Large, Small Companies Adopt Military Veteran Hiring Strategies

By Pamela Babcock May 8, 2009

As in a finely tuned military operation, tactical moves and well-deployed sourcing strategies can help attract veterans to your workforce.

But there’s often a missed connection between veterans’ ability to find jobs—particularly if they’ve never sought employment in the civilian workforce—and employers’ ability to tap this workforce, experts say.

Three former military personnel spoke about model hiring programs at General Electric (GE), Northrop Grumman Corp. and Arlington, Va.-based national security company Halfaker and Associates during an April 24, 2009, webcast presented by the nonprofit organization Peace at Work, based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Dave Ferguson, a veteran and program manager for military staffing and recruiting for GE, said “it definitely helps” if the person who develops your military recruiting program is a veteran.

“You just get it,” he said. “You’ve been there, done that, you’ve got the T-shirt—just like the people you’re talking to, so there’s that instant bond and camaraderie.”

But just because a company doesn’t have somebody who has served in the military heading up its efforts doesn’t mean it can’t succeed.

“It’s easier, I’ll grant you that,” Ferguson said. “But if you’re willing to make the effort and try, the veterans will meet you halfway.”

GE’s Veterans Extraordinaire

At GE, an estimated 11,000 of its 300,000 employees are veterans, according to Ferguson. The company developed a three-step process around military recruiting. First, it defined its strategy and then worked to market and brand the program to attract talent.

GE developed a “You Are Extraordinary” promotional campaign targeted at enlisted and junior military service people in all branches of the military, Ferguson said. The company then created a display booth for career fairs, Internet and magazine advertisements, posters, and videos. The third step was to create positive public and employee relations surrounding the program.

“The really cool thing about a military hiring initiative is that generally speaking, or at least at GE, it makes our employees feel good about the company they work for—even the non-veterans,” Ferguson noted.

GE also conveys how serious it is about veterans issues by actively addressing veterans and government affairs.

“There are really two pieces of GE’s military recruiting program,” Ferguson explained. “One is a straight talent acquisition play. I will tell you that U.S. military veterans are awesome employees and do a great job for our company, so we would hire them for no other reason than that.”

But, Ferguson added, “It’s also a great thing to do from a personal perspective. It gives me personally a lot of pride and joy as a veteran to do this.”

Northrop Grumman’s Impact

At Northrop Grumman Corp., which is the world’s second-largest defense contractor with 120,000 employees in 50 states and 29 countries, Operation IMPACT is helping to find positions and provide employment transition support to severely injured military members and their families.

Candidates must be classified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as “severely disabled,” often as a result of injuries such as loss of sight or limb, permanent disfigurement, incurable or fatal disease, or an established psychiatric condition such as traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress, according to Duane Hardesty, a senior military trainer and outreach director for the program.

The program also covers a family member if that person must become the primary wage earner because of the veteran’s injury. Hardesty, a Vietnam veteran, describes the program as “very personalized.”

Albuquerque, N.M.-based staffing manager Debbie Ortega calls “severely wounded warriors or their family and manages the entire HR process across the corporation with champions in each sector,” Hardesty said. Qualified applicants and availability dates are posted on a list distributed to 17,482 hiring managers. When they see a match, they contact Ortega.

“Our program is candidate-centric,” Hardesty noted. “We turn the whole HR process upside down, and we focus on not the disability but the ability of our wounded warriors, and we try to find a fit in the corporation for them.”

The program’s first hire was made in 2005 and as of the end of March 2009, the company had hired 67 disabled veterans. Candidates come, in part, from strong relationships with and referrals from the U.S. Departments of Defense (DOD) and Labor (DOL), major Veterans Affairs Polytrauma Centers, the Wounded Warrior Project, as well as the Army Wounded Warrior Program, Marine for Life and other organizations.

In May 2009, the company plans to launch “Circle of Champions,” a program designed to help find positions for severely injured veterans who can’t be placed within Northrop Grumman—perhaps because there are no positions where the candidate needs to live—by making their resumes available to other organizations, Hardesty said.

“Right now, we have about 82 other companies, private organizations and federal, state and local agencies who are interested in teaming with us,” he added.

Small Company, Big Effort

Halfaker and Associates, which deals primarily with the DOD, is headed by CEO Dawn Halfaker, a severely wounded veteran who created the company in 2006 and has grown it to 100 employees.

Halfaker provides career opportunities within the company, provides mentorship to wounded warriors it hires and supports the overall warrior transition initiative through sponsorships, said Jason Sigler, Halfaker’s director of program management.

“Even though we’re a small business, we’re able to work with our government clients to develop positions so that they have an understanding that we’re trying to place a wounded warrior, to get client buy-in and then to staff that position as we’re matched up with the wounded warrior,” said Sigler, a veteran of two Army deployments in Iraq.

The company has placed veterans in operation centers as watch-standers and as administrative assistants in staff augmentation programs.

View from Both Sides

The webcast speakers admitted that there are challenges for non-veteran HR professionals recruiting military veterans, not the least of which is semantics.

At a 2008 DOL convention, Ferguson asked attendees, “How would you like to hire a Army infantryman who has spent the last 18 months in Iraq kicking in doors?”

The response? “Most people were like, ‘Uh, I’m not all that excited about that.’ ”

But put another way, consider this proposition: “I’ve got a great group of people that you can hire for your nonexempt ranks. They don’t have a college degree, but you know what they’ve done? They’ve been a member of a team for the last 18 months, and they’ve learned to work well in teams,” Ferguson said.

“And you know what else? They work really well under pressure and come through with flying colors. And how would you like it if I told you this entire population has been drug screened and is drug-free? Those are the infantrymen in Iraq who have been kicking in doors. Are you interested in that group of people now?”

Ferguson said an HR person or recruiter may ask a military person, “So, what do you want to do? Do you want to be in sourcing, do you want to be in supply chain management, do you want to be in engineering, logistics or in IT?

“A lot of [veterans] struggle with answering that question because the military doesn’t ask; the military tells you what you are going to do next,” Ferguson continued. “And so that whole concept of ‘Oh, I get to pick’ can really throw them off.”

Likewise, some applicants may have spent 20 years being told what their next job would be rather than having to go out and actively manage their career and find their next position.

“Most, if not every one of them, may never have had a real job interview, so they don’t understand the process at all,” Ferguson said.

All three webcast presenters encouraged other companies to become involved with veteran recruiting. Hardesty said that at DOD career fairs, he’s “inundated” with recruiters and HR professionals asking for advice, and typically he tells them to start by contacting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the DOL and other resources.

“We’re not interested in competing with anybody else,” Hardesty said. “Our goal is to get as many of our vets, and especially our severely wounded vets, in the workplace and in a career as [quickly] as possible.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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