Viewpoint: Hiring Veterans

Separating fact from fiction

By Lida Citroën Jul 29, 2016
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Estimates are that by the year 2023 there will be 3.5 million military veterans in the U.S. workforce. One would think this would excite civilian employers that seek skilled, talented and principled workers. Instead, many hiring managers and recruiters are hesitant to hire veterans because they don't understand the veteran experience and the related hard and soft skills. 

With 1 percent of Americans serving in uniform, the majority of us are civilians. Many civilians have little or no connection to military life, work or culture. Most of us learn about military combat, strategy and sacrifice through television and movies.

Veterans are men and women who have served our country, have gained valuable skills and experience in unconventional ways, and can bring qualities of leadership, strong work ethic, and resiliency to their work. While veterans' backgrounds and training might differ from more conventional civilian job candidates, in my experience, the myths and misperceptions civilians have about military veterans are what challenge and block military veteran hiring. Let's dispel some of those myths here.

Myth: All veterans serve in combat.

It's easy to believe that anyone who serves in the military has been on the front lines of conflict: driving tanks through the desert of Afghanistan, navigating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or tending the wounded in tents on the battlefield. In reality, according to the Department of Defense, less than 20 percent of service members serve in front-line combat roles. 

In the military, jobs are categorized into more than 7,000 occupational specialty codes, from radio operator, pilot and tower equipment installer, to logistician, procurement clerk and mechanic, just to name a few. The perception that everyone who wears a uniform serves in a combat role is not accurate.

Myth: The military doesn't teach transferable skills.

When making the case for hiring veterans, employers often hear, "Hire veterans for their leadership, teamwork, values, resiliency, focus on mission, accomplishments, etc." While none of these characteristics should be ignored—and these traits truly do make veterans great considerations for matching to a company's core values and culture—veterans also possess many hard skills that directly transfer to jobs in the civilian world as well. 

"The 300,000 veterans transitioning out of military service each year are bringing hard skills to industries such as health care, aviation, finance, logistics, administration and others," noted Evan Stratton, recruiter for DaVita in Denver. "A large number of our veteran candidates fill roles such as patient care technicians, LPN/RNs [licensed practicel nurse/registered nurse], biomedical technicians and clinical managers—all training they can receive in their military career," he adds.

Myth: Veterans don't have private industry expertise. 

It is true that when someone enters their military career, their experience revolves around military objectives and skills. Yet there is still great opportunity for hiring managers to leverage military experience to private industry. Evan Guzman, global head of military programs and veteran affairs for Verizon in Basking Ridge, N.J., proactively initiates conversations with and solicits buy-in from company leaders, building tools and systems to facilitate the sourcing and hiring of veterans into Verizon. Guzman admitted that hiring managers initially resisted retooling the hiring process to accommodate this unique segment of the workforce. As he noted, misperceptions around veterans' private industry experience, relatable skills and cultural differences were obvious.

The first step Guzman took was to reframe the narrative with hiring managers. He asked: 

  • What do you look for in the candidates whom you hire? 
  • What percentage of military jobs have a direct civilian counterpart at Verizon? 
  • How much money did you spend last year on your employee training and development programs? 

The answers to these questions helped Guzman draw a straight line between the character qualities veterans bring, as well as the military skills, experience and training, and those characteristics Verizon hiring managers sought. There also was a cost reduction associated with training and skill building, as veterans already had the skills needed to get to work. 

Guzman said he then saw a perception shift in the business. "Many key influencers began to discuss improving their bottom line across the board," noted Guzman. "Once they understood the value of hiring veterans, it was a game changer. Now my team can't keep up! And not only did we increase our quality hires, we also increased our overall brand equity."

Myth: Veterans aren't a good fit for sales jobs.

There's a perception that veterans are order-takers and can't think creatively. This leads some employers to question their ability to thrive in entrepreneurial or sales positions. Lauren Chess, national recruiting program manager for insurance agency Colonial Life in Columbia, S.C., faced this issue when she sought to develop a veteran hiring initiative at her company.

"Many of us in the recruiting department and across our sales organization believed the most successful recruits in our industry were already licensed in life and health products, with years of insurance experience," Chess said. "But, after extensive internal and external research, we learned that one of the backgrounds we need to focus on is transitioning or retired military personnel."

Chess learned that: 

  • Several of their most successful managers had a military background. Whether they came to Colonial Life straight out of the military or bounced around a bit looking for the right fit, their military training and discipline helped them succeed in a role where independent thinking and self-motivation are critical.
  • Skills like determination, adaptability and leadership lend themselves well to persevering in what can sometimes be a challenging, competitive environment.
  • The company's core values—integrity, commitment and accountability—aligned with what many military veterans also hold dear.

In working with companies to source, hire, onboard and retain veteran talent, I've encountered these myths and misperceptions, as well as others. There is the belief that all veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), making them "instable" and "unreliable." In fact, 8 percent of all Americans suffer from PTSD, and the number of military veterans with PTSD is relatively low when compared to the total number of those who have served. 

There are misperceptions around the number of women who put on the military uniform, with many civilians believing only men serve. While the Pew Research Center reports that female veterans are less likely to have served in combat (30 percent of women compared to 57 percent of men) and are more likely to have never been deployed away from their permanent duty station (30 percent of women compared to 12 percent of men), there are a great number of women who have served—in peacetime and when at war—and that number will grow as new military occupations are opened up to female service members. 

When considering hiring military veteran talent, employers unfamiliar with the military experience are advised to ask questions, engage others to learn best practices, and analyze their perceptions and beliefs. Having a discussion to dispel myths and misperceptions can create a wealth of opportunity.

Lida Citroën is an international branding and reputation management expert with a special interest in helping military veterans transition into civilian careers. She is principal of consultancy LIDA360 in Greenwood Village, Colo.

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