The shortage of technically skilled workers that is plaguing many industries could be worse, if 200,000-plus people did not leave the U.S. armed services each year. And with troops scheduled to depart both Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming months, there could be even more potential employees to choose from next year.
Many ex-military folks find their way to factories as machinists. Someone who has been trained, for example, to maintain a fighter jet, with its complex avionics and hydraulics and turbine engines, will not likely need extensive additional training.
That could bring enormous savings. “In training military people, we spend a fraction of what we do for others,” says Jeff Owens, president of Advanced Technology Services (ATS), which provides manufacturers with outsourced equipment-maintenance services. “It was the military that invested a lot of time, energy, and money to train them.”
More than 30% of ATS’s 3,000 workers are former armed-forces members. Besides technical proficiency, Owens says, they provide a number of other qualities that companies seek. They get to work on time. They have the discipline to execute planned predictive maintenance, rather than have an “I’ll fix it when it fails” attitude. They keep their tools, equipment, and work space clean, tidy, and in good working order. They are respectful to customers. They are receptive to relocation.
In fact, their appeal far transcends factory floors. Most job functions in the commercial world are also present in the military, says Emily King, whose firm, Military Transitions, offers programs and consulting for companies that hire veterans. Also the author of a new book, Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing, & Retaining Veterans (Amacom, 2011), King says former soldiers can even fill sales and marketing roles: “The military has a huge recruiting machine, and the people who work in that area are given a lot of training.”
Still, there are challenges to face when bringing veterans into a commercial organization. For example, an employer could have misguided assumptions about how well service members understand the basic concepts of profitability and risk. “It does matter how long it takes to get something done, whereas in the military, you do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to get the mission accomplished,” King points out.
Staff-management norms also differ greatly. King, an applied behavioral scientist, says her interest in military-to-commercial job transitions began when her employer assigned her to figure out why there was so much turnover in a particular part of the company. She found that the managers in that area were mostly retired military officers, and that many people who left said they didn’t like their managers. “They were not given any bridge to understanding civilian work culture,” she says. “They simply didn’t have any idea about that.”
Companies may see the officers as experienced professionals who would be insulted to receive basic information. On the contrary, the armed forces extensively document processes and have lots of checklists and protocol to follow. “Civilian environments aren’t necessarily known for that,” King says.
Johnson & Johnson, for one, doesn’t provide any special training for veterans beyond what other new employees get. But the company, which is well known for its extensive worker-education programs, routinely promotes them and gives them “crucible” assignments, says Anthony Carter, vice president of global diversity and chief diversity officer.
“That group shows great strategic intent,” says Carter. “Strategic analysis, which I think you can associate with their military experience, often seems to rise to the top with them.”
Johnson & Johnson is among the newest supporters of American Corporate Partners (ACP), a nonprofit organization that matches new veterans with mentors at its 33 supporting companies, which also fund the ACP. Currently, there are about 1,500 people serving as mentors at those companies, which are all very large. They commit to serving as a mentor for a specific veteran for one year, during which they are requested to provide 12 meaningful conversations with the mentee, says Sid Goodfriend, a former investment banker who founded and chairs the organization.
“Take a guy who drove trucks in the service; who had enlisted rather than finishing college,” Goodfriend says. “Maybe he led a team of 16 guys, and he knows he can do better than being a post-office clerk, but he needs some guidance.”
Here are some tips for hiring and working with ex-military employees:
- Actively engage existing employees who are veterans to help interview candidates, translate the military résumé, and set reasonable expectations in candidates’ minds. Usually they feel honored to be asked to help. “It has a wonderful unintended consequence of creating a sense of purpose for those employees,” says King.
- Assign a mentor to each newly hired veteran during the first week of employment to answer questions the new employee might not feel comfortable asking his or her boss.
- Avoid the mind set that you will only hire people who meet every qualification listed on a job description. “We struggle with the concept of hiring solid citizens and training them to do what we need,” says Tim Sackett, executive vice president at HRU Technical Resources, an engineering contract staffing and recruitment process outsource firm. The argument that people will leave once they are trained doesn’t hold water, he adds, because people rarely leave great work environments, and veterans exhibit greater loyalty than the average employee.
- Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that people went into the military because they weren’t smart enough for college. “The fact is, at 18 years old many of us didn’t know what we wanted,” says Sackett, who is well known in the human-resources community for his prolific tweets and blog posts. Instead, pay attention to their skills in teamwork, following and giving direction, working under pressure, planning and organization (“one thing we struggle to get our employees to be good at”), and flexibility and adaptability.