Would joining the Army Reserves boost your career?

You may have seen the new “Challenge Yourself” television ads promoting the Army Reserves where a series of women and men peel back their regular gear to reveal their army fatigues.

The message is that by joining the Army Reserves you will get to push yourself beyond your normal limits to discover what you’re capable of. Reservists are promised skills development in leadership, communication, problem solving and physical fitness – and the pay is tax-free.

I saw the reality of that message on a recent trip to the Northern Territories while a guest of the Defence Reserves Support during its ‘Boss Lift’ program. Boss Lift is an initiative designed to show employers what Reservists get up to when they leave their office jobs to go on “manoeuvres”.

There are over 20,000 Active Reservists in the Australian Defence Force and many of these are women. These women leave their jobs or businesses and spend periods of time away in the Army, Navy or RAAF doing incredible work. Often professionals join the Reserves to do something completely different – the GP who is an Army Reservist driver or the CEO who becomes an Army Reservist rifleman, which is something I am seriously considering myself.

I certainly found it exhilarating to shed my normal skin for a week. I toured RAAF Base Darwin and spent time with the fast-jet fighter pilots. I also went to the Australian Army Robertson Barracks and the Navy’s patrol boat base HMAS Coonawarra. I got to sit in the pilot’s seat of a Tiger Attack Helicopter and pretend I could actually fly it in the simulator. I got to fire machine guns and drive a Navy Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat around Darwin Harbour at top speed.

Earlier this year I visited the Army Recruit Training Centre Kapooka in country NSW to see (and even gain a little experience via the giant flying fox) the physical training the Reservists and enlisted troops undergo.

In the NT, I spoke to both Reservists and enlisted women who were full of praise for the training, work opportunities and the physical and intellectual challenges they had received through Australian Defence.

Major Rachel Brennan was the most senior woman I chatted with. An Engineer Squadron Commander in the Combat Engineer Regiment, Major Brennan completed a degree in engineering at the University of NSW and then her officer’s training Royal Military College (Duntroon) before being assigned her first leadership role at just 22 – more on that in a minute.

Later she completed a Masters of Arts, Strategy and Management at UNSW and studied both Chinese and Japanese at the Defence Force School of Languages. She continues to attend leadership training for up to six weeks a year.

I also met Warrant Officer Class Two (WO2) Michelle Brown, who joined the Army Reserves while managing a pub in South Australia. She later enlisted and is currently the Resources Manager of the 1st Combat Engineer Regiment. She manages the regiment’s finances, people and supplies across the country.

In addition to her main responsibilities, WO2 Brown also instructs soldiers in the use of machine guns and carrying out signals operations in the outback. Her daily work environment involves building grenade launching ranges, bridges and fire truck emergency response.

Where else could you get that kind of variety in your work?

What I learned from Major Brennan and WO2 Brown and the other women I met was how much confidence they had gained in the military. While woman remain in the minority, particular in combat roles, they spoke of being empowered and supported to reach their full potential.

Troops understand the training and experience that goes into attaining a certain rank so gender is irrelevant when it comes to taking direction.

“There is no difference between male bosses and female bosses – it is the rank that is respected,” explained WO2 Brown.

That Major Brennan’s was assigned to her first leadership role at 22 managing a construction trip of up to 40 mostly older men (all tradies). In the private sector you might imagine a young woman boss in that position given a pretty hard time but the troops were fine. She was in fact the second female troop commander to lead them.

That’s not to say the women don’t seek extra support from one another. The women I spoke to network with other women at all levels as a way of looking out for one another as well as to help them develop career paths and find mentors and champions.