Organizations with knowledge of the structure and language of the U.S. military can reap a number of tangible business benefits, experts say. One way to gain that knowledge is by creating an employee resource group (ERG) for veterans.
ERGs give employers access to invaluable information about the demographic cohort represented.
According to a webinar held Feb. 6, 2012, and titled “Veteran ERGs: Deriving Real Business value From a Veteran Employee Resource Group,” employee networking groups for veterans—as well as those for women, minorities, gay and transgender employees—can be used to help companies:
- Attract and retain talent.
- Identify new consumer markets.
- Build relationships in the community.
- Improve supplier diversity.
But groups made up of veteran employees are uncommon, said webinar presenter Lisa Rosser, owner of The value of a Veteran, a Northern Virginia-based organization that teaches organizations how to recruit and retain military veterans.
That’s partly because some recruiters don’t believe that they have enough veterans to make it worthwhile. Yet Rosser doesn’t believe that this is true. “Chances are you have more than you realize,” she said.
Chris Norton, vice president of communications for AT&T’s ERG for veterans and Rosser’s co-presenter for the webinar, observed,“If you don’t have any ERGs, a veterans’ ERG is a good one to start with,” he said, “because it crosses all populations.”
But there are other reasons for companies to consider forming a resource group for veterans, explained Rosser, who retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 2012 after 22 years of active and reserve military service. She noted that efforts by the White House and other organizations are calling “a tremendous amount of attention” to the veteran unemployment rate. Advocates are looking to corporate America to help solve the problem.
Rosser, who has a master’s degree in HR and eight years of experience with a global Fortune 500 consultancy, assured webinar participants: “It doesn’t matter what kind of company you are; military members have the kinds of skills you need.”
She said that HR professionals and hiring managers don’t know how to translate military experience into civilian terms. For example, they assume that veterans know how to “shoot things, blow things up and run things over with tanks,” as she put it, but they wonder how such skills can apply to their positions.
Rosser noted that about four-fifths percent of military jobs have a direct or close civilian equivalent and that the rest have transferable skills such as project management, training, problem solving and process improvement—skills that become more evident, she said, the longer that someone serves in the military.
Learning how to find connections between a transitioning service member’s skills and a company’s talent needs can be tricky. That’s where employees with military experience can make themselves useful. Under the guidance of HR, resource group members can help translate resumes into civilian terms, select job boards, attend recruiting events, talk to applicants and provide feedback on HR policies and practices, Rosser explained.
Active duty military members often have more disposable income than others in the same income range, Rosser explained during the webinar, because their housing, food, clothing and health care costs are covered by the military. “Whatever you make or have to sell, they will buy it,” Rosser said.
Similarly, organizations can expand their opportunities by doing business with the U.S. Department of Defense. Before an organization can sell to the military, however, “you need to know what the military buys,” Rosser noted.
ERG members can help companies identify such opportunities and review marketing strategies for applicability to the military audience. “They can help you learn to speak the language. … They can help with business development,” she said.
In addition, group members can enhance supplier diversity efforts by researching appropriate veteran-owned companies with which to do business.
Lastly, an ERG for veterans can help raise an organization’s community relations profile by identifying organizations in need of support that align with the organization’s overall mission and by generating employee support for such organizations.
Norton said that although AT&T had “a fairly robust veteran population,” it wasn’t until 2006, after a series of mergers, that the organization re-launched its veterans group “as an official ERG” by making a nationwide announcement through the corporate intranet.
At the time of the webinar, about 3,500 employees and retirees of AT&T were members of the company’s ERG for veterans. “The majority are veterans, though we do not restrict the group,” he said, because “it helps garner new membership and encourages people to learn more about their co-workers.”
Norton explained that AT&T’s ERG for veterans exists to:
- Support AT&T’s commitment to workforce diversity.
- Promote a greater understanding of the sacrifices and contributions made by veterans.
- Serve as an information and support conduit for AT&T employees called into service or who have family members serving.
- Manage community outreach events.
- Foster relationships with veteran-focused organizations.
- Enhance the reputation and morale of AT&T employees and their families.
- Collaborate with other AT&T ERGs.
Norton said he “beat up on HR pretty hard for a couple of years” because AT&T said it was a veteran-friendly organization but “didn’t provide any resources.” This ultimately led to his current job assignment.
But that’s one of the benefits of an ERG: “It’s a great opportunity to develop your people in a way they might not otherwise be developed.” That’s important, Norton said, because those in the military tend to get a lot more responsibility much earlier in their careers than those in the private sector. For example, he was in charge of hundreds of people and millions of dollars of equipment when he served in the military. By comparison, “AT&T has given me two people, a laptop and a cell phone,” he said.
Thus, the efforts of volunteer group members are essential. “At any given time we have 2,500 openings. … We need to get assistance out to our interested veteran applicants to help them present themselves in the best light for the company.” That assistance is provided—at a rate of 60 to 70 requests per week—by members of the ERG who serve as volunteer job search advisors. “I couldn’t do that on my own,” Norton said.
ERG members provide support at job and career fairs as well, Norton added. “The best way to reach out to veterans at these events is by speaking through other veterans,” he said. “When you put a couple of veterans in a room they will rapidly bond with each other.”
Another group of volunteers runs a scholarship program to fund college or other school above and beyond the funding provided by the GI Bill, he added.
“An ERG is a good thing to have—provided your ERG does good things,” Norton concluded.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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