Veterans Reporting for Duty As Civilian Employees

In early November 2013, President Obama gave his weekly radio and Internet address and stated that economic growth for America includes “making sure that every veteran has every chance to share in the opportunity he or she has helped defend.” He went on to discuss the results of efforts in the public and private sectors and stated that “as more than a million of our troops return to civilian life, we’re going to have to work even harder.”

While many organizations clearly hear the call to hire more veterans, some are increasingly aware that outreach and hiring alone are akin to what soldiers might refer to as a “spray and pray” approach — hire a lot of veterans and pray to get one or two who make it in the company.

In a June 2012 report, think tank the Center for a New American Security conducted in-depth interviews with 69 companies, of which 80 percent cited specific challenges they face in hiring and engaging veterans. The most often mentioned was difficulty translating experiences acquired in the armed forces and expressed in military acronyms into meaningful competencies that could be applied to non-military jobs.

For instance, employers do not know how to determine if an ex-military person rated as a high performer would be a high performer according to their metrics. To compound this, veterans generally face the same challenge when it comes to translating their skills and experience into non-military employment. Civilian and military employment terminology is vastly different, so making connections can be challenging. Another big concern when hiring veterans is the belief that they need time to re-enter civilian life. One executive who was part of this study opined that veterans may be too rigid or structured to function well in a corporate setting, a concern likely shared by many.

With this data in mind, any efforts to support veterans’ transition into civilian jobs must blend resources that address skills transition, how to identify employer needs and matchmaking with resources such as onboarding, cultural acclimation and engagement processes. Since this is a big undertaking, the effort also will require strong leadership.
One way to learn how to address skills translation, identify employers’ needs and match resources is to benchmark organizations that have undertaken similar efforts:

  1. Skills translation: Organizations doing a noteworthy job of translating competencies acquired through military service into practical civilian skill sets include the Department of Labor’s My Next Move, the Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program, the Department of Veterans Affairs, with its VA for Vets military skills translator, and the Department of Education. For instance, these organizations have figured out how to ensure veterans’ resumes provide a complete picture of their experience — including technical, interpersonal and leadership skills — in civilian language.
  2. Employer needs identification: Federal agencies involved in helping to identify industries and companies that need veterans’ skills include the Labor Department, the Education Department, many colleges and universities, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
  3. Matchmaking: Groups such as the American Job Center, which offers a one-stop shop to support veterans with its Gold Card program, are helping to connect appropriately skilled veterans with the companies that need them. Federal, state and local entities and many job portals, including Monster.com, also can provide support.

Some private organizations have their own resources in these areas to replace or supplement publicly available tools. For example, AT&T and Home Depot have developed custom skill-translation capabilities. Likewise, recruiting companies such as Orion International, the Lucas Group and Wesley Brown and Bartle have their own in-house resources for matchmaking.

Whether a company uses publicly available resources to meet any of the aforementioned three areas of need or builds its own program is a matter of choice driven by culture and requirements. However, when it comes to strong executive leadership needed to pull all of the right pieces together and secure the resources required to support effective onboarding, acclimation and engagement, an organization must build these capabilities internally. In many companies, the group that supplies these critical in-house resources is the veterans’ employee network.

Secrets of Top Performers
Automaker General Motors leverages its veterans’ employee network and a blended approach that, to date, has been quite successful. According to Ken Barrett, GM’s chief diversity officer, getting the type of results the company has experienced “first and foremost started with strong executive leadership.” He said strong executive sponsors who are passionate about veterans work closely with the GM’s veterans employee network to bring issues and solutions to the table.

Members of GM’s veterans employee network support the recruiting process by helping to translate candidate resumes from military to civilian terms. Once a veteran is hired, members of the veterans employee network provide mentors and support outside the normal management chain to help newly hired veterans acclimatize to the organization quickly.

Barrett said to increase rates of success it’s important the veterans employee network is fully integrated into the business mission and not a separate group that sits outside and disconnected from other parts of the organization. At GM, this integration is achieved through a cross-functional team concept called the Eyes Right Group. This group consists of the military discount group as well as representatives from talent acquisition, policy development, communication and the GM Foundation, all in one location.

Prudential Financial, a global financial services institution, has a similar philosophy and approach. According to Michele Green, vice president and chief diversity officer, the keys to its success are also strong CEO support and a highly integrated approach, composed of an official veterans initiative team and a veterans employee network that work in close partnership with external resources along with the staffing department and the office of diversity and inclusion.

“Our CEO saw the opportunity and the value of veterans long before the big push toward hiring former members of the military began a few years ago,” she said. “With such strong leadership support and well-coordinated teams of people, our veteran employee resource group, VetNet, effort has grown from 40 members in 2010 to 351 members in 2014 and has helped us hire 137 veterans last year and has grown a 362 [member] in-house, online community of veterans and veteran supporters.”

Consider the federal government, one of the largest employers in the U.S. Despite the fact that many military jobs are in the same sector, federal civilian leaders are faced with the same challenges when employing veterans as private organizations when it comes to translating skills, recruiting, onboarding, training and retaining staff.

According to Ismael Ortiz Jr., former acting assistant secretary of labor for veteran employment, understanding a veteran’s skill sets and potential return on investment are the first and most important steps. Ortiz said the federal government has invested heavily to ensure that federal civilian agencies have resources to help with the needed skills translation and onboarding, including resources such as the Labor Department’s online veteran support tools and skills translation tools.

Other departments, such as Veteran Affairs, have online portals and designated veterans programs, including VA for Vets. Nevertheless, many agencies, like their private-sector cousins, have found that having veteran employee networks plays an important role in blending solutions that address onboarding, engagement and retention veterans.

A Win-Win Situation
To recap, here are a few of the key lessons organizations can take away to promote success when hiring veterans:

  • Make sure leaders are involved. Senior leaders must be actively involved to provide energy and momentum to these talent acquisition efforts.
  • Leverage veteran employee networks. Well-organized veteran employee networks are a key linchpin in both private and public civilian organizations when it comes to creating, blending and delivering effective outreach, candidate identification, onboarding, acclimation and development.
  • Coordinate and integrate veteran employee network efforts into the rest of the company. Organizations need to have non-affinity-centric groups whose job it is to coordinate and connect all the activities from veteran employee networks and other groups into partnerships that bring measurable benefits to members and the organization.

As Obama stated in the aforementioned November address, “If you fight for your country overseas, you should never have to fight for a job when you come home.” By harnessing executive support and leveraging well-organized, integrated veteran employee networks, organizations can create a winning program to support returning service personnel and avail themselves of a great pool of much-needed, highly skilled talent.

Matthew Bowman is senior vice operations for Leading Edge Solutions. Joseph Santana is a management consultant and coach with Joseph Santana LLC, a diversity and inclusion management consulting company, and author of the e-book “15 Tips to Consider as You Plan Your ERG/BRG Strategy.” They can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.