Translating Talent from Military to Civilian Jobs

By Stephenie Overman and Bill Leonard Jun 27, 2010
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SAN DIEGO—Government officials, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) leaders and other organization volunteers worked together here on June 26 and 27, 2010, to lend a hand to military veterans and HR professionals who need help translating talent from a military context to a civilian one.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is transforming its program to assist veterans and transitioning service members, said Raymond Jefferson, a former Army officer who is DOL assistant secretary for the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS). Jefferson spoke at a two-day program, “Military Veterans: Transitioning Skills to the New Economy,” at the 2010 SHRM Annual Conference. The goal was for HR attendees to tap into the highly motivated and qualified pool of veteran job candidates and for military members to learn to bridge the culture gap from a military to a civilian workplace.

Jefferson said new DOL projects under way are a pilot program with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a partnership with Job Corps for unemployed young veterans and an outreach program for veterans in rural areas.

Top-level decision-makers tend to drive employer participation in a veterans’ hiring initiative, according to Ronald Drach, director of government and legislative affairs for DOL/VETS.

Also, “recruiter training is an important part of starting a veterans’ hiring initiative,” he said. Internship and mentorship opportunities are also helpful in hiring and retaining veterans.

Military talent comes with a host of coveted behavioral traits such as leadership and self-motivation, said Sherrill A. Curtis, SPHR, head of Curtis Consulting Group and a New Jersey volunteer with the nonprofit Tip of the Arrow Foundation.

“They work well without a lot of hand-holding. If you target this labor market, you are not going to have to worry. … They are goal-oriented. They are going to be on it. They are focused. They are flexible. This is a group that sucks it up, takes it on and gets it done,” she said.

But the hiring process does not always go smoothly because veterans often have difficulty translating their resumes into language civilians understand, she added, and it takes skilled interviewers to draw out candidates.

“Ask about their ‘stories’ to understand their experience. Recognize who is in the shoes on the other side of the desk. Go for your behavioral interview. Keep asking questions … put the pieces together. They do love to tell their stories,” Curtis said.

Chad Storlie, a veteran and author of the book Combat Leader to Corporate Leader (Praeger, 2010), agreed that sometimes it takes effort to translate military skills to the civilian workplace.

Veterans have a great variety of background skills, but “a lot of times you may not see at face value how these skill sets can be adapted from military use to commercial use. They have a ton of different skills, but you’re going to have to work a little bit to see how they fit with your business.

“You’re going to have to kind of dig,” Storlie continued, recalling an interview he conducted with a nuclear weapons repair technician who was seeking a job with Union Pacific Railroad.

By digging, he found that “the person had experience working with subcontractors. He had supervised a team. He had to lay out daily expectations for team members.”

Curtis and other speakers addressed misperceptions about the cost of accommodations for veterans with disabilities. The average cost is $500, Curtis noted. “It can be simple, such as raising a desk or widening an aisle. It can be a schedule shift.”

Edward J. Crenshaw Jr., president and CEO of Destin Enterprises, urged HR professionals to learn to recognize the problems associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury but to avoid stigmatizing all veterans as emotionally ill.

“Create a conducive environment for veterans. You don’t want to invest and then have the person turn around and leave, he said. Create “a personalized fit for veterans. Ask yourself: ‘Are we a veteran- and disability-friendly organization?’ ”

The answer to that question can be found by looking at absenteeism rates, turnover ratios, exit interviews and litigation, he added.

To retain veterans, offer mentoring and coaching. “Give them someone they can speak with who has gone down that path. Talk with them about what they want to achieve in the organization when they come through the door.

“Let them know they are valuable in the organization” by offering education programs, cross-training opportunities, financial incentives and family support, Crenshaw said. “Show that you recognize and value their military experiences. Acknowledge issues that are important to veterans. Show sensitivity, empathy. That goes a long way toward making people feel appreciated.”

The Military Veterans Event continued July 27 with two breakout sessions focused on translating culture and values for veterans into private-sector corporate cultures. One session focused on the challenges HR professionals face in hiring and transitioning military personnel into their organizations, while the other session focused on the flip side—the challenges veterans face when entering the civilian workforce.

Ensuring Retention

Recruiting and hiring military veterans tends to be one of the easier steps in the transition process. The toughest challenge is retention and making sure former military personnel stay on the job.

“Often, businesses have the pleasure of giving a veteran their first civilian job and their first taste of working in the private sector, and then see them move on in just a year or less,” said Emily King, owner and principal of King Street Associates in Potomac Falls, Va. “It doesn’t happen every time, but it happens. It’s an expensive economic model for recruiting and hiring.”

According to King, author of the "Your Military Transition" audio course, employers that are aware of and focus on the challenges of transitioning from a military culture into the private sector will be the most successful in hiring and then retaining military veterans.

King pointed to communication styles between former military personnel and civilians as an example of how cultures can clash and create unnecessary tensions in the workplace. Military veterans tend to be formal, direct and to the point, while civilian communication styles can be informal and indirect.

“The result can be that e-mails and communication can appear to be overly terse and can possibly drive wedges into the work relationship process,” she said.

When hiring military veterans for the private sector, many times the key is to look carefully and see that job candidates fit into the corporate culture.

“It’s really the employer’s responsibility to assess the candidate and understand if they fit the corporate culture,” said Gary M. Profit, a former brigadier general and senior director of military programs for Wal-Mart. “But it is also the responsibility of the job seeker to figure out if they will fit well into the company’s culture.”

Profit suggested to the veterans attending the session that they be proactive and try to get a good feel for an organization’s corporate values before applying for a job. He said that corporate web sites provide a lot of the information and that following “the money” that corporations donate gives a good indication of where the organization’s values lie.

“Job candidates who research the organization and take the time to get information and ask meaningful questions in a job interview will make a powerful first impression,” Profit said.

The Military Veterans Event ended with a closing session and presentation by Eric Grietens, a former Navy SEAL and founder of The Mission Continues, an organization that provides transition support and help to wounded military personnel.

Grietens said he discovered that the overriding desire of wounded soldiers is to get back to their units and help serve. If they can’t return to active duty because of their injuries, Grietens said, their first inclination is to continue to serve in some capacity.

He saluted SHRM for holding the military event, saying that it is crucial for employers to support former soldiers and provide them a chance at offering their talents and abilities in a meaningful way.

“The message to these soldiers should be: ‘We still need you.’ They need to know that they are viewed not as problems but as assets,” Grietens said.

One of the best ways employers can help wounded and disabled soldiers is to offer internships as a way to engage veterans and help them understand the process of entering into the private sector, Grietens noted. He characterized the challenge of transitioning soldiers from the military to civilian life as a “battle.”

“We have a real battle on our hands, just as we have battles in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “The battle that we now face is to make sure that veterans continue to serve us all and find ways that we can help veterans to use their skills and become citizen leaders.”

Stephenie Overman is editor of Staffing Management magazine. Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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