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Hiring vets is smart move, but help them adapt to private sector

🕐 4 min read

On the surface the news seems positive about veterans finding work. Their unemployment rate declined in 2015 to 4.6 percent, less than the national rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However a closer inspection uncovers some anomalies. Vets who have left the service since 9/11 have a tougher time getting hired, as indicated by a higher jobless rate (5.8 percent), and female veterans encounter more problems than their male counterparts (5.4 percent compared with 4.5 percent for men).

Perhaps this points to the challenges of transitioning from the military to working as a civilian. Veterans Day is a good reminder for employers to consider how to maximize the contributions veterans can make on the job. And Texas is a good state to do so as it has the second-highest veteran population among the states — 1.68 million vets live here, a rich source of potential employees.

Hiring managers who learn more about military life end up helping themselves and their companies by making smarter decisions in the process of hiring vets. One reason is that the military doesn’t do a stellar job of helping with the transition to civilian life. According to a Department of Veterans Affairs 2010 survey, 60.6 percent of post-9/11 veterans said their military experience applied “a lot” or “some” to their most recent civilian jobs, but only 45.4 percent of post-9/11 vets indicated they were “very well” or “well” prepared to enter the job market.

Veterans have a lot to offer, yet it isn’t always apparent.

Hiring managers who make the effort to learn more about the military will be rewarded. It has its own language, as does business, so managers may not readily understand a veteran’s experience and on-the-job traits from the résumé. First step: learn military parlance to comprehend how veterans’ experiences can relate to business. Then ask more informed questions during the job interview to uncover how veterans have not only the experience needed but other skills that make them exemplary employees. Susan S. Kelly, head of the Department of Defense’s Transition to Veterans Program Office, says these “essential skills” are instilled in all who serve in the military: leadership, ability to handle stress, persistence, attention to detail, interpersonal skills, team building, oral and written communications, decision making, personnel training, supervising, critical thinking and project planning. Do today’s millennials offer the same skills?

After helping vets understand how their experience and skills apply to their new workplace, help them understand the office environment. Often workplace customs are unspoken so they can be confusing to veterans familiar with different working circumstances. Recognize that simple things can be hard when they don’t translate between the civilian and military worlds. Procedures that civilians take for granted may be confusing to vets, so managers should be alert to how they can help new hires settle in.

Military training instills a deep respect for authority and orders, so veterans may initially be reluctant to offer an opinion or idea, whereas open discourse is standard in most businesses. Managers can solicit veterans’ input in meetings as well as one-on-one until the vets feel comfortable speaking out. The same goes for promoting achievements – vets may have trouble taking credit for a job well done.

Simultaneously, veterans are adapting to different decision-making procedures than in the military, which has a well-defined hierarchical chain of command. Service members lower on the chain may not have much leeway for making decisions, only following them. The challenge for employers is to help vets get comfortable in an environment where decision-making is pushed down the organization and employees are often empowered to do what’s best for the business.

Perhaps the most important thing employers can do to help veterans with the transition is to connect them with mentors who can provide insights and guidance; sometimes only someone with an experience in common can empathize and thus convey the nuances of the private sector in terms veterans can understand. Organizations with large employee bases have the resources to establish support groups, which can help give vets a sense of identity and belonging by spending time with others making the same transition.

Managers who invest the time and resources to acclimate newly hired veterans to the private sector will be rewarded with employees who possess valuable skills and strong work ethics and know how to achieve objectives. As Kelly says, hiring vets has evolved from the “right thing to do” to the “smart thing to do.”

James Thompson is the CEO and president of The InSource Group, a technology staffing and placement company with offices in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston. He can be reached at JT@insourcegroup.com.

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