possibility that a member of staff may be called up for active service.

A second benefit introduced in April was to simplify the financial assistance supposedly available to employers if staff are mobilised.

Now employers can claim financial assistance to cover the cost of replacing mobilised employees.

A lthough an employer does not have to pay its staff member while he or she is away, the costs of bringing in back-up can be crippling, particularly for small firms. The MoD aims to reduce this bu rden by cover ing the cost of both over t ime for existing employees to pick up the slack and also recruitment of a temporary replacement, including the price of advertising the position or use of recruitment agencies. Travel, accommodation and subsidence costs can even be paid for any transferred replacement worker, a particularly useful benefit for the construction industry, in which many employees are used to moving around the country for work.

The maximum claim per employee per day is currently £110, approximately equivalent to a £40,000 annual salary. The MoD will also pay for the pension contributions that an employer would otherwise have been making on behalf of their employee.

So what do employers make of the situat ion? Gary Reynolds is director of London-based fit-out and refurbishment specialist IDM. Two of his construction managers were called up to serve back in November 2003, each spending around a year in Iraq.

He says: 'We had to replace the guys and reabsorb them into the business when they returned. We've not actually received any compensation for them yet.

I don't know how long the MoD expects it to take.

'The problem is that it might put people off employing people who are in the TA. If you are interviewing someone and they are in the TA you would be dubious about the idea of taking them on, only to lose them when they go off for service.' Mr Reynolds notes that employees are given just four weeks notice before mobilisation. As his staff hold managerial roles, it is difficult to find replacements in a market suffering f rom sk ills shor tages du r ing that t ime.

He says: 'They are construction managers. They are not guys that are sitting on their hands. They know their projects inside-out, so to suddenly have to find a replacement is difficult. You also have to explain to clients why you have suddenly lost one of you r key guys that they know and have worked with.' He is not the on ly employer that is unconvinced about the benef its of employment of reservists, par t icularly when they get called up for act ive service.

Another anonymous employer with links to the TA has struggled with the compensation system.

'We didn't get any compensat ion when we lost men to go to Telic. We were supposed to get £60 a man but we didn't. It's easy to get on paper but in reality it is hard to get a hold of. I don't want to slag it down ? it's a good system but more needs to be done in terms of the way employers are compensated, ' he says.

In neither case did the employer think that he gained any thing in terms of benef its f rom employing reservists such as staff learning skills in the reserves that are useful in their day job. This contradicts the results of a recent study. In October a research report by three leading business schools concluded that there was a strong correlation between the skills learned by reservists and those that are currently seen as weak in UK industrial management; leadership, process design, communication and team-focused culture.

'The inevitable implication of these results is that employers would benefit from a more imaginative approach to the employment of reservists. This will require them to take a radical look well beyond the conventional workplace set t ing to discover what their people do in their spare time and what skills they can bring to the company or organisation, ' states the report.

Perhaps for the final judgement on whether membership of the reserves benefits both employer and employee we should return to Sgt Beckett. As a reservist himself and an employer to boot, what is his opinion?

He says: 'I don't have anyone in the business that is a reservist but I'd have no problems with it because of the attributes it brings. The teamwork and management sk ills are really useful. It br ings people on, brings out their confidence and their can-do at t itude. Whatever is th rown at you , you deal with it.'