Out in the cold

Arctic marines ski-jorring behind a BV

On a trip to meet reservists training in the Arctic Circle, Jonathan Thomas is struck by transferable skills and can-do attitude.

When you're inside the Arctic Circle, the main risk you face comes from extreme weather" not gladiatorial polar bears or any other outpouring from the mind of Philip Pullman. Temperatures can drop several degrees in a matter of minutes and when a blizzard comes your way the visibility falls to just a few feet. Simply existing in this environment is tough. But the British Royal Marines training near Harstad in northern Norway I visited recently were there learning to fight in these unforgiving conditions.

What makes this all the more impressive is that the marines and commando Royal Engineers present were reservists" with not only a life in the military but a civilian career as well.

I work with a number of reservists through Lloyd's and have always been impressed by their professionalism and maturity. And in these most difficult of conditions, where a wrong decision puts a life on the line, you can clearly see how these qualities develop.

The opportunity to witness this Arctic warfare training exercise" known as Exercise Hairspring" was provided by Supporting Britain's Reservists and Employers" better known as Sabre. It aims to make employers aware of the rights, obligations and also some of the benefits that come with employing members of the reserve forces. Comprising the Territorial Army, the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marines Reserve and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, together their numbers total about 34 000.

These reservists play a key role in the UK's armed forces and nearly 17 000 of them have been mobilised to Iraq or Afghanistan since January 2003. Last year, 80 reservists from the RMR were mobilised to serve with their regular counterparts in 40 Commando in Afghanistan and one of them was awarded the George Cross.

Training in the wilds of Norway might at first seem unsuitable preparation for the hostile terrain of Afghanistan but, as the commanding officer for the exercise, Colonel Phil Sampson, told me: "If you can operate in the Arctic, you can operate anywhere." The skills and self-discipline learned there are applicable to many other environments. From what I saw, many of the skills and qualities developed through this form of military training are also directly transferable back to civilian life and specifically to working in the insurance industry: leadership, team-working, attention to detail, and a can-do attitude were the most striking.

Top-notch teamwork

Gavin Richards, a Lieutenant Colonel in the RMR and a director of Lloyd's broker Grosvenor Accident and Health, explained that when leading a team in this harsh environment, making a wrong decision puts lives at stake. And that level of responsibility is a real bonus to reservists required to make business-critical judgements in civilian life.

Being able to work in a team under pressure is also a skill needed right across the industry. As we approached the training area in the 'BV'" a tracked all-terrain amphibious vehicle" the first signs of the marines' teamwork were evident in the neat rows of tents protected from the elements by large walls of snow. Units of four or eight men inhabit these and to erect, dig-in and protect them requires a high level of co-ordination. Doing all of this in sub-zero temperatures when tired from skiing into position means everyone must pull together and communicate effectively. Attention to detail is clearly key. Marines will even sleep in a set order, with the senior rank closest to the tent entrance so they can be easily identified in the dark and quickly alerted to any incident.

Despite the risks and unforgiving environment the reservists carried out their duties with a marked lack of drama. This can-do attitude is essential when facing the challenge of hauling tents, kit and weapons over snow on the skis they affectionately call 'Nato planks'. All this strenuous work requires the consumption of at least 5000 calories a day; even this requires effort in heating snow and preparing the Norwegian army ration packs issued. But throughout the visit, I recognised the same professionalism and focused business-like approach the marines took to their tasks in the snowy wilderness of Norway in my reservist colleagues at Lloyd's.

To balance a career in insurance with a role in the reserve forces requires this kind of positive personality in the first place. Alongside an annual two-week exercise, reservists will have some kind of training commitment once a week and often train at weekends. The training, I was told, has been studied and thought to be worth on average in excess of £9000 a year to a civilian employer.

After a chilly night in the field" and my first taste of reindeer stew the following day courtesy of the Norwegian Army whose training areas we share" I was met at our 'RV point' by our 'BV' and we headed back to the UK. So, another slightly less welcome similarity between people in the insurance business and the military is that they both obsess in using jargon and acronyms.

Jonathan Thomas is group accident and health underwriter at Watkin's Syndicate, lloyd's

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