The Armed Forces: Learning on the front line

Members of the armed forces are adding to their skills with an MBA. Amy McLellan reports
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The Independent Online

Think your MBA studies are gruelling? Think again. Try writing an essay on operational management while coming under military fire, suited up against a chemical weapons attack and forced to periodically abandon your laptop for the "safety" of a trench. This was the experience of Michael Forster, now a major in the Royal Engineers and a graduate of Henley's MBA programme.

"I still got a B+," he says of that operations essay. But although Forster survived the invasion of Iraq, the laptop did not. "It packed up because it was full of sand."

The MBA is becoming an increasingly popular qualification for those in the armed forces, whether still serving or making the transition to civilian life. For those still serving, an MBA can aid career progression in a sector that is increasingly run along commercial lines.

"I'd done a couple of operational tours and needed a new challenge," says Forster, who took five years to complete his MBA, fitting his studies around tours in Cyprus, Bosnia and Iraq. "You are not in the army forever and I saw this as an opportunity to develop my skills further."

The qualification is already proving useful. "As I've got older the MBA has become more and more useful," he says. "Increasingly, areas of the military are being outsourced and PFI-ed so it helps to understand how contractors and private industry work."

Henley Management College is geared up to meet the particular demands of military life: Forster received back-up and additional time in recognition of the demands of his job. The business school also offers a 10 per cent discount to serving members of the British defence forces (and recent leavers) and is an approved learning provider for the Ministry of Defence's Enhanced Learning Credits scheme, which provides funding support of up to £2,000 a year.

Cranfield School of Management has also recognised growing opportunities in the defence sector and last month launched a specialist MBA, which Graham Clarke, programme director, says will equip students with "a comprehensive portfolio of commercial management skills, enabling them to contribute more effectively towards MOD initiatives".

Nine students have enrolled for the first year of Cranfield's MBA (Defence), which will cover leadership, change management, project management and resource management within the defence context as well as building awareness of cultural, political and ethical issues when working in an international setting.

It is not just those in the British armed forces who are attracted to the MBA. Lee Wingfield, a pilot in the US Air Force, decided to sign up for an executive MBA at Saïd Business School in Oxford while on an exchange with the RAF at Brize Norton. He realised that an MBA could prove useful in the future.

"As a qualification it certainly opens up doors," says Lee. "I'm really glad I did it: in that phrase of Donald Rumsfeld's, it filled in some of the known unknowns and given me a much better appreciation of the things that go on behind the scenes.

"I may go to a staff position next where I would be doing budgets, which is where the Emba would be useful."

The MBA really comes into its own when it's time to adjust to civvy street. Although a stint in the military equips people with top rate management and leadership skills, not to mention experience of logistics and planning, it can be difficult to convince employers that these skills will translate into a commercial setting. This is where an MBA can add value.

This was certainly the rationale behind Andrew Turner's decision to study part-time at Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University. Having spent 18 years in the RAF after joining from school, Andrew, a former aircraft engineer, saw that he needed something to enhance his employability.

"I was gearing up to leave the air force and I wanted a complete career change, away from engineering and into the business side," says Andrew. "Coming from the military you have very little experience of business but you do have transferable skills and it's all about persuading an employer to take the plunge."

He believes the MBA is the perfect stepping stone. "It was a massive learning curve because I was suddenly in a classroom with some very senior business managers. But I also surprised myself with how much I knew. Even though the air force isn't a profit-making business, you're still managing people and accountable to stakeholders."

'An MBA gives you credibilty'

James Potts was a Captain in the Royal Dragoon Guards, a heavy cavalry regiment equipped with battle tanks, and has just started a new job in investment banking in the City.

"I'd been in the army for about seven years and was thinking about how to convert my skills into the civilian world. I looked into the MBA while I was out in Iraq. It was quite surreal to be sitting in a cabin somewhere west of Basra staring out at burning oilfields and to be applying for MBA courses.

I signed up for a full-time MBA (Finance) at Durham Business School because I wanted full-time immersion so I could learn from the other people on the course. That's really important if you're making a major career change.

I found I had quite a different skill set from most people. My special skill is blowing things up in tanks, which isn't relevant in a business setting. But I did have leadership and man-management skills.

An MBA is an excellent way to cross over and plug any skills gaps you may have. It gives you some credibility with employers. With an MBA on your CV, the military background can be very appealing to employers."