Hiring Vets the Right Way


By Bill Leonard December 20, 2013

After six years of active-duty service in the U.S. Air Force, William Castro was ready for a change. Although he liked maintaining aircraft and working on avionics systems, Castro decided it was time to rejoin the private-sector workforce and settle down with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. He knew it was the right decision but one with a daunting challenge—finding employment in the sputtering U.S. labor market. He had no clear idea what he wanted to do or how to find a job in avionics, where he could put his considerable technical skills to use.

After an initial misstep of taking a position he was ill-suited for and didn’t like, Castro landed a job as a service technician at an Audi dealership in San Jose, Calif. At first he wasn’t convinced that the Audi job was for him; he hadn’t given much thought about the crossovers between his technical skills of fixing military aircraft and working on high-end automobiles.

“When I decided to leave the Air Force, my private-sector employment goal was pretty vague,” Castro recalled. “I thought that I could find a job in avionics, maybe working at an airport or for an airline, servicing aircraft. I didn’t have a concrete idea what I wanted to do, and because of that, I had no idea where to even start looking.”

Typical Challenges

Initial job-search uncertainty is fairly typical for active-duty military personnel who are hoping to return to civilian life. Many veterans and reservists have a tough time finding and—in many cases—holding on to, a job.

Although the unemployment rate for U.S. veterans has declined during 2013, the number of jobless vets is still running slightly higher than the national average, and in some regions and among some demographic groups, including Vietnam-era and disabled veterans, the unemployment rate can approach 20 percent, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Castro was fairly lucky, finding a job just a few weeks into his search. But he quickly determined the position wasn’t suitable for him. Disappointment with a first job is also typical for veterans.

“It’s not easy to find the right fit for someone, especially with the first job offer that comes along,” said John Borelli, a veterans employment representative at the Employment Development Department in Campbell, Calif. “After veterans are hired, we keep tabs on them for at least six months to make sure they adjust to the new job.”

Borelli sensed that Castro might not be happy, so he kept an eye out for other opportunities, eventually finding a program run by Audi America Inc. that matches veterans who have technical and mechanical skills with jobs as automobile technicians.

Castro applied and was called almost immediately for an interview.

“While I have always liked working on cars, I hadn’t thought about getting a job as an automotive technician,” Castro said. “When I learned that I would have a chance to work on Audis, which are some of the best-built and best-engineered cars in the world, I decided to give it a shot.”

He hasn’t regretted his decision and now works for an Audi dealership near downtown San Jose that’s owned and operated by automotive-racing-industry executive Roger Penske —.

“I love it—it’s the best job that I’ve ever had, and I can see making a career doing this,” Castro said.

Hiring Vets Is Growing Trend

The Audi Veterans to Technicians program exemplifies a trend in employers hiring U.S. veterans to take advantage of a highly skilled and growing pool of talent. According to estimates from the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, approximately 300,000 active-duty personnel will leave the armed services in the next few years and seek to transition into private-sector jobs.

“That’s an incredible [number] of highly trained and motivated workers who will be entering the workforce,” said Bernie Hyland, manager of Audi’s program. “I feel it’s our duty to repay veterans for their service to our nation by putting them on the proper footing for a successful career path.”

Hyland, who is also a program manager for the Alexandria, Va.-based consulting group Calibre, helped design the Audi program, which launched in May 2013. It has placed more than 40 veterans with technical skills in Audi dealerships throughout the country.

“The major difference between this program and other employer initiatives to hire veterans is that we are looking to place people into careers and not just offer them a job,” he noted.

He said that Audi’s program is cutting-edge and that other car manufacturers are interested in creating similar ones.

“People are definitely taking notice of what we are doing because we are doing it the right way and are getting some excellent results.”

Castro and Borelli said the thoroughness and care that Audi’s interviewers and hiring managers took to make sure Castro would be a good fit for the job impressed them.

“It’s very important that it’s done right, because then it’s a win-win situation for Audi and for the technicians they hire,” Hyland said.

Job Market Ripe for Military-Savvy HR Pros

Although thousands of employers have pledged to hire more veterans and reservists as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, the reality has oftentimes been disappointing.

“I believe employers who make these pledges have good intentions,” said Hyland. “It’s just that many of the intentions were never followed up and many of the hiring efforts have fallen flat.”

Even so, he has noticed that employer attitudes are shifting toward hiring veterans and programs like Audi’s are increasing.

“This definitely is a growth market because of the number of military personnel who will be transitioning out of active-duty service over the next five to six years,” Hyland pointed out. HR professionals with knowledge of the U.S. military and interests or experience in matching workers’ skills to available jobs will find an increasing number of businesses seeking their talents, according to Hyland.

“As more employers see and understand the advantages of hiring highly skilled, disciplined and motivated veterans, more will want to develop and, eventually, depend on programs like the one at Audi.”

The Stumbling Block

There are challenges that must be addressed, however, before the hiring numbers for veterans can meet or exceed expectations. The biggest hurdle Hyland faces is educating employers about veterans and about the skills they can possess.

“In a way, the mainstream media has created a stereotype that most veterans suffer from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and can be highly volatile and violent,” he said. “But with the counseling now available, the number of vets who struggle with lingering problems or have violent tendencies is very low. Still, employers ask me all the time about the risks of hiring veterans. Some corporate recruiters have told me outright that the risks are just too high.”

In addition, many employers and their HR staff have vague notions about how the military training and the skills that veterans possess can be applied to their organization. In the Audi program, five applicants were turned down for jobs with dealerships in Florida. When Hyland asked why, the HR manager for the dealerships said the veterans didn’t have the skills or experience they wanted.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Audi technicians work on high-performance engines and must be able to adjust or replace disc brakes, and most of these veterans just don’t have those skills or experience,’ ” he said. “So I have to really explain the technical skills these applicants have and how they were applicable to the available jobs.”

Hyland has changed recruiters’ and HR managers’ minds by saying things like, “Military jets have the highest-performance engines on the planet, and disc-braking systems were developed for military aircraft so that they can stop on aircraft-carrier decks or on shortened runways.”

It has taken some convincing, but Hyland has made numerous converts. For example, he said the HR manager in Florida eventually gave a couple of veterans a shot and now plans to hire more.

Officials with the federal government have praised programs like Audi’s and encourage all employers to consider hiring a veteran whenever filling a vacancy.

“We have an obligation to honor and serve the men and women who have served our nation,” said Terry Gerton, deputy assistant secretary of policy for the Veterans’ Employment and Training Services at the Labor Department. “The best way to honor a veteran is to hire one. It’s all about finding faster, easier, more successful ways to get veterans hired. Partnering with employers is the key to success here. No single agency has the resources or the expertise to tackle this challenge alone.”

Inspiring Level of Service

Borelli is never satisfied with simply finding a job for veterans. He strives to make sure they are happy, satisfied and have adjusted to civilian life. The key, he said, is building relationships and getting to know the men and women with whom he works.

“I want them to feel [that] if they have a problem or need help that they can call me—and many do. I like building mentoring relationships, and I end up becoming friends with many of the veterans I work with.”

Castro agrees, noting that Borelli has become a true friend and mentor.

“He’s just so sincere about what he does that it really makes you feel good about your job search, because you know he’s going to watch out for you,” Castro said.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

Related Articles & Resources:

Skills Translators Just One Piece of the Puzzle When Hiring Veterans, SHRM Online Staffing Management, November 2013
Mentors Help Female Veterans Land Jobs, SHRM Online Staffing Management, November 2013
Program Aims to Match Veterans with Manufacturing Jobs, SHRM Online Staffing Management, April 2013
Steps to Becoming a Military-Read Employer Toolkit, SHRM Online Templates & Tools, April 2012

Department of Labor Veterans Employment and Training Service

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SHRM OnlineStaffing Management
SHRM Online Military Employment Resource page
SHRM Online Workforce Readiness Resource page
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