This is a guest blog post by Eric Morison, a first-year law student at UCL.
My first year at University was rather odd. I was brimming with eagerness when it started, believing I was destined for besuited glory in London’s hallowed square mile. At University College London, everyone believed they were on a journey towards the corporate world.
But my motivation crumbled in the face of increasing disillusionment, and it ended up becoming a year of outrageous flirting with Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, with whom I spent as much time as I could (mainly attending weekend camping trips and evening training sessions) without actually joining full time. I joined the University of London Officers’ Training Corps, a unit of the British Army Reserve, in October 2014.
I chose to study law because it seemed, to my unimaginative 17-year-old mind, the only route into one of those fancy-pants city jobs, and the best way to develop as a person. Yet, I found the skills being taught were nothing new to anyone that struggled through English or History A level.
I’ll describe what my degree involves. Your tutors hand you the thickest, dustiest old books they can find, and tell you to spend several days shut away in the library, reading them in silence. Then you write pompous essays, on your own again, and the most pompous ones win prizes.
It’s no wonder that employers want you to have completed a myriad of extra-curricular achievements before they’ll even take a sniff of your CV. They need their staff to have real world practical skills in communication, teamwork and creativity. None of which you get from a law degree.
I often think about what I could’ve done instead. Had I not already accumulated a gargantuan sum of debt from my year of lonely law book reading, I would try getting myself an apprenticeship.
It turns out that fancy city firms offer these schemes to ambitious young things fresh out of sixth form. You could write your last A-Level essay and then five years later emerge as a Chartered Accountant having made a net gain in your bank account, as well as being thoroughly work and life experienced, courtesy of firms like Grant Thornton.
Similar schemes exist in insurance and even law, which is slowly becoming less snooty about apprentices becoming solicitors if they have not frolicked in a red brick institution for several years at the taxpayer’s expense. Luckily, school leavers are now deemed worthy to get as far as legal executive status.
But there’s no point looking back on what I could have done; I want to crack on and see my course through to the end. But I’ll stay with the Training Corps for as long as I’m studying, so that the combination of my degree and my wild extracurricular activities will hopefully make me employable. But while I can straddle the military and legal worlds whilst at university, I have to choose one or the other when I graduate.
But I’ve met people who are at that stage and still haven’t decided. They’ve joined the army reserves full time but are treating it as a temporary position, a transition job. Joining the army reserves can equip you surprisingly well for civilian roles. There are various trades in the technical and support branches, such as the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and the Adjutant General’s Corps (AGC).
You can, for instance, become a chartered management accountant through the AGC, having initially begun your career in the infantry. I met one such chap whilst skiing with the Royal Artillery in France (another highlight of army reserve life is that the government pays for you to miss lectures and piss around on a mountainside).
An army general told me that one of the most impressive things you can get on your CV out of the army is a helicopter pilot license. Instead of having to pay for lessons, the army air corps will train you up as long as you’ve served as a soldier for a while and reached the rank of corporal. This shows future employers that you worked hard to get promoted, and you were able to learn quickly.
So committing full time after university would be a good way of exploring my options, delaying my career choices and building vital skills. But I’ve already done that by committing part-time for the last few months, so I’ll explain why you should seriously consider doing what I did to boost your employability.
But the first thing I love about the army reserve is that, apart from the money that you get paid for doing the weekend training camps, it gives you something productive to do outside of your studies, and is a nice contrast with university life. It casts Friday afternoon’s boring lecture from your mind, and you forget all about that attractive person who does not reciprocate your hopeless crush. You are training to be a part of a world-renowned institution which, due to recent cuts, now relies on part time manpower more than ever.
It’s also a way of meeting people from other universities and courses with whom you would never have come into contact otherwise. I’ve made useful contacts that I can call for advice when applying to a variety of jobs.
Employers want to know that you can be flexible, put in the hours and maintain your energy levels. What better way to show you can do this than by enduring army life? Your Lance Corporal will put you through nighttime drills, back-to-back sentry duties and relentless tests of your physical fitness, all in pitifully cold and wet conditions.
I hope that doesn’t put you off. It’s all worth it for the rush of excitement you get as your company launches a beautifully organised attack at dawn, the sound of rounds going off as you crawl through a tunnel, emerging from its exit in a flash of flare light, your adrenaline surges as you sprint with your section to pile up behind the entrance of the first building.
Without realising it, you’re vastly improving your listening skills, as you have to maintain constant awareness of any orders being given, any as well as any noises you or your colleagues are making that may alert the enemy. You can’t fall behind and you can’t be caught by surprise. Employers place huge emphasis on communication skills and listening and responding promptly and appropriately is a key part of that.
Teamwork is another essential skill you pick up when you’re methodically clearing a building, coordinating with the other soldiers to make sure every area is covered. You’ll be pretty hungry, stressed and exhausted during this. If you can stay calm and professional whilst working with people in those conditions, the chances are that you will fare pretty well in a nice warm office.
I’m sure that any skill an employer could possibly want, to make up for the gaping holes in a university education, can be found in the Army Reserve. Are you interested in marketing? Every reserve unit produces recruitment leaflets and posters, and has a Facebook and Twitter page that need staffing.
Journalism? The army has its own TV channels, Radio stations, websites and various magazines, and if you have an interesting or unique army-related story, they would love to hear about it.
Or if you fancy more general managerial experience, and you have enough talent and time, you can apply for a reserve commission – becoming an Officer. You will be sent to the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for 8 weeks where the government will invest £24,000 in turning you into a world class leader of men. Employers will be desperate for your management and organisational abilities.
Regardless, gaining any rank in the army will stand out on a CV. Being the president of the university chess society might show leadership, but not in the same way as being a Corporal or even Second Lieutenant in the Army does. Entering the army reserve is a form of serious labour that indirectly helps out others (by defending the country), so it makes your personal brand look both charitable and socially engaged.
It also gives you the opportunity to serve your local community. For example, I recently helped with crowd control at the British Heart Foundation’s London to Brighton cycle ride. I also know of a reservist whose vessel provided emergency relief in the wake of the earthquake in the Philippines, as well as staying on to help rebuild a school. Such opportunities to help people in a selfless, meaningful way, abound.
Pretty much every University in the country is connected to an Officer Training Corps and they are designed to get students into the Army Reserve, preferably as Officers, or to at least leave them with a favourable impression of the Army so that if they get a job elsewhere, they will make decisions accordingly, such as not cutting the Defence Budget in the future.
The corps are very student friendly. They will organise training around your lectures, tutorials and study periods, and you can go on most trips during holidays and reading weeks rather than term time.
The atmosphere is also very relaxed. As an officer cadet, you cannot be deployed, and they want you to have a good impression of the Army. Hence why the training is not so hard, the standards are not quite so high, and if you want to miss a training weekend so you can nurse a hangover, well that’s fine. Treat yourself.
Above all, the OTC is a springboard to great life experiences. The organisation exposes you to loads of different units and regiments, which visit to explain what their unit does. I was even fortunate enough to go on an insight weekend with the Royal Marines where they took us on their amphibious assault craft, and gave us a lesson in military abseiling so we could assault a fort during the night.
I highly recommend all of this because another thing that employers search for on applications is proof that you’re an interesting and well-rounded person. They have to want to spend every day with you in an office and you need to show that you’re likeable and unique, with confidence and stories to tell. That’s the kind of person that joins the OTC.
I joined a normal reserve unit after a few months with the OTC for several reasons. Firstly, there is the possibility of deployment, provided the situation is dire enough or if you volunteer. This makes me feel a little more like a real soldier. I also sought training in a greater variety of fields, besides the normal infantry stuff. I can go into military policing, intelligence, engineering or logistics.
What also appealed was the greater variety of people in the normal reserve. OTCs tend to be filled with dirty privileged students such as myself, but reservist units have people from all walks of life: bankers, plumbers and teachers. Everyone is thrown into the mix together, which I think improves your life experience.
Many people don’t understand the army reserve and don’t consider all the opportunities it has on offer. Whatever part you play in it, it will likely give you a hugely varied and exciting experience. You’re bound to find a role that enhances you and gives you the opportunity to do great things for your country. And even if you don’t like it, at least you can say you tried it out.