Declare Victory in the Recruitment of Veterans

With the final convoy of U.S. military personnel having recently pulled out of Iraq, thousands of veterans are home and looking for work. But while military veterans are likely to possess the technical skills and leadership competencies companies seek, a cultural disconnect exists that may be slowing their recruitment.

Because military work philosophies are drastically divergent from that in the corporate world, talent managers without a military perspective have difficulty recruiting veterans, said Dave Ferguson, manager of military staffing and recruiting at General Electric Co.

The cultural disconnect is also prevalent on the other side, where military veterans struggle to adapt to the more traditional concepts of applying for civilian jobs. Diversity leaders can help bridge the gap on both sides by driving awareness of these cultural differences to those in talent management.

As of 2010, there were roughly 11.8 million veterans working or looking for work, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, accounting for nearly 8 percent of the U.S. labor force. That number has grown since the official end of the conflict in Iraq late last year.

Ferguson said organizations looking to bolster their talent pool would be foolish not to draw on this subset of the workforce. Recruiting veterans, however, might take a few extra steps.

Ferguson said one reason GE created his position was because of his experience in the military and expertise in transitioning into corporate life afterwards. Other organizations have added similar military-centric recruitment roles in recent years, Ferguson said, with the hope that adding such a role will help bridge the cultural differences that initially challenge the recruitment of veterans.

“HR policies and procedures in the military are so different from corporate America,” said Ferguson, who has been with GE since 1997 and was placed into his current position as a veteran recruiter in 2009.

The main reason veterans struggle to gain employment at first is simple — many have never had to apply for a regular job. Because of this, they struggle to summarize their skills through resumes or to perform well in traditional job interviews. “They’ve just never done it before,” Ferguson said.

Veterans entering the civilian workforce for the first time are unlikely to be accustomed to presenting or even recognizing their own skills, Ferguson said, mainly because military jobs and tasks are usually assigned without taking prior training or skills to heart. The individual simply has to learn to do the job he or she is assigned.

In the corporate world, however, recruiters are likely to ask candidates to name their career interests or the skills they have that would drive them to perform well in an individual job. But because veterans are more accustomed working in units and teams on assignments, their brains are not necessarily wired to think like the typical civilian job seeker.

“You grow where you’re planted,” Ferguson said. In other words, you’re told what to do, where to do it and how.

Anne Kutscher, a recruiter with construction firm Cianbro Corp., said she hasn’t had much experience in recruiting veterans but found the few times she did a bit of a challenge. The main reason: She had difficulty understanding them.

“As a recruiter I could have dug a little more,” Kutscher said when recalling an experience interviewing a Marine Corps veteran. “But I didn’t know the lingo.”

Yet there are some practices diversity leaders can recommend to connect talent management and veterans. First, keep an open mind when recruiting and interacting with a veteran throughout the process, Ferguson said, and understand that being in the military is a “very different world.”

“In a lot of cases [in a job interview], you’re talking to somebody and you’ll say, ‘What kind of work would you like to go into?’” Ferguson said. “And honestly, military folks struggle with those questions.”

Second, don’t fret or write off a veteran candidate if they are unable to answer career ambition or qualification questions at first. Work with the candidate and even probe a little harder. Ask about some of the work experiences they held in the service and what skills they may have developed through those jobs.

“What you’ll find is that candidate has the knowledge, skills and ability, they just may not be able to explain it,” Ferguson said.

Third, realize that, unlike the traditional job seeker who will look for work and start a few weeks later, veterans are often seeking civilian employment about 11 months in advance, Ferguson said. To accommodate this, consider veterans for jobs you need to fill often — those with traditionally high turnover rates.

External military recruitment services are also available. RecruitMilitary is one veteran-owned firm designed to help veterans transition back into the civilian workforce, using its online registry to connect employers with veteran talent. “It really goes to understanding the difference [between the two worlds] and then being flexible with that,” Ferguson said.

The process of hiring veterans, he added, will sometimes be difficult and different, but “once you bridge that gap, you’ll find a treasure trove of talent.”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@diversity-executive.com.