How Business Is Finally Connecting With Post-9/11 Vets

How Business Is Finally Connecting With Post-9/11 Vets

Veteran employment has long lagged civilian numbers, but that's starting to change.

In the wake of reports about high unemployment among post-9/11 veterans, dozens of Minnesota companies pledged in recent years to recruit and retain more servicemen and -women. Accomplishing this has been another story.

“It’s one thing to say that’s your goal. What we found was that that wasn’t moving the needle very far. You can’t just want it to happen,” says Jeff Eaton, president of Bloomington-based Cushman & Wakefield/NorthMarq, a commercial real estate services firm. “It’s an ongoing effort; it just ended up being more difficult than we thought.”

Eaton and his colleagues ran into a common dilemma for both employers and veterans: It can be complicated for companies to translate and decode a typical military resume to understand how those skills fit into a corporate environment.

To help it improve on this front, Cushman & Wakefield contracted with Nick Swaggert, director of the veterans program for New York-based Genesis10. Now, Eaton says, five recent company hires are veterans, working in IT, GIS support, building engineering and operations departments.

Putting the human being back in Human Resources

Another discovery has been that setting up processes and procedures through existing HR structures and personnel isn’t enough—it takes a dedicated individual or team to talk with and then recruit and retain vets.

“Much of the initial job search happens online. I think the tools many companies use are devised to find certain key trigger words pertaining to the posted job,” says Melinda Thein, a West Point graduate who served in the Army for nearly six years. “A heavily military-worded resume might not have those ‘key’ trigger words in them, and thus the resume may not get selected to pass on to the hiring manager.”

Thein eventually found a job as an assistant vice president in lending services at U.S. Bank, thanks to “several open-minded leaders who personally weighed in on my resume and helped hiring managers find the military/corporate parallels.”

That’s the result of the bank creating a “Proud to Serve” program in 2008, focused on hiring veterans across the country. For U.S. Bank chairman, president and CEO Richard Davis, it’s a way to “pay back” veterans for their service to the country, but it’s also good business for the bank.

“They’re good leaders. They bring this wonderful maturity to a workplace like mine,” he says, adding that veterans have proven to be excellent employees for the bank. ROI is more assured with veterans than with the average non-military person, Davis says.

“Getting in front of a person, I think, is everybody’s biggest challenge,” says Marine Corps Reserve veteran Avery Harrington, who was called up to active duty in the Persian Gulf region in 2003. “HR people at big companies are very good at finding people who did the exact same job at another place. But they’re not very good at translating analogous experience,” he says, reflecting on the challenge of breaking down military resumes into something that civilians can understand.

After finishing his tour of duty and school in the Twin Cities, Harrington began working full-time at a motorcycle shop. Then he got a job at a local startup company and was employed there until the company folded. His yearlong job search for a full-time position seemed to reach a dead-end. Then he attended the annual Minnesota Veterans Career Fair in 2013, where he resolved to make a stop at every employer’s booth there. “I think I ended up talking to [people at] 70 or 80 booths,” he recalls.

When he landed at the booth for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Harrington connected with an Army veteran who was a vice president with the large nonprofit. The connection led to an interview, then a job. Harrington, who works in the IT department, has now worked for Blue Cross for two years. Harrington also serves as co-chair of the internal veterans resource group.

Looking back, he says that being able to make a personal connection was a key step. He adds, “the biggest piece that I’ve taken away from being on both sides of the table is: Ask for help. If I had asked for help earlier, I don‘t think it would have taken as long.”

Takes one to know one

The same has been true on the employer’s side. As was the case with Cushman & Wakefield, companies that successfully recruit vets have either had to ask for help from an outside expert, or hire people to focus only on this area of recruiting.

“I think it’s a learning process on all sides,” says Sheila Jessen, Cargill’s “military sourcer.” Veterans need to learn how to “translate” their resumes for civilian audiences. But companies need to do the same at the person-to-person level; hence Cargill’s decision to hire Jessen, who is a 21-year military veteran with extensive recruiting experience.

“I’m providing internal training. I’m doing training with the recruiting staff,” says Jessen, who says that she started with the basics: teaching HR staffers about the various branches of the service and military rank structures. She also has worked to encourage Cargill staffers to get out into the veteran community: “When there’s a career fair, bringing some of the higher-level managers out to those career fairs is really helpful,” says Jessen.

Comcast and NBCUniversal hired about 4,200 veterans from January 2012 through March 2015, and now has more than 5,000 self-identified veterans in its workforce. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to hire another 10,000 veterans and reservists (and their spouses or partners) by 2017 nationwide. To help achieve this goal, it hired retired Army Brig. Gen. Carol Eggert as vice president of military and veterans affairs three months ago.

Most Companies Still Don’t Care Nationally, most companies have no designated program to hire veterans. Los Angeles-based Futurestep, a Korn Ferry company, released the results of a global executive survey in May, which found that 80 percent of surveyed companies did not have a veteran hiring outreach program. The survey also found that 71 percent of organizations did not provide training to recruiters and human resources staff on veteran-specific hiring practices.

Brittany Studler, who has been in the Army Reserves for about five years as a diesel mechanic, started working for Comcast as a communication technician locally in March. Her work includes everything from troubleshooting problems for customers to installing new equipment.

Studler says that the company’s policies, including paid military leave, were important: “I have a very good technology background, so I was interested in doing the job,” she says.

“We have a military skills translator on our careers site translating military experience to Comcast jobs and also have a cadre of trained recruiters, many of whom are veterans themselves, on engaging and positioning veterans for Comcast opportunities,” says Jill Hornbacher, director of external communications for Comcast NBCUniversal’s regional office in St. Paul. “We also leverage our veterans’ network employee group to assist us in these efforts.”

Accenture is also out to hire more vets and their spouses—about 5,000 within the next five years—to build on its base of 1,000 today. Led by Christopher McManus out of its Minneapolis office, the initiative includes a dedicated military recruiting team, whose members are all veterans.

Meanwhile, hiring post-9/11 vets has grown more competitive, as more companies see the value they can bring to their workforces, and many vets are in “bridge jobs.” Some 44 percent of veterans leave their first job after military service within 12 months of landing it; 65 percent leave within two years, according to an October 2014 study from Syracuse University and VetAdvisor, a vet-focused coaching and consulting service. The top reason for moving on? Landing a better job, according to 43 percent of the respondents in the Syracuse/VetAdvisor survey. But other key reasons included lack of career development and advancement opportunities, or finding the work itself to be tedious, unchallenging or not meaningful.

As U.S. Bank’s Davis points out, all of this effort is for good reason: Post-9/11 veterans have proven to be excellent workers. Comcast has had a similar experience. In particular, veterans excel at both technical and sales jobs, according to Jeffrey Freyer, Comcast’s regional vice president for the Twin Cities. “They have faced things others are intimidated by, and they are tempered and resilient.” TCB

Winning the Battle: Veterans See Employment Gains

In the big picture, the outlook for veterans’ employment has improved in recent years, but federal statistics make it clear that challenges remain. Minnesota is among 16 states where the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was still 10 percent or higher in 2014, based on annual averages reported by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, which surveys veteran employment.

In the category of post-9/11 veterans, Minnesota’s unemployment rate was 11.1 percent in 2014, among the highest rates in the country, according to an analysis by the committee. That’s notably higher than the national unemployment rate of 7.2 percent for post-9/11 vets.

There are no local metrics to counter the federal survey. Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, which tracks employment statistics, does not measure veterans’ employment in the state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates, there are 176,000 veterans in the state’s labor force.

But nationally, the overall arc of veterans’ employment is showing gains. In 2010, the overall unemployment rate for veterans was 8.7 percent and the unemployment rate for Gulf War II vets was 11.5 percent nationally. For 2014, those numbers dropped to 5.3 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively. Minnesota’s overall unemployment rate for veterans was 4.9 percent for 2014.

As he surveys the current landscape, Nick Swaggert is encouraged, but also says there is still work to be done. The Marine Corps veteran is director of the veterans program for Genesis10, a New York-based technology staffing firm with a local office in St. Paul.

“Do I think it’s different than it was two years ago? Absolutely. I think Minnesota is moving in the right direction,” says Swaggert. “I think there still are a number of challenges. Companies can get lulled into a false sense of accomplishment. The work has just begun. Veterans are getting hired. That’s good. The next step is ‘How are we using them?’ I think that’s kind of where we are today.” —B.G.


Burl Gilyard is TCB’s senior writer.