The Benefits of Being Veteran-Friendly

SNAPSHOT
By recruiting and hiring veterans and ensuring they are placed in positions suitable for their skill set, Sears Holdings Corp. has been able to build a stronger culture and leadership pipeline.

Photo: Sears employees in 2013 at a Sears Heroes at Home rebuild in Sacramento, Calif. The program rehabilitates homes for veterans in need. Courtesy of Sears Holdings Corp.

The U.S. armed forces are a reflection of America’s diversity, with many ethnic and religious groups represented. Sears Holdings Corp., a multinational retail company based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., embraces those military service members as a diverse employee group and is leveraging the talent offered by veterans and their spouses to advance business objectives, said Sherry Nolan-Schultz, the company’s vice president of talent acquisition and diversity.

Nolan-Schultz knows all too well the challenges military veteran employees and their families face — her husband is an active chief warrant officer 2 in the National Guard. But she said Sears values veterans not only for their sacrifices, but also because skills learned in the military often translate into employees with a high work ethic.

“At Sears, we believe that hiring military veterans isn’t goodwill; it’s good business,” Nolan-Schultz said. “Military veterans have invaluable skills to offer. The skills they developed during their time of service are directly translatable to the work we do at Sears Holdings. We see proof of this manifested all the time, from systems processing to operations to leadership and management.”

The World War I Connection
Sears’ top-down support for employees who are veterans dates back to World War I. Brig. Gen. Robert E. Wood, who served in that war, was one of the most important leaders in the company’s history. He was chairman from 1939 to 1954, and under his leadership, Sears shifted focus from mail-order sales to retail sales at large urban department stores.

The commitment to veterans that Wood established then continues today. Thanks to targeted outreach, more than 30,000 of Sears’ approximately 274,000 employees are veterans, including 1,500 still serving in the National Guard and Reserve. In 2012 alone, Sears hired 2,000 veterans, and thousands of spouses of veterans work for the company.

“We value veteran talent, and part of that talent that enables veterans to succeed anywhere is leadership ability. It is for this reason that we emphasize hiring veterans into salaried roles,” Nolan-Schultz said. “As a result, we have seen our number of salaried veteran hires increase more than 20 percent. We know that winning this battle is not just based on employment numbers, but ensuring we are not underemploying talented individuals.”

Sears is also part of the White House initiative Joining Forces. Run by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, Joining Forces expands hiring and training partnerships with the private sector to help veterans and their spouses get back to work.

“Joining Forces has really shed light on the veteran unemployment problem by bringing together organizations,” Nolan-Schultz said. “Since August 2011, we have hired over 7,000 veterans and veteran spouses. I feel that everyone can agree that the veteran hiring space will always be a place to share best practices.”

Along with a comprehensive benefit program, military servicemen and women also have additional benefits. In September 2004, Sears extended its military pay differential — to fill the gap between military pay and employer pay — and benefits continuation to 60 months for eligible employees called to duty in the Reserves or National Guard.

Sears’ network of stores and distribution centers also allows the company to create portable career opportunities for military spouses in cases of permanent change of station, retirement or separation, based on good standing and availability.

Mike Echols, executive vice president of Bellevue University’s Human Capital Lab and author of “Your Future Is Calling: A Practical Guide to the Education You Need to Have the Future You Desire,” said the high number of veteran employees, coupled with their long history at the company, speaks to Sears’ grasp of the importance and potential in this demographic group.

“The fact that they have successfully recruited, developed and retained that high number of veterans says to me that Sears gets it,” Echols said. “Once that takes place, the cultural foundation, it gets a momentum of its own — a reinforcing feedback. The company can see that as the veterans progress through the organization, none of the societal fears about those veterans are occurring.”

This in turn leads to a culture in which veterans assimilate and become organizational powerful contributors. “This is a symptom of an organization that appreciates their significance and has gotten past the cumbersome pieces of making it all work,” Echols said.

Nolan-Schultz said the company often sees a marked difference in workforce morale when a veteran is hired. “The respect of fellow employees is apparent, and they always look forward to working with the veteran in his or her new position,” she said.

Building the Pipeline
Veterans and their spouses fill myriad roles at Sears, from customer service or inventory management to management positions. Nolan-Schultz said the company emphasizes the importance of placing each veteran in the right role with the right opportunities for growth based on his or her talents, skills and interests. Hiring trends have shown that many veterans find homes within Sears’ logistics, home services, loss prevention and retail operations.

Sears also offers several unique training initiatives, such as its Retail Leadership Development Program, which is designed for veterans who may not have traditional retail experience. “It’s extremely effective for noncommissioned officers of every branch and tailored to help veterans interested in becoming a store manager,” Nolan-Schultz said.

The Troops to Technology program is for veterans with an information technology or related degree, or for those who hold a signal, IT or communications job in the military. Nolan-Schultz said Sears is seeking recently transitioned or transitioning military candidates to support its information and technology group, one of its high-growth talent areas.

Echols said the company also has latched onto veterans to address an important future concern: building its pipeline of future leaders by relying on a strongly diverse group with potential.
“The veteran issue is a business issue,” he said. “In the face of 10,000 baby boomers leaving the workforce per year, all companies are challenged to build the leadership pipeline. The key to building the pipeline is you start with raw material.”

He said veterans don’t come right into an organization and do what they did on active duty. But they have all the attributes leaders want to build an organization around. “They focus on mission, understand teamwork and understand diversity — ethnically and religiously — and also understand it internationally. They’ve been to Afghanistan, know foreign culture; they understand tenacity and the importance of training. They come from the best-trained organization in the world, bar none, so they have all these attributes. Sherry [Nolan-Schultz] is absolutely right. This is a population looked at as a high-potential source for the inevitable leadership pipeline issue.”

The Care Factor
Sears is committed to helping veterans transition into — or get back to — the traditional workforce. For instance, its Associate Military Network is an enterprise-wide network committed to recognizing, valuing and leveraging the strengths and capabilities of associates with military experience to enhance Sears’ culture, continued growth and success.

Goals for the network include:

• Recruitment and retention: Establish clear partnerships with human resources representatives nationwide to aid recruiting efforts and develop strategies to retain the best people.

• Mentorship and coaching: To create a relevant, credible forum to build relationships that enhance personal and professional growth and an environment where military hires can reach out and support one another.

• Community enhancement: To enhance communities by providing support and resources targeted to veterans and families who can benefit from the company’s knowledge and experience.

Russ Hovendick, president of Client Staffing Solutions Inc. in Sioux Falls, S.D., and author of “Deployment to Employment,” said many veterans who use his company’s recruitment services universally wonder one thing: “Does anybody care about me?” He said Sears has demonstrated a comprehensive, caring approach to veterans and their families.

When veterans look for jobs, Hovendick said they often feel like a commodity. Sears’ approach personalizes the recruiting experience, which helps to build a potentially supportive community within the work environment.

“When a company takes this type of approach, it builds camaraderie, a support structure, and this is one thing veterans do exceptionally well,” he said. “They already have a commitment, a passion to make a difference and a dedication to effort and strong leadership. This is the icing on top, and it builds that unity of workforce.”

For the past six years, through Sears Heroes at Home, Sears has made an effort to support veterans and military members, inside and outside the workplace. For instance, Nolan-Schultz said the company supports veterans though a partnership with Rebuilding Together, one of the nation’s largest all-volunteer home rehabilitation organizations, to renovate homes for veterans in need.
The company also supports veterans through the Sears Heroes at Home Wish Registry, which helps families of active-duty military personnel purchase gifts during the holidays. “Nearly 20,000 families are helped through this program each year,” Nolan-Schultz said.

Engagement is the primary factor by which the company measures the effectiveness of its veterans initiatives. Nolan-Schultz said the responsiveness and level of communication have been great within Sears associate resource groups. “Anytime members introduce new ideas and follow through with plans of execution, it becomes a contagious environment — contagious with success.”

Heidi Lynn Russell is a freelance writer based in Wilmore, Ky. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.