This Navy Officer-Turned-Recruiter Has 8 Key Tips for Hiring Veterans

November 8, 2018

The fighting in World War I ended 100 years ago this Sunday. The Armistice of Compiègne officially ended the hostilities between Germany and the Allies at 11 a.m. (Paris time) on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

In the United States, November 11th is Veterans Day, an annual holiday to celebrate all military veterans, living and dead. (In many other countries, it is observed as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.) And what better way is there to honor living veterans than for your company to fully tap into their enormous talents?

For some deep recon on hiring vets, we’re turning to Philip Dana, the VP of talent acquisition and HR operations for Bridgepoint Education in San Diego. Philip is a former enlisted member of the Navy who later graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. In his corporate life, Philip has led recruiting for HR teams at Amazon, Intuit, and Sears, among others.

At Talent Connect 2018, Philip led a breakout session titled “Military talent: Hire them to help you win.” Here are eight tactics Philip recommends for companies, regardless of size, to win the battle for veteran talent:

1. Look inside your own lifelines

It’s critical to identify the veterans who are already working for your company. “You might be surprised by who you already have,” says Philip, who worked at Amazon for three years before discovering that one of the VPs had also served in the Navy.

Start by looking inside your HRS systems, which usually provides an initial glimpse of the veterans at your company. Philip’s tip? “I always just try to get the CEO to do a Veterans Day message,” he says, “and embedded in that message is ‘Click here and tell Phil if you’re a veteran or a military spouse.’”

Military retirees can get on and off bases with their ID cards to represent your company. And knowing who’s in “your lifelines,” says Philip, playing with a nautical term for a line along the edge of a ship’s deck, will allow you to pair new hires with the right mentor.

2. Select the right point person

Philip stresses the importance of choosing a person with an appropriate background when you’re sending someone to a military base to recruit. “I’ve seen too many times where companies will send a super-young college recruiter to a military function and they’ll come back empty-handed,” he says. “Whereas there’s a former sergeant major right down the hall who’s been with your company for 10 years.” Who ya gonna call?

Match your recruiter to your openings. Philip suggests sending a senior noncommissioned officer to recruit technicians, and a former officer, rather than enlisted person, to recruit junior officers for roles, say, as project managers.

3. Have an executive sponsor

Executive sponsors who are themselves veterans ensure your recruiting effort has buy-in from leadership and lets candidates see someone in the company brass who shares their experience. Though Philip sees this step as obvious, he also sees companies routinely missing it.

Imagine, he says, that your company was all men and started hiring women. And then it brought the entire female cohort in at the entry level and kept an all-male team of executives. “You think it would go well?” he asks.

Philip says your company is going to spin its wheels with veteran recruiting until you have executives with military backgrounds in your VP, SVP, and C-suite levels.

4. Build an onboarding program aimed at veterans to bolster retention

Veterans, especially ones who are just transitioning out of the service, are hard to retain. They don’t always fit right in. Some of their skills, Philip says, may require polish. “Our writing skills are much different,” he says. “Our financial acumen is probably not as good because there are a lot of civilians and systems that do it for us in the military.”

So he suggests creating a two- or three-day workshop for veterans similar to ones many companies already have in place for recent college graduates. “Open the firehose,” Philip says, “and put me through a whole bunch of that stuff in my first couple of weeks and I’ll probably be tremendously more successful.” That kind of onboarding program is also an ideal place to assign mentors to veteran hires.

Philip cites Amazon as a company that has built a model onboarding program — which is helping the e-commerce giant reach its goal of hiring 25,000 veterans and military spouses in five years.

5. Consider scrapping — or at least de-emphasizing — resumes

Traditional resumes may get in the way of efforts to hire veterans. Military training, experience, and roles are often hard for civilian recruiters to translate into meaningful comparisons.

“I hate resumes,” Philip says. He adds, laughingly, “I’m probably not the first TA leader to say that. But especially when it comes to diversity/inclusion, looking for the best, for the potential, for the Play-Doh we can turn into something awesome, I hate ‘em.”

Instead, Philip advises recruiters to stick with open-ended questions. When he was at Amazon, Philip helped the company find veterans with experience in big data. “You can ask a veteran, ‘Tell me about a time when you had to execute a time-constrained project using data? How did you use data in that project?’ You might not understand every acronym or the context and you might have to probe to get a little more understanding, but they’re either going to have used data or not.”

6. Study what other companies are doing to hire vets

If your company is just starting out with veteran hiring, go to school on businesses that are already out on this battleground.

Don’t know who those companies are? Philip suggests picking up a copy of G.I. Jobs magazine or U.S. Veterans Magazine. You can also check out Veteran Jobs Mission, a coalition of more than 200 private-sector companies committed to hiring 1 million veterans. (Participating companies have hired over 470,000 vets since 2011.)

Other ideas? “You can go to a Service Academy Career Conference or a Military MOJO conference,” he says, “and kind of look around the room and see how others are doing it.”

7. Let veterans know exactly what your company’s value proposition is

“The waving of the flag to show that your company is veteran friendly, that is really not what veterans want,” Philip says. “That’s not your value proposition.”

Philip says your value proposition —the one veterans want to see — explains who you serve, what your values are, what defines success in your organization. He uses himself as an example. He was working at Amazon when a headhunter called him about a job at Life Technologies, a biotech company near San Diego that was focused on reducing breast cancer. “Little did he know that a close family member of mine had just survived it,” Philip says. “So that was my why.”

Veterans, he notes, tend to be very mission driven.

8. Tap into the many agencies and tools that already exist to help veterans find the right jobs

This is not a battle you have to fight alone.

Philip says there are over 4,000 organizations helping veterans transition into jobs outside the military. And the services themselves are highly motivated to help departing soldiers and sailors find jobs — the military paid over $300 million in unemployment benefits in 2016.

Among the programs Philip recommends connecting with are:

Final thoughts: Hiring vets is a talent play, not a community service

Diversity and inclusion touch a lot of elements that go beyond gender and ethnicity — age, sexual orientation, physical disabilities, and more. All of them can help you become a more productive, more successful company.

The business case for hiring vets has been well established. And in an economy where soft skills are becoming increasingly important, veterans collectively have tremendous attention to detail, integrity, team leadership, problem solving, and collaboration.  

So celebrate Veterans Day with a battle plan to successfully recruit and hire candidates with a record of military service.

*Image from the U.S. Navy

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