It’s an understatement to say that military veterans often find the transition from serving our country to taking a job with a civilian organization challenging. Either through poorly managed recruitment programs or because of a lack of general understanding of what military veterans encounter, recruiting and retaining veterans continues to be a challenge for some companies.
Military veterans share their stories of finding a career after completing service
HR Dive spoke with multiple US military veterans and active service members to understand how vets have experienced the recruitment process since returning home to pursue a career, what obstacles they’ve faced, and to learn how to make things better.
Brian Robey, a retired US Army Captain, and a Director at Alaska Airlines, tells a story that is typical of many military veterans: raised in a blue collar family, the first to go to college, and a graduate of his high school ROTC program. His motivation to join the Army was to pay for his education, which he successfully accomplished on a scholarship, and he had high hopes of becoming a civil engineer in the construction industry. Despite this effort, Robey found himself facing a tough time conveying his leadership abilities once he was in front of civilian recruiters.
Even with the support of the military JMOS program that is designed to prepare veterans for this transition, he still struggled with communication barriers and selling himself to potential employers in a strategic way. It was then that he interviewed for Cooper Industries, an electronic products manufacturer in Syracuse, New York that offered Robey a chance to use his military skills in a meaningful career. He quickly moved up into a leadership role.
The difference, according to Robey, was that this company had done enough hiring of veterans to understand how to recruit them and provide them with great career opportunities. Not too many of the other companies he encountered during his job search were familiar with the uniqueness of translating military skills and experiences to civilian jobs.
Robey shared some pointers for recruiters:
- When interviewing a veteran, try to find out what kind of responsibility the individual had in the military. Vets often find it hard to talk about their experience.
- Recruiters must set the veteran up for the right expectations. Recruiters need to understand these are disciplined, punctual, self-driven people who thrive in the absence of supervision because they can think independently and take initiative.
- Offer positions that are challenging and not repetitive.
- Hire veterans for roles that enable them to supervise others, for they are adept at process improvement.
- Encourage veterans to own their own development. Let them decide where they want to work. Watch out for a veteran with a bad attitude or a strong sense of entitlement. This is someone who needs additional support.
- Vets like to help vets out. It’s a perfectly good option to ask for another vet to talk with potential veteran candidate. Encourage them to talk with others before accepting the job.
- Open up other opportunities for veterans outside of technical and logistical roles.
"Inexperienced recruiters often hire people who are just like them. A more seasoned recruiter focuses on diversity, not just race, creed, gender, etc," Robey said. "Our US military veterans represent the greatest diversity of thought worldwide."
Programs aim to help more veterans get prepared for long-term career success
What can veterans do to ensure they are positioning themselves well for consideration with employers? The answer comes in the form of programs that are geared towards picking up where the military leaves off, like Operation Job Ready Veterans, a program directed by Ret. Army Lt. Colonel John Spanogle.
HR Dive spoke with Spanogle at length about the absolute necessity of programs that provide ongoing career support for veterans and their spouses. His story is similar to Robey’s and other veterans in that he too faced barriers to employment early on in his career upon returning from the battlefield. Spanogle says that many veterans turn to poor coping mechanisms because they cannot handle the shame of being rejected for civilian careers. While there are limited programs offered to veterans, they do not address the often devastating emotional and financial aspects of not being able to find a job.
Spanogle told HR Dive that, "the transition from military life to civilian life is very tough and that, as a whole, everyday people have no true concept of this experience."
"This attributes to the higher than average suicide rates that we hear about all the time – it’s not just about PTSD,” he added.
According to the Center for Deployment Psychology, the Army has the highest proportional rates of suicide of all the military branches. National averages of suicides across all branches are at 20 per day in the US.
Luckily his program, the Veteran Employment Training Seminar (VETS), provides access to support for active and retired veterans, their spouses and caregivers in an environment filled with instructors who understand and have all faced their own transitional issues. His program is designed around a clear set of principles:
- Deal with emotional issues like shame, guilt, anxiety, etc. to make sure each veteran doesn’t have this as an obstacle.
- Focus on discovering and practicing various career skills, such as writing resumes, practicing interviews, dressing for success and more.
- Uncover what each veterans sees as his or her career passions, which begins the process of being able to talk about oneself.
- Provide access to the skills and resources to apply to their passions, from educational support, enrollment in further education to help applying for GI Bill funds.
- Put program graduates in front of the right employers who have a track record of offering great jobs to veterans once their confidence is higher.
Spanogle says, "for many veterans, civilian recruiters don’t always understand how to best manage processes so they can see the value that veterans bring to the table.” He also mentioned that “a good number of companies are resistant to taking advantage of tax credits because it’s too much paperwork – but they are missing out on thousands of dollars.”
HR needs to partner with military veterans organizations to help facilitate, not alienate them. Spanogle advised that he thinks employers need to realize that, “the interview process should not be the end all be all.”
More veteran recruitment and onboarding tips:
- Stop focusing on ageism and other superficial candidate traits in recruitment. For example a young military veteran who a recruiter felt lacked experience had maintained a submarine’s nuclear reactor, held top secret clearance and visited 58 ports of all in 42 countries.
- Provide flexible schedules and ask if they have any VA appointments when making a job offer. (Many veterans will forgo a much-needed appointment to go to work instead, losing out on important benefits.)
- Have a structured onboarding program that includes a special session for veterans to meet internal mentoring employees who are also veterans. This helps to tap into the trust aspect of the military that helps them to assimilate into the team.
- Institute a standardized dress code so that military folks can avoid feeling anxiety over not knowing how to dress for work, since they are accustomed to uniforms.
One final thought, shared by Spanogle, Robey, and other military veterans: Employers are missing the boat if they are not hiring veterans. Veterans have a great deal of untapped potential and leadership skills far beyond the average candidate. Employers can alleviate some talent shortage problems by reintegrating military personnel into civilian careers as effectively as possible.