Employer Network Promotes Jobs for Wounded Veterans


By Steve Bates August 23, 2012
A national network of more than 100 U.S. employers is on a mission to find, hire and accommodate injured military veterans in the workplace.

The Network of Champions, which grew out of a recruiting program for wounded former service members at Northrup Grumman, has spread largely by word of mouth. And it’s still growing—as is the need.

The planned 2012 pullout of about 23,000 American troops from Afghanistan was near the halfway mark in the summer, with an accelerated pace forecast in the late summer and fall of the year. Many of these service members will return with injuries and with few skills that translate readily to the civilian workplace. But member organizations in the Network of Champions, working with the military branches and other veterans organizations, are geared up for them.

The network has its origins in Operation IMPACT—or Injured Military Pursuing Assisted Career Transition, a Northrup Grumman recruiting program that was created for the purpose of finding, hiring and supporting severely wounded former U.S. service members. “It was literally a homegrown program,” said Kia Silver Hodge, PHR, manager of diversity recruiting programs at the company. More than 100 injured veterans have been hired under Operation IMPACT.

But the numbers of wounded warriors are too great for any one company to handle. So the Network of Champions was formed to take the mission nationwide. It has grown largely by word of mouth and through the efforts of Operation IMPACT team members who speak at conferences and attend job fairs for injured veterans, said Silver Hodge.

There’s no cost for employers to join the Network of Champions. Members receive a bimonthly listing of Operation IMPACT job candidates and their resumes, and they are expected to give veteran job candidates every opportunity to prove their worth for employment. Those representing their companies in the network should be at a level in their organization from which they can place injured veterans in jobs and influence recruitment and marketing efforts to target these veterans.

In addition, Network of Champions members are expected to share resources to support various outreach activities and attend meetings—typically quarterly—and an annual symposium. As such, participating employers are seen by the U.S. departments of Labor and Defense, as well as Veterans Affairs, as providing a “voice” for employing wounded military veterans.

No Easy Task

Hiring and accommodating former veterans with injuries is not easy, participating companies concede. In addition to physical injuries, there are less-visible ones, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse issues. Unemployment among people with disabilities and among military veterans remains high.

However, in July 2012 the unemployment rate for veterans fell to 6.9 percent, the lowest level in more than three years. There are federal and state government programs that help returning vets, including assistance transitioning them to civilian jobs. And there are efforts like the Network of Champions that are making a difference.

For some employers, hiring disabled veterans is a top-priority mission.

“We have a commitment and an obligation to help our service members gain employment,” said Silver Hodge.

“This is the right thing to do,” agreed Karen Amato, who heads wellness and accommodation programs for SRA International, a contractor and a member of the Network of Champions.

Network member companies typically reach out to the military branches, attend career fairs and take advantage of veterans already on staff in the effort to find wounded warriors for job openings. As with all job candidates, HR professionals cannot ask former service members whether they have a disability that might affect their work.

The danger, said experts in recruiting injured veterans, is that a veteran with a hidden issue such as PTSD will not succeed. “Most of the veteran disabilities we encounter might not even be apparent when we initially speak with a candidate,” said Joshua Renick, a Bank of America senior vice president who oversees military staffing.

Veteran Provided Foothold Pays It Forward

Jason Siglar returned home from a four-year stint in the Army in late 2006, believing that he was ready to work in the private sector. “I thought I was okay,” he told SHRM Online. But he was suffering from depression and a drinking problem that he developed while serving his country.

He worked in a factory in Iowa, then in an oil industry job on the Gulf Coast. But he felt unfulfilled. He returned home to Iowa, but he couldn’t escape his problems. His marriage broke up. He became homeless. “My life fell apart.”

In the spring of 2011, while shopping for clothes in a Goodwill store, he heard a commercial for the organization’s veteran employment program. Goodwill offers 12 hours of work a week to any homeless veteran. Within a few days, Siglar was being trained at a Goodwill store in Clinton, Iowa. As part of the program, he was required to look for a better job. The Goodwill program staff gave him help with his resume and job hunting skills.

“They made my resume look good. They highlighted the skills and qualifications I had to offer,” he recalled.

More than that, they gave him hope.

“I was more confident” almost immediately, he said.

His performance led to a regular position at the store in Clinton. And, within a year, he was promoted to a job in which he trains new hires with special needs. “I’m able to train people who are overcoming obstacles like I did,” stated Siglar, who is 28. “Most days I feel like I am learning more than I am teaching. I’m learning life lessons from persons who stay motivated despite the barriers they face.”

Added Siglar: “It feels great.”

Some injured vets fear discrimination and therefore hide disabilities. “You can open the door for veterans,” said Edward J. Crenshaw Jr., president and CEO of Columbia, Md.-based consulting and training firm DESTIN Enterprises. “But you have to create an environment where veterans feel comfortable disclosing their challenges.”

Some veterans are starting to say, “OK, I have some restrictions, but here is what I am going to do to get around that and be a great employee,” said Wes Reel, who manages the military recruiting program at environmental solutions firm Waste Management.

Many organizations that seek out disabled veterans have developed sophisticated processes for assessing their abilities and finding the best fit for them. That process often involves a nurse case manager and continues into the accommodation and onboarding process and through the employee’s tenure. Case managers, veteran mentors, the HR team and employee resource groups reach out to support them.

Accommodations are similar to those of other employees with disabilities, such as work schedule adjustments for doctor visits and technology and ergonomic modifications to work locations. Little things such as lower sinks and water faucets can make a big difference.

Typically, these are not expensive. “The average cost of an accommodation is about $600,” said Northrup Grumman’s Silver Hodge. “Even with PTSD, there usually are very inexpensive things that you can provide, such as sound-canceling headphones.”

‘We’ve Come Light Years’

Just a few years ago, programs to hire wounded veterans were not nearly as successful, said those who run them.

“At first, there wasn’t any type of assimilation [for wounded vets]. They came from the battlefield directly to the workplace,” noted Mike J. Bruni, staffing manager at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). “Many left after 30 to 90 days. It wasn’t working. … We’ve come light years since then.”

Now that the Network of Champions is in place and employers are showing more interest in hiring wounded vets, the pipeline is much fuller, too. “Three to four years ago, we used to scrape to identify warriors,” said Bruni. “Now, I probably get contacted by four or five a day.”

While some companies target injured veterans, none interviewed for this article said that it gives these applicants preference over others, which the federal government can do. Rather, “We lobby for our [injured veteran] candidates,” said Silver Hodge. “We reach out to our hiring managers and share information.” Still, “we want the most qualified candidate.”

In terms of culture, there’s a natural fit for ex-military workers in companies in the defense contracting industry. But even at those firms, hiring officials said, injured veterans tend to wind up in a broad range of jobs.

“We give them the same jobs as we would anyone else,” said Kirby Brendsel, a Deloitte Consulting senior manager and military recruitment lead. “We really value them for their leadership.”

“This is a business strategy. This is not philanthropic,” said Dave Ferguson, director of military staffing and recruitment for GE.

The fuller pipeline has generated at least one unexpected result: Companies in the Network of Champions that can’t find a good fit for a wounded veteran applicant are referring those vets to other companies in the network. “These are companies we compete with,” observed Silver Hodge.

Employers interested in joining the Network of Champions can send an e-mail to operationimpact@ngc.com.

Steve Bates is a freelance writer and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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