Guide to Veteran Hiring: 8 Facts to Break Down Barriers and Stereotypes

By Justin Constantine August 8, 2018
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This article is excerpted from Chapter 2 of From We Will to At Will: A Handbook for Veteran Hiring, Transitioning, and Thriving in the Workplace (SHRM, 2018), by Justin Constantine with Andrew Morton, and is the second in a three-part series of excerpts. Part one discussed what employers should understand about why veterans leave the military, and part two addressed myths and facts about hiring veterans.

Like any large and historically significant organization, the U.S. Armed Forces has its own unique culture, language and way of doing business. Given that, at any point in time, less than 1 percent of the country's citizens are currently serving in the military, exposure to this language and culture is quite limited.

In fact, much of the country's understanding of the military is driven by movies, TV shows and short sound bites from the news. For organizations to effectively transition from veteran friendly to veteran ready, hiring managers and HR professionals need to have a deeper understanding of the institution and the people who've served within its ranks. Here are eight facts that demystify both the culture and the institution. 

Fact 1: Only 14 percent of the active duty military are combat specialists. In many cases, the civilian world only sees tactical training, a by-product of a purposeful attempt to market and project our military's strength. These combat specialties, however, are only a small percentage of the overall military, with nearly 9 in 10 occupational specialties directly linked to similar and transferable civilian occupations. Whether it's an HR professional, mechanic, medic, construction engineer, or any of the several hundred administrative and support jobs, each of these military specialties has an everyday, routine business application to them that may not be glamorous but is certainly transferable to the civilian workforce. While there are some challenges in terms of gaining civilian credentials and licenses, those who have served in these roles are able to continue in them as they transition to the civilian workforce. 

Fact 2: As the nation has grown more diverse, so have the armed forces. In today's workplace, organizations strive to create both a diverse and inclusive staff. Based on historical numbers or perceived stereotypes, many recruiting this diverse workforce assume that the military is not the place to start. That assumption couldn't be further

from the truth. The reality is that as the private sector has focused on these diversity initiatives, so has the military. During what's called the post-Sept. 11 period of military service—2001 to at least 2018—the demographics of those who serve our military have changed significantly, with a more ethnically diverse cohort than ever before. According to Department of Defense statistics, racial and ethnic minority groups made up 40 percent of the active duty military in 2015, up from 25 percent in 1990. As a frame of reference, in 2015, 44 percent of all Americans ages 18 to 44 identified as racial or ethnic minorities. African-American people account for 17 percent of the active duty military—4 percentage points higher than their share of the US population ages 18 to 44 (13 percent). The percentage of Hispanic service members has increased by 33 percent over the last decade as well, probably a by-product of both the increasing population and a historically strong tie between military service and Hispanic culture. 

Fact 3: Women play an ever-increasing role in the military. According a Pew Research Center study, the percentage of women in military service is now at 16 percent and growing. While this percentage varies across the services, there are now more women serving in the armed forces than ever before. Nearly one in three of the roughly 1.8 million female veterans served in our military since Sept. 11—by far the largest cohort of female veterans. Because of the asymmetrical nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and shifts in DoD policy, we've seen a new generation of female veterans who have combat experience serving in roles and occupational specialties once reserved for their male counterparts. 

What does this mean for hiring managers and businesses? First, you will continue to see an ever-increasing number of female veterans who've served their country in exactly the same manner their male counterparts have served. Second, and perhaps equally important, significantly fewer male veterans served in "gender isolation," whether they were deployed to active combat or served here in the United States. Gender equality in the workplace is an essential element of any successful business, and for today's veterans, these shifts in policy and inclusive practices foster this principle long before they transition to the civilian workforce. 

Fact 4: More veterans are college-educated now than ever before, with rates surpassing those of civilians. There was a time, not that long ago, when there were two distinct, divergent paths: the path for those who went to college and the path for those who joined the military—and never did the two meet.

Times have certainly changed. Because of a highly competitive military recruiting market and the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, we've seen a dramatic shift and significant increase in the level of education our service members have achieved before, during and immediately following their time in service. While military officers have habitually outpaced their civilian counterparts in earning both bachelor's and advanced degrees, now the overall cohort of officers and enlisted service members are on par with and, in certain demographics (female veterans), surpass their civilian counterparts. If you look at only post-Sept. 11 veterans (enlisted and officer), there are more with some college, bachelor's degrees, and advanced degrees than there are civilians in the same cohort. 

Fact 5: Veterans are agile and don't require hierarchy to thrive. Hiring managers within "flat" organizations may assume that veterans would not be right for their organizations based on the assumption that veterans require very specific structure and guidance to thrive. In fact, veterans have had trouble breaking through in specific industries (tech companies, startups) because of the assumption that these organizations function outside of the veteran's cultural comfort zone. The fact is that most veterans operated in very fluid and asymmetric environments, where accomplishing the mission required both autonomy and agility. Whether it's as part of a small team in remote Afghanistan, or as part of a larger team here in the United States, service members thrive when given an objective—not a laundry list of specific tasks. The "why" of the mission is just as important as the "how" of the mission—if not more so. With the right resources and training, veterans are both agile and autonomous in operating as part of a team or leading one. 

Fact 6: Nearly four in ten service members are "warrior citizens" (Reserve and National Guard members). The Reserve and National Guard components make up 38 percent of the overall military, serving in communities across the country. While many have served alongside their active duty counterparts in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, typical Reserve and National Guard service members traditionally serve in uniform while simultaneously holding down jobs in their communities. These Reserve and National Guard members—historically labeled "warrior citizens"—are teachers, doctors, lawyers, students, and employees of all kinds, balancing the dual responsibilities of service to their country and obligation to the organizations in their communities. Many don't necessarily serve in the same role in uniform that they do in their civilian jobs. They do, however, call upon many of the leadership and professional skills they've fostered during their time in uniform. 

Balancing and managing these two roles and cultures is not without its challenges. Reserve and National Guard units serve in isolated pockets, at times far removed from the resources and support of military instillations. Psychologically, the prospect of post-deployment reintegration is daunting as well. While their active duty counterparts return to military communities that wholeheartedly embrace their return, Reserve and National Guard members return to their civilian communities and occupations with less fanfare and a sense that they are playing catch-up as they resume their civilian roles. The warrior citizen's ability to adapt and adjust to these circumstances clearly demonstrates their agility and resilience and has served as the model for active duty members as they transition from the military. In many ways, this cohort is a microcosm of how veterans in general can accept the challenges of transitioning. It's often said that there is no greater challenge than the commitment of a Reservist or National Guard member. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of them thrive every day in their civilian careers, bringing the best of who they are in uniform to their workplace, no matter the job. 

Fact 7: Behind most veterans is a family, and families serve too. There's an old saying in the U.S. Marine Corps (and the Army as well) that if the Marines wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one. Times and attitudes certainly have changed. In fact, while marriage rates within the civilian community decrease, today's veterans continue to embrace the institution—at least until they get divorced. 

Of all men who are veterans, 80 percent are either married or divorced, compared to 58 percent of men who are not veterans. More than 70 percent women who are veterans are either married or divorced, compared to 60 percent of their civilian counterparts. This is significant because veterans are more likely to have experienced specific life stages (such as having a family) than their nonveteran counterparts, which certainly shapes the benefits and work environments that these veterans are looking for. There's a saying that every veteran with a family truly appreciates: military families serve too. 

Children of veterans have experienced multiple moves, various schools and continuous change from an early age. Many spouses place their own careers on the backburner to support their significant other's military career. While veterans are accustomed and willing to commit to long hours, significant travel and whatever it takes to get the mission done, these family considerations may play a significant role in their willingness to do so. At the end of what may have been a very challenging operational cycle, many veterans are looking for opportunities to support the stability of their families and achieve some semblance of a work-life balance that places the needs of their families on par with their postmilitary careers. 

Fact 8: Serving in uniform was the first choice of many options. The narrative of reinventing oneself through military service has been the hallmark of many movies and TV shows, and even the focal point of many military recruiting campaigns. This narrative may lead many Americans to presume that the decision to join the military is born of necessity rather than choice. The reality of today's all-volunteer force and the thousands of men and women who join its ranks every year, however, is that the clear majority do so as the first choice of many opportunities that they may have. Given the range of options and opportunities in front of these young men and women the question remains: Why do they choose military service? A 2011 Pew Research Center study found that the top reason recruits join the military is directly tied to the very principle of service itself. 

Nearly 90 percent of recruits say the primary reason they joined the military was to serve. Additionally, 75 percent joined for the educational benefits, which are a primary factor in the ever-increasing level of education veterans have as they transition back to civilian life. Just over half joined to gain a job skill or training. What's telling, however, is that fewer and fewer recruits (less than one-third) joined the military because they faced challenges finding civilian employment. Service members have always joined to serve their country—that's certainly not a new phenomenon. What's changed over recent decades is that highly qualified young men and women are joining the military's ranks as a first choice over several other opportunities. 

Justin Constantine retired from the US Marine Corps at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He is now an inspirational speaker and veteran advocate. He speaks at numerous corporate, educational, and military institutions about leadership, the upside of change, teamwork, and overcoming adversity. Justin is also a partner at JobPath, a robust veteran employment platform that provides a variety of solutions to corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations that hire veterans. 

Please visit the SHRMStore to order your copy of From We Will To At Will: A Handbook for Veteran Hiring, Transitioning, and Thriving in the Workplace by Justin Constantine with Andrew Morton.

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