5 Steps Your Company Can Take to Combat Veteran Underemployment

November 11, 2020

Photo of soldier in fatigues sitting on stairs

When service members leave the military, they may refer to it as “separating” or, in the case of the British Royal Navy, “going outside.” Neither of these phrases makes clear the challenges soldiers, sailors, aviators, and marines of all ranks face in becoming civilian employees of all stripes. 

It’s hard work. And as today is Veterans Day in the United States, Armistice Day in France and Belgium, and Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, it’s the perfect time to check on how that work is going.

The good news: Most companies now understand the business case for hiring veterans, with their integrity, leadership, attention to detail, collaboration, and problem solving.

But it isn’t yet time for companies to say, “At ease.”

Research from LinkedIn done last year confirmed what earlier surveys and reports had observed: Veterans continue to be more underemployed than their nonveteran counterparts. (In LinkedIn’s Veteran Opportunity Report, underemployed means having at least a bachelor’s degree and being employed in what LinkedIn’s taxonomy considers a skilled or hourly job; more generally, it means having a workplace role that is lower than someone’s experience, education, and skills would objectively suggest.)

This underemployment isn’t universal. A new analysis of LinkedIn data shows companies in a number of U.S. metro areas that already have strong military presences are filling senior-level jobs disproportionately with veterans. In places such as Norfolk, Virginia; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Huntsville, Alabama, veterans are as much as six times more likely to occupy positions at the director level and above as their non-veteran counterparts. But in places and industries that don’t have robust existing ties to the military, underemployment remains a significant issue.

Underemployment is an issue for nonveterans as well, but why does it hit veterans harder?

Civilians and service members don’t speak the same language

A large part of the issue is language. Veterans and their civilian counterparts — those on “civvy street,” as they say in the U.K. — don’t speak the same language. Each group has its own jargon, cultural reference points, and confusing maze of acronyms. The roles and responsibilities in the military don’t always translate easily in the corporate world.

“My own personal example is that nothing in my military background would translate specifically to human resources,” says Philip Dana, a former Navy officer who is now the head of human resources at Dendreon in Seal Beach, California. “It took me almost three years to truly understand the different departments in corporate America — marketing, finance, HR, IT. It’s different outside the military.”

Service members can also have a hard time talking about themselves. They’re trained to be team players, and they’re uncomfortable blowing their own horns. “There’s a lot of ‘We did this and we did that,’” says Nick Tran, a former U.S. Army Special Operations Forces team member who has recruited veterans for several companies. “Employers want to know what you did.”

Philip and Nick both believe the military’s Transition Assistance Program also falls short in preparing service members for civilian life. “The government’s incentivized to retain them,” Philip says, “not transition them. I don’t think the government will ever design, build, and execute a world-class transition program. There’s just no business purpose for it.”

If the military and government aren’t going to close the underemployment gap, then businesses and nonprofit agencies are where solutions will need to come from. Here are five things businesses can do to help transitioning service members not just land a job but land the right job:

1. Find translators while you’re learning the language of the military — and teach veterans to speak your language

If you had to hire an expert in Riemannian geometry, you might need to go outside the office for help. But if you’re a medium- or large-size company, you have people who speak the language of veterans and who are already on your staff or, as Philip puts it, “within your lifelines.”

It’s essential to identify current employees who are also veterans. If you have an employee resource group (ERG) for veterans, tap into it for help recruiting transitioning service members. Your existing veteran population can be an excellent source of mentors for new veteran hires and even, Philip suggests, veteran candidates. Your veterans can help paint a picture of the corporate world that will make sense to other veterans. 

Philip says that when he was leading recruiting efforts at Amazon and Sears, both companies had extra assimilation and onboarding components for veterans. “We taught the vets the finance language, the inventory, the systems that they may not have been up to speed on compared to other talent pools,” he says. “I would make an educated guess that for every dollar we invested in a high-potential veteran, we got four to five dollars back.”

2. Reverse-engineer your job descriptions so they speak to veterans

David Muir Jr., senior vice president of the Veteran Staffing Network for Easterseals, has been helping companies hire veterans for more than a decade. He suggests that companies invest time in making their job descriptions more relevant for veterans.

David points to the civilian-to-military translator that can be found at CareerOneStop. You enter the name of a job you’re about to post and the tool provides relevant military job titles and military occupation codes. So, say, you’re looking to hire a construction manager. You enter “construction manager” in the search bar and the translator comes back with 34 possibilities. As you skim them, this one catches your eye: commanding officer, Naval Construction Forces (Navy warrant officer, 4305).

You want to make sure that the Navy position is aligned with what you’re looking for. You can take that title and code to O*NET OnLine, click on Crosswalks, and select “military” from the pulldown menu. Select “Navy” from the second pulldown menu and enter “4305, Commanding Officer” in the search field. 

Click on that title when it appears in the search results and you’ll be able to see the skills, knowledge, abilities, tasks, and work activities that go with that position in the service. If it seems like a fit, tweak your job description to include the job title and Navy rating and some of what you’ve learned about tasks and work activities. Veterans will know you’re serious about giving them a shot.

3. Adopt evaluations that are more veteran-friendly

Philip believes that resumes  — “I hate them,” he says — are often a terrible tool for measuring the experiences of a service member. “The reality is,” he explains, “a service member has multiple jobs. You have your primary role — which would be on your resume — and multiple collateral duties. And every 18 months you’re shifting your primary responsibilities. There are all these other layers on top of it. So, a one- or two-page resume merely scratches the surface.” He says the “size and depth of responsibility” in the military is also hard to translate.

So, train your recruiters and hiring managers how to parse a veterans resume so they don’t overlook talent or misunderstand where it might fit in.

David suggests changing the way you ask interview questions to get around the tendency of veterans to frame their answers in the context of their team. He suggests asking specific questions about what the individual’s roles and responsibilities were on different missions to draw out their experiences and skills.

David was a machine gunner for the Army National Guard. “So,” he says, “if you just asked, ‘Tell me about your customer service experience,’ I’d look at you funny. They taught me how to hide behind rocks, trees, and bushes and blow stuff up. But if you transform that question and ask, ‘Tell me about a time where you had to help somebody that you didn’t know take care of their problem,’ I’ve got a hundred stories.”

Understanding your veteran candidates and asking them targeted questions will help you better match them to appropriate jobs.

4. Bring both veterans and hiring managers to recruiting events

If you’re going to a job fair or on to a military base to recruit transitioning service members, it’s absolutely critical that you send a veteran from your company. Philip stresses the importance of appropriately matching your point person to your openings.

“If you’re hiring a bunch of enlisted technicians for your manufacturing floor,” he says, “and you send a former officer who was mostly an administrator, there’s a huge disconnect. It would be like hiring a community college student to run your tier-one MBA recruiting program.” So instead of sending the officer, send a senior noncommissioned officer (say, a former sergeant or petty officer).

Nick encourages companies to tap into their veterans ERG for potential military recruiters who can speak and understand the language of the separating soldiers and sailors. “But make sure you bring your hiring managers with you too,” he says. Nick believes when the hiring managers “have skin in the game” by going to a recruiting event and they team with a colleague who came out of the military, they are more likely to understand why the service member would be a great fit and much more likely to pull the trigger on hiring.

5. Take advantage of the numerous agencies and organizations that can help match the right veteran with the right job

There are a legion of government and nonprofit agencies and organizations that are helping veterans and transitioning military find jobs in the civilian sector. Depending on the organization, companies can help them by being a sponsor or partner, hosting events, attending their job fairs, lending their expertise, or allowing their individual employees to volunteer. For example, American Corporate Partners facilitates one-on-one mentoring between veteran job seekers and employees at its corporate partners. Hire Heroes USA offers training to corporate HR teams on veteran hiring and retention. Hiring Our Heroes has a 12-week Corporate Fellowship Program that gives transitioning service members professional training and hands-on experience working in the civilian sector.

A few of the programs your company may want to consider include:

Final thoughts: Hiring veterans into the right roles at the right levels benefits them — and you

LinkedIn’s Veteran Opportunity Report includes a fascinating two-pronged finding: In their first three years in a corporate setting, veterans are 39% more likely than nonveterans to move into a leadership role. This both reinforces the notion that veterans are often underemployed and points to the superb leadership qualities many bring to the civilian work world.

Clearly, companies can benefit by hiring veterans into jobs that fully tap into their skills and experiences. On the other side, veterans deserve roles in which they can be appropriately challenged and compensated — underemployed veterans aren’t bringing home the paycheck they would be entitled to if they were better matched for the responsibilities and challenges they’re ready to tackle. Underemployment, according to the LinkedIn report, also diminishes their professional and personal development.

Your company’s call to duty? Actively recruit veteran candidates and then, not only offer the right candidates jobs, offer them the right jobs.

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* Photo by Jessica Radanavong on Unsplash