EJ Ajax owner Erick Ajax had heard all the stories about vets in the workplace. Narrow skill set. Not a good fit in the office. Unstable. Still, he wanted Brad McKnight, a former Marine, to join his Fridley-based metal-forming company as a machine operator. He met McKnight at a veterans job fair and liked his potential, thought he could be a manager one day. His colleagues weren’t sold.
“There was apprehension from the management team, as we had been reading about PTSD. But we tested his aptitude, his critical thinking, his math skills and they were superior. We worked with him for the first couple of months on a trial-for-hire basis and he proved everybody wrong,” says Ajax. “We just promoted him to be quality manager.”
That was eight years ago. Ajax wasn’t just trying to be a nice guy. He had the intuition that vets like McKnight, who was an air traffic controller in Iraq, had the math skills and the soft skills—discipline, teamwork, professionalism—that could help his bottom line. He can now say they have.
Accelerated Learning Curve
Veterans have the proven ability to learn new skills and concepts.
The military trains people to lead by example as well as through direction, delegation, motivation, and inspiration.
Veterans understand how genuine teamwork grows out of a responsibility to one’s colleagues. Military duties involve a blend of individual and group productivity.
Diversity and Inclusion in Action
Veterans have learned to work side by side with a wide range of people, regardless of race, gender, geographic origin, ethnic background, religion, and economic status, as well as mental and physical capabilities.
Efficient Performance Under Pressure
Veterans understand the rigors of tight schedules and limited resources.
Respect for Procedures
Veterans develop a unique perspective on the value of accountability.
Technology and Globalization
Because of their experiences in the service, veterans are usually aware of international and technical trends pertinent to business and industry.
Veterans know what it means to do “an honest day’s work.”
Health and Safety Consciousness
Thanks to extensive training, veterans are aware of health and safety protocols both for themselves and the welfare of others.
Triumph Over Adversity
In addition to dealing positively with typical civilian issues of personal maturity, veterans have frequently triumphed over great adversity.
Source: Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development website
On metrics such as absentee rates and worker output, his veteran hires, which now number 17, outperform his civilian hires. Today he says unequivocally, “If we have two candidates that are equal, we go with the veteran.”
No disagreement from the management team anymore. In fact earlier this year he hired Curt Jasper, a former command sergeant major in the Army, who at one time in that role had more than 1,000 people reporting to him, to head up his human resources department. Other employers in Minnesota are also discovering the wellspring of talent to be found in returning post-9/11 vets.
So why, then, does Minnesota continue to rank as one of the worst states in the nation for hiring post 9/11 vets? And what’s being done to improve matters as approximately 500 more servicemembers are due to return to Minnesota in 2014?
In 2012, the state had the ninth-highest unemployment rate (14.1 percent) for post-9/11 vets, according to a U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee report. Compared with the state’s overall unemployment rate of 5.5 percent at the time (the ninth-lowest in the nation), Minnesota had one of the greatest unemployment disparities between vets and non-vets. Things were even worse two years earlier, when 22.9 percent of Minnesota’s vets were unemployed (the third-highest rate nationally), compared with 7.4 percent unemployment for non-vets.
These numbers spurred action. Several commissions, coalitions, and public-private job programs were created to help turn things around in Minnesota. There’s no shortage of public programs available to vets. There are approximately 1,500 websites nationwide that help veterans find jobs, according to Jim Finley of the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
But what seems to be most effective in turning the tide here is the slow changing of perceptions, and increased understanding, of veterans within companies. The success stories coming from organizations such as Xcel, U.S. Bank, General Mills and Ajax are making other employers take note at a time when they also are complaining they cannot find enough qualified talent in Minnesota through their more traditional approaches.
Concern: We’re worried vets might lose it in the workplace.
Reality: “One of the things we’ve noticed in assessing veterans as a talent pool is that they’re very calm under pressure and skillful at adapting to a new environment,” says Myer Joy, a vice president at General Mills and business unit leader for Progresso. “We look for strong leadership, agility, and the ability to make decisions in the presence of imperfect information. They’re really good at sifting through ambiguity and finding good answers and aligning people around a new direction. Great for project management.”
Concern: We’re worried vets might not fit in culturally in our workplace.
Reality: “We hire for behaviors and experiences and leadership, and we find that veterans fit perfectly in our environment,” says Chris Hill, director of recruitment for U.S. Bank, noting that 3 percent of the company’s employees are veterans and 3.4 percent of its managers are veterans.
Concern: We’re worried vets’ skills might not fit our needs.
Reality: “We find that we can place vets in many kinds of jobs, such as engineering, alignment, and operational management. They do great with problem-solving and leadership. And they do well in aptitude tests,” says Bev Brown, director of inclusion and engagement at Xcel Energy, adding that 5.7 percent of its new hires last year were vets and its goal is between 10 and 12 percent.
Improving matters is a growing understanding on each side of the hiring table, whereas before, a hiring manager and vet would often sit across a table and be confused—or worse, put off—by each other.
“Vets are trained to answer questions in succinct, short answers and to be formal. To sit at attention and make direct eye contact. That can come off as intimidating. But it’s all in the translation and understanding each other,” Finley says.
There’s also the matter of understanding a vet’s resume compared with those from traditional applicants—how does one translate military experience into corporate-speak?
“I wasn’t even sure what to call myself on LinkedIn,” says Lori Imsdahl, who’s two months into a job as an operations coordinator for Hennepin Health, a division of the Human Services and Public Health Department at Hennepin County. She has five years of leadership experience in the Army, and two master’s degrees, one in public health and one in creative writing (see sidebar). But she wasn’t clear on how to summarize her skill set.
“One of the positions I held in the Army was called the “battalion S-4.” When I first did my resume I was putting that as a title and explaining what it was—setting up contracts, procuring supplies, things that are transferrable—but people would be like, ‘What is a battalion S-4?’ So eventually I changed it to ‘logistics manager,’ ” she says.
In 2011, 48.7 percent of all female veterans worked in management, professional, sales, and office occupations, compared with 34.6 percent of male veterans.
Women veterans are the fastest-growing subset of the veteran population.
26 percent of U.S. veterans are women.
There are approximately 23,000 women veterans in Minnesota.
Source: Minnesota Department of Human Rights; National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics.
The good news is that here, too, there are now myriad services helping vets write more employer-friendly resumes. And corporations are doing more to understand military experiences; Xcel, for example, has a military job translator right on its website, which helps match the applicant with the type of job the company has. “That’s a big piece of this, and we’re still trying to crack that nut and be better about it,” Brown says.
And more employers such as U.S. Bank are hiring vets for their higher-level skills rather than specific experiences on a resume.
With no financial background, John Zillhardt was hired by the bank and placed in an accelerated training program to become a bank manager within nine months.
“The impetus at U.S. Bank was to find adaptive, responsive, and creative leaders to manage risk and to be able to grow the bank, and I have experience in leadership—I was responsible for 65 personnel in my last role with the Minnesota National Guard. But I have no subject-matter expertise at all,” he says.
A few months into the role, he’s candid about how it’s going. “I like it, but I’m barely keeping my head above water because there is so much to know. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is a worthy challenge.”
If there is a risk to be found in these hires, it’s not that a veteran is likely to snap, or even tell off-color jokes. It’s more that they could be called back to duty.
That’s a legitimate but overrated concern, according to Josh Goudge, who managed a section of six while in Kuwait and today manages a dozen people as a route supervisor for Republic Recycling in Minneapolis. “The notion that troops are risky to employ because they might be called back to service? Well, shoot; Joe and Jenny down the street are risky to employ, too. To me it’s almost moot.”
Meanwhile, there remains a competitive edge for those companies that are moving the vet unemployment needle downward in Minnesota. They’re the ones tapping individuals with project management, leadership and organizational discipline from this source of great talent.
For additional data about veterans in the workforce, as well as examples of "examples of excellence," view the tables below and the content on the following page.
“PTSD is the single greatest barrier to employment to veterans, perceived or otherwise (often just perceived). There’s an assumption that’s made by HR people. It’s not always overt; it’s very subtle. I think people don’t even realize they’re doing it. HR people generally don’t have a military background and [form] their opinions based on the media and the movies. We get painted with a brush based on just a couple of experiences about a couple people.
“Any CEO needs to hear a clear connection with the ROI, which is where my business background comes in. Here’s the why; here are the tangible things you can get out of this. Then they go, ‘We can spend the money to train these people, but these are exactly the kind of people we want.’ But if you’re not making that ROI case, why would they want to hire them?
“More emphasis should be placed on hiring for values, then teach vets the three to five things they need to know to do their job. You can teach the skills but you can’t teach the values.”
“It can be a challenge to look through your resume and find all the words that don’t translate. Nobody knows what a regime is, or battalion, or platoon, or squad. You need to use new terms to try to quantify success.
“It took me a while to realize that when I was listing the things I did in the Army, it felt like I was trying to get another military job. It can be hard to break that type of thinking.
“In the Army I was an engineer. What engineers do was a lot of infrastructure building—putting in new roads, building schools putting electricity in a village. I started out as a platoon leader in charge of 30 engineer soldiers. I deployed with that platoon and was doing a lot of project management with them.
“The job I have now with Hennepin Health [uses] a lot of the skills I [used] in the Army. It’s contracting, managing budgets, writing, data analysis. They were looking for someone with a master’s in public health. It was this perfect marriage with the degree I have and a skill set I have. They were looking for a generalist; I consider myself a generalist.
“For a lot of vets, coming back is harder than being over there. And there’s a lot of depression among vets, which can make things challenging in the interview process, when you’re supposed to be really enthusiastic and passionate. Vets aren’t really that expressive anyway, and it’s hard when you’re having a hard time replacing that sense of purpose.”
“There isn’t a large military presence here in the sense of having an active-duty presence, like you would have at Fort Hood in Texas or some other military installation. Employers in Minnesota don’t always understand the value of military servicemembers, and military servicemembers don’t always understand their [own] value, either, or how to translate their skills into the language of business.
“I tell servicemembers to relax and let their personalities shine. While employers would certainly value discipline, it’s not important to show it in the same way as in the military. It’s OK to talk about your family and kids or dog and cat, do more work to really connect with other people on a personal level, instead of just relying on the weight of your military record. “
“When I interviewed with companies that did not have specific military programs I could tell that they thought my stories in the military were interesting but they were not interested in my military experience. Did I understand the systems that they use? Did I understand the business model that they used? Would I be able to quickly come up to speed in the things that they needed done? The answer was no, in many cases, although you could argue that driving a truck in the military was similar to driving a truck for a company, or that I have the managerial equivalence of experience of a mid-level manager. It was a stumbling block for me, in that companies did not have confidence that I would have the ability to translate my skills.
“I also found is that what companies were looking at me to do was pretty much the equivalent of active-duty military service. There was not a work-life balance. I said, OK, I appreciate that you’re willing to look at me but what you’re telling me is my schedule is going to be one in that I won’t be able to spend time with my family with any kind of regularity and you’re going to relocate me. If I wanted to do that I’d remain an active-duty officer and I’d move my permanent-duty station every two years.”
It’s not difficult to find employers with programs for hiring military veterans who are willing to talk about them. It’s harder to find employers who can speak in terms of measurements about why veterans are good economic hires—not as a category of their own but in comparison to non-vet hires. But some do. We asked for metrics from more than a dozen organizations to find those included in this article. And we’d like to hear of even more. If you have metrics to share, please email them to email@example.com. We’ll run them in a future issue and post them online.