Employers Think Vets Are Great. They Just Don’t Hire Them

Nov 11, 2010
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Amidst the rah-rah news yesterday about the drop in unemployment claims, little  notice was paid to another one of the data points in the weekly report from the Department of Labor. The number of newly discharged veterans filing for unemployment was down for the third week in a row.

The number of vets receiving unemployment benefits also dropped, by 14,445. That would be reason enough to celebrate today, Veterans Day, were it not such an aberration. The week before the number rose by more than 17,000, the largest increase since the DOL started keeping track in 1986. It would be worth celebrating if the number of vets on unemployment wasn’t 44,500 and rising. A year ago, 33,400 vets were getting unemployment benefits. In 2008, the number was 22,900.

Whether or not there’s an error — the weekly numbers are regularly revised — isn’t important. Instead, it’s the inescapable fact that US service men and women are having a harder time finding jobs than the civilian population.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the unemployment rate for veterans who served after 9/11 at 10.6 percent, a full percentage point higher than for the population as a whole. Women vets fare even worse. The unemployment rate for them is 11.9 percent; men are at 10.4 percent.

When you compare recent vets to civilians, the contrast is sharper still. The civilian-only population (people in the workforce who have never served in the military) have an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent. For civilian women it’s 8.4 percent.

Why the disparity is a question with multiple answers; none of them a complete answer.  The Army, the largest branch of the armed forces with more than half a million active duty personnel and the branch that transitions some 150,000 soldiers annually, doesn’t know.

The Department of Labor, which administers many of the federal programs for transitioning military and veterans, says the poor hiring climate is exacerbating the usual problems of conforming military experience to civilian jobs, and communicating the values of leadership, mission, responsibility, and the like to hiring managers and recruiters.

Keith Anderson, a recruiter and principal at Impact Military Talent, describes the communication problem this way: “A squad leader has more management experience after a year in Iraq than any middle manager anywhere. But they have to be able to explain that and show a recruiter how that applies to the civilian job.”

One of the challenges, he said, is getting the vet to even recognize the applicability of what they did in the military to a civilian job. He mentioned a woman captain who managed a logistics operation of 200 supply convoys a day out of Fallujah during some of the worst of the fighting. “She has to recognize just how much of what she did translates into civilian life and tell that story. It doesn’t come off a resume,” says Anderson.

That translation problem begins even before a veteran gets to the interview. The resume itself can be a jumble of military jargon, meaningless to most recruiters, unless the job seeker is careful to “civilianize” the job.

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management says 60 percent of recruiters found “translating military skills into civilian job experience” to be one of the challenges to hiring ex-military.

There are others, as the researchers discovered. Forty-eight percent of the recruiters thought the transition from a military to a civilian workplace culture was a challenge to hiring veterans. So were mental health issues, said 46 percent of the survey respondents.

On that latter point, a Rand study, “Invisible Wounds of War,” found that some percentage (up to 17 percent) of troops deployed to a combat zone showed signs of PTSD, though the percentage drops after several months of being home. Getting a handle on the prevalence of PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and depression is difficult, the Rand report points out, because many veterans and military personnel won’t report it out of a realistic fear it may hurt their employment chances.

However, on the former point, about the cultural differences, Anderson says it’s “a bad rap,” a hangover from the “old Army. That world of command and follow just doesn’t exist the way it did when we had a draft. It is a new world for the military today with a volunteer force.”

Bill Scott, a VP at military recruitment specialist Bradley-Morris, says he still hears about the culture issue from recruiters and hiring managers. They worry that their new ex-military hire won’t take initiative, but will wait for orders; a concern that arises more with career or long-term enlisted personnel, than with officers.

The bigger issue, he says, is communication.

“If the candidate isn’t well coached, even if their military job was exactly what the civilian job is, they may not be able to articulate that to the hiring manager, so they won’t get the job,” Scott explains. “We work for the employer, but we don’t want them to miss a great candidate because of something like that.”

Charlie Florance, today a project manager with Con-Way in Indiana, was on active duty for several years with the Army Reserve, rising to executive officer, when an illness cut short his career. Before separating from the service, Florance, like all transitioning personnel, went through the mandatory workshops that included career counseling services.

“It was easier for me,” he said, “because I was in a command situation and had that experience.” The training, he recalls, was helpful, but it wasn’t personalized. Even though he worked with a counselor, “it was clear there wasn’t enough time to work with me.” Nor did they have contacts or the network connections that are so important to social recruitment.

So he contacted some of the search firms that specialize in military personnel and ended up working with Bradley-Morris. From the recruiters there he got a resume makeover, access to online interview simulations, coaching on communicating his experience, and referrals to job fairs.

All of it was well beyond what the Army offered. Three months after making his initial contact he had three offers and a job.

“I was an officer, so I had it better than if I was an enlisted man. I had more responsibilities and more opportunities open to me, ” Florance explains.

What the Army — and, presumably, all the services — could do, adds Florance, is to “send everyone to school for job searching. Especially for the younger enlistees who come right out of high school, teach them how to search for a job. How to network and teach them how to tell their story to a company.”

Recruiters, too, can do more. The SHRM survey found that in the three years prior to the report, almost half the companies hired not one veteran. Out of the 47 percent who did no  veteran hiring, only 11 percent made any effort to hire a vet. Compare that to the 53 percent of organizations that did hire a vet. Half of them went looking for ex-military.

Remarkably, both groups of organizations — those that hired a vet and those that didn’t — agree on the positive benefits workers with military backgrounds offer. With almost identical percentages (above 90 percent) they agree that veterans bring a sense of responsibility to the job, have the ability to work under pressure, know how to see a task through to completion, and offer strong leadership skills, among other positives.

If you need any added incentive, the federal government, and many state governments, offer free or subsidized training. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit offers credits of varying amounts including $4,800 for each disabled vet hired. Hire a vet who’s gone through the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program and the government will provide a salary supplement.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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