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Since the onset of low unemployment rates, hiring newly released veterans has been the buzz in the recruiting world as pools of qualified candidates shrink. In the last five years, there has been a plethora of resources popping up, many of them veterans themselves, offering their services to both employers and veterans to bridge the gap of understanding between the two. From skills match, to resume writing, to interviewing, so called experts have much advice and are willing to share for a fee. Despite these efforts, the existing employment gap has not been closed, veterans leaving the military are just as confused as ever, and employers are still struggling to offer positions to new veterans. Veteran employment numbers have improved; however, many veterans are underemployed, serving in roles that do not take advantage of the wealth of skills gained in military service. Both employers and veterans have some considerable hurdles to overcome in order for a positive exchange and hiring experience to exist.
As an Army retiree, I have sat on both sides of the desk, the newly released veteran looking for employment, and a Human Resources professional in charge of filling key positions in the organization. I know the key to successful veteran recruiting takes an ongoing commitment from the employer, and the willingness to look at the process in a completely new way, go back to square one, and create a new process specifically targeted to this group of yet untapped talent. To be successful, organizations must be able to think outside the traditional recruiting and hiring processes to look at a completely new way of approaching the newly released veteran. Gone are the days of posting positions on popular sites and hoping veterans apply. For those government contractors out there, there is a benchmark of 7% veteran employee population goal to achieve. Without a concerted effort to target the group, it's nearly impossible to reach.
I have spent some time asking HR professionals and hiring managers if they have found the special potion that is successful veteran recruiting, and overwhelmingly the answer is “no.” Asking what the main issues were, employers cited several challenges that they could not seem to overcome. Among the most common is that quite often, none or few veterans apply to their open positions, and the ones who do apply do not meet the minimum posted requirements. Another difficulty is that the interviews tend to not go well and the ability to make any type of skills match is almost nonexistent. Language barriers and rank structures sometimes interfere with understanding. In addition, when employers are successful getting a veteran in the door, many of them do not stay past the initial training period. Many employers have all but given up pursuing new veteran hires as they feel it's just too difficult to deal with the hiring process.
Veterans, on the other hand, feel that they do not qualify for many of the positions posted as written. Can you imagine a tank commander searching for a rewarding position? They go into their job search already believing that they do not have the skills for any civilian job. They are looking for a more senior position but do not meet the experience requirement or listed certificates or civilian training. Even if the veteran performed the same job in the military, neither they nor the employer can make a skills match, or speak specifically of tasks as they differ so much from military to civilian. Veterans also do not understand the language of the civilian employer and find it difficult to understand that they actually do have project management experience but don't know the way to express it to the employer. Job searching becomes very difficult as networking is uncomfortable and the veteran feels they have little in common with people who have not served. The most common challenge the veteran has, is feeling as if they have to start over and learn everything again. I know when I left the Army after 21 years, I had to start from entry level in the HR field. Not understanding that the veteran is coming out of a position that contained great responsibility and leadership, many organizations want to offer entry level positions that pay entry level wages. For veterans who were in senior positions, moving into an entry level position with little to no responsibility, or an ability to directly impact the success of the organization is not desirable. Companies want to employ veterans but are not able to place them in key positions since they have no idea what level of responsibility the veteran had and what skills can be useful to the organization.
In order for employers to be successful in hiring veterans, they must be able to accomplish two major goals: increase the number of veterans who apply to open positions, and make an accurate skills match to assess appropriate positions within the company. When employers list mandatory years of experience in the position as a requirement, such as 10 years of production scheduling, very few veterans, unless they have been out of the military long enough to make the requirement, will apply. Newly released veterans will not apply to positions that ask for years and specific experience if they do not believe they can meet the expectation. Employers must rethink the way they post positions if they are targeting veterans. Focusing on needed skills to do the job is better. Critical thinking, strong decision making abilities, ability to plan work flow and manage people, are skills that a veteran would feel comfortable applying to their new job and feel they could meet that expectation based on military training. Other specific items that can be listed are strong computer skills and attention to detail, if needed to be successful and an asset in the position. Most employers feel that the experience of actually doing the job is absolutely necessary for a candidate to be considered. I would like to challenge that thought. I believe if you have a veteran with the skills listed above, the employer must believe that the job can be trained to the level needed to be successful. It does take a bit of a leap of faith to believe that the veteran you just hired who has critical thinking skills, strong decision making skills, can work under pressure, is mission and goal oriented and has years of leadership development skills, can learn your job and excel at it.
Skills matching is a bit more difficult. If hiring managers and HR professionals are not familiar with the military, it’s hard to determine the skillset obtained and the training offered in the military. Many employers use veteran employees to assist in assessing resumes and interviewing to gain insight to applicable and needed skills. If available, this is a viable option, although it may be a challenge where different branches of the military are involved. There are also several resources on the internet that can be used, a few are located on the VA website, both state and federal. Veterans also have the ability to use resources to civilianize their experience so that it is more easily read by the employer.
As an HR professional and a veteran of the Army for over 20 years, I wanted to develop a tool that employers could use to help get a general, baseline understanding of what types of training and responsibilities the veteran had while in the military. The Rank Assumption Chart for Employers that I developed, lists some assumptions by rank that the civilian employer can use to formulate interview questions to draw out the conversation to identify skills that are applicable to the position. It gives a starting point of understanding for employers where both parties can discuss specific applicable skills and examples of work done. Clearly, interviews for veterans must focus on the critical skills needed for the job, and a different approach to training.
Retaining the veteran once hired must be considered also. Newly released veterans are entering an environment that is completely new and much different than what they are used to. The best way to retain veterans is to pair the new hire with a veteran employee for mentoring and guidance for the first several months if possible. Some organizations have formed veteran support groups that meet periodically so that team members can help each other acclimatize to the new company and job. The civilian world can be a challenge to navigate, and basic approaches like teamwork, communication and accountability are different. Many veterans leave positions in the first 90 days because they feel lost and alienated, confused about how they fit, and due to lack of information and feedback.
Few organizations have managed to create a successful recruiting program for veterans. Those that have been successful often hire veteran recruiters to reach out, speak the language of the veteran, assess the skills needed for the position and if the veteran can be successful. Onboarding and training are tailored to the needs of the transitioning veteran, and then follow through with a support program. The companies that struggle the most are those that are not able to hire a dedicated recruiter or unable to find a veteran who can recruit. With resources and effort, organizations can find a way to bring more veterans into their employ, however, many do not know where to start or how to navigate the process. Most employers today stick with traditional recruiting processes in the hopes that veterans apply and can be hired within that process. I believe that most employers truly want to be able to offer our veterans gainful employment, but are not able to bridge the gap. My advice is to start with a blank board and develop a veteran hiring program with the advice and help of resources offered by your state Veterans Affairs (VA) office, veteran employment specialists at local job centers, and veterans inside your organization.