For companies seeking employees with the drive, agility and team-building skills to meet today’s workplace demands, a group of ready-made leaders stands at attention: the U.S. military. But little research has been done to determine how these candidates can successfully enter civilian careers or how hiring managers view them as potential employees. A 2011 study of employers’ perceptions of military employees by Apollo Research Institute — a research division of Apollo Group, the parent company of seven providers of educational services — offers insight to help veterans find peacetime ways to lead and excel, easing high rates of unemployment among those who have served America.
A rising number of veterans will enter the job market as U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. The White House reported in August 2010 nearly 100,000 troops had been withdrawn from Iraq, and in October 2011 President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of all remaining troops by the end of 2011. American forces began returning from Afghanistan in August 2011, and 33,000 are expected to return to the U.S. by summer 2012, according to Obama.
Veterans seeking jobs in today’s challenging economy have a powerful ally. Many managers believe military service increases leadership capabilities in ways that translate to efficient, resilient management. For instance, in a report for the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), Leonard Wong, research professor in the SSI at the U.S. Army War College, wrote that veterans’ experience serving in Iraq, with its attendant ambiguities and multifaceted challenges, increased their ability to adapt and innovate — two qualities needed to manage rapid change in the 21st century workplace.
Yet people with military backgrounds often have difficulty finding jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate for reservists and National Guard personnel in July 2010 was 14 percent — much higher than the civilian rate. Veterans of recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also have higher unemployment rates than those who served in earlier wars: 11.7 percent in September 2011, compared to 7.2 percent for those serving during the first Gulf War and 6.7 percent for veterans of Vietnam and earlier wars.
A Struggle to Find Employment
A literature review by researchers at Apollo revealed employer concerns specifically related to military personnel, such as the fear that war-related mental or physical disabilities might affect performance, or that National Guard or Reserve duty would increase absenteeism. Demographic changes in the workplace also mean fewer hiring managers have military experience, and are therefore less likely to be aware of the skills and characteristics veterans possess.
Further, military personnel often do not have the skills and information they need to successfully search for civilian jobs. They may be unable to translate their military skills and experience into civilian terms, may be unaware of employers’ concerns about hiring veterans, and may not know which industries and companies are most likely to hire them.
The Apollo study, which polled 831 participants employed at the managerial level or higher who were regularly involved in recruiting across a broad range of industries, determined specific success criteria for military personnel transitioning to civilian careers.
The findings confirm that employers look favorably on military service. Ninety-three percent of employers and managers have positive attitudes toward job candidates’ military service; whereas 85 percent believe the events of Sept. 11 improved employers’ views of military personnel. Three out of four respondents said employers should be lenient toward veteran job candidates.
Biases against employing workers from the military still may exist, however. While employers’ broader attitude is strongly positive — more than nine in 10 respondents said a veteran’s skill qualifications and fit for the job were paramount in hiring decisions — they expressed concern when asked about specific issues. Seventy-four percent were inclined to hire members of the Reserve and National Guard, but these ratings were less favorable compared to other military services, as were their responses to whether employers should be concerned about war-related psychological disorders, indicating their belief that employers may be hesitant to hire those suffering from disabilities or liable to leave work to fulfill service obligations.
Some industries had more favorable views of the military than others. Manufacturing industry respondents had the most positive views and expressed the most comfort about hiring military personnel, perhaps because many members of the military have the technical and trade skills this sector needs. Respondents from the construction/home improvement sector also were comfortable hiring military personnel, while those from the accommodations and food services industries held less positive views.
Hiring managers from the arts/entertainment/recreation and public administrative sectors reported the most concerns.
Military Skills Transfer to Civilian Work
Researchers also measured how leadership skills prepare military personnel for career success. Ninety-two percent of respondents agreed that leadership abilities make veterans strong candidates for positions requiring authority. Most respondents — 86 percent — rated these skills as being directly transferable to the civilian workplace. They listed teamwork, striving for results and planning/organizing as the chief leadership skills military service develops.
The study also spotlights several areas where employees with military backgrounds are seen as superior to civilian colleagues, illustrating employers’ positive views and preconceptions of the military. Compared with civilians, most respondents rated military employees as stronger in team orientation, work ethic, reliability and assertiveness.
The more experience a respondent had with the military, the more positive he or she tended to believe employers are about hiring veterans, Reserve members and National Guard personnel. Respondents who had a close relative in the military, grew up in a military environment or had worked for the military in a civilian capacity were more likely than those without such ties to say employers’ perceptions of the military had improved since 9/11. Eighty percent of those with military affiliations responded that military personnel deserved leniency in the hiring process, versus 68 percent of those with no military affiliations. These individuals also more frequently reported that employers had few reservations about hiring reservists or National Guard members; they also were more likely to value military leadership experience highly and to find it transferable to civilian jobs.
Respondents with significant experience hiring military personnel were more likely than those without such experience to say such candidates deserved hiring leniency. However, respondents with no military experience were more likely than those who had served in the military — 93 percent versus 80 percent — to say employers had few concerns about hiring military personnel with the right qualifications.
Respondents who had served in the military, had military affiliations or had experience hiring military personnel were all more likely than respondents with no connections to the military to rank military personnel highly on openness to other cultures, flexibility and creativity/innovation.
Although employers value military service, they may value education more. Respondents said they would be more likely to hire candidates with a college degree and 10 years of military experience than those who had served in the military for 20 years but lacked a degree — 60 percent versus 13 percent. Respondents cited careers in technology — 26 percent — and business, finance or accounting — 21 percent — as suitable fields for degree-seeking military personnel. More than 7 out of 10 respondents indicated some level of agreement that possessing a degree was more important to employers than the specific major. About half of respondents cited the reputation of an applicant’s alma mater as a relevant hiring factor.
Veterans and those who help them transition to civilian careers can benefit from the goodwill employers show military personnel while taking additional measures to improve their job prospects. To improve chances of moving from a military to a civilian job, veterans can take these steps:
• Translate military experience into civilian terms: Explain how specific responsibilities, opportunities to lead or mentor and training equip them to master similar challenges on the job.
• Bust stereotypes: Apollo research shows some employers view military personnel as lacking creativity, flexibility and experience with diversity. Yet the military is a diverse organization, and many members have developed multicultural skills by being deployed in foreign countries. Veterans should highlight their experiences with other cultures in their resumes and interviews.
• Target military-friendly industries and organizations: The manufacturing and construction/home improvement industries are particularly well-disposed toward the military.
• Earn a degree: Though employers value military experience, they still assert that college degrees are all but essential for today’s job seekers.
Evidence is mounting that employers recognize and value military experience. Examples from the business world attest to the leadership advantage military personnel can offer an organization. Companies whose CEOs have military experience are overrepresented among the S&P 500, according to Korn/Ferry International’s 2005 report, “Military Experience & CEOs: Is There a Link?,” and they typically outperform corporations whose CEOs do not have a military background.
Military personnel also perform well in junior management positions with major corporations. Wal-Mart had success with a 2008 pilot program in which junior military officers were recruited to management positions, and it expanded its military recruiting strategy to encompass all business levels. Home Depot also incorporated military personnel into its strategic plan and has hired more than 60,000 veterans, reservists and National Guard members since 2004.
The White House has endorsed this drive with a call to American businesses to hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans and their spouses by the end of 2013. At the August 2011 announcement of his Joining Forces initiative, Obama shared the stage with representatives from firms that have endorsed this plan, including Microsoft, Accenture, Wal-Mart and Honeywell. These and other companies stand to profit from a transfer of leadership and skills from the battlefield to the boardroom. Other corporations seeking strong leaders should consider doing the same.
James M. Fraleigh is a freelance writer and Courtney L. Vien is senior editor at the Apollo Research Institute. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.