From War to Work: Why and How Companies Should Hire Post-9/11 Veterans
Retired Master Sergeant Ken Holman was confused when Scott Miller and Paul Cotter approached him about applying for a job at Microsoft.
On Feb. 21, 2002, his vehicle flipped over during a training exercise. His seatbelt broke, flinging him against the windshield. He broke his neck in three places and shattered his lower vertebrae, leaving him partially paralyzed. He had to relearn how to talk, walk, read, and write.
He’d served 26 years in the Marines specializing in bulk fuel and later in acquisitions. Though he had run a 2:35 marathon, served as a drill instructor and as a Marine recruiter, he had zero IT background.
So why were they interested in hiring him?
Scott Miller, an Air Force veteran, and Paul Cotter, a fellow Marine, explained to Ken that they wanted to hire him for the things they couldn’t teach him. The intangibles that would make him excel. So they encouraged him to apply to be a project manager at Microsoft.
In the Marines, I served as the first Officer in Charge of Recruiting, Screening, Assessment, and Selection program for the U.S. Marine Corps, Special Operations. Like most special operations units around the world, we knew we could teach them the hard skills, like how to shoot, move, and communicate. We couldn’t teach them how not to quit or how to make difficult decisions under extreme stress. With this in mind, about a year ago, I founded a company, hirepurpo.se, that uses a similar methodology to better match military veterans with civilian employers online by measuring behavioral strengths and other soft skills. We are now beta testing in NYC and looking for local veterans and employers to test our platform.
Since 9/11 more than 2.5 million troops have served in the U.S. military, many in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the next five years, another million are expected to transition into the civilian workforce.
Through their service, they have gained extraordinary life experiences, technical acumen, mission focus, leadership, maturity, and skills. Couple this with today’s high recruiting standards (less than one quarter of 18–24 year olds are even eligible to join the military) and it might seem odd that unemployment rates for post-9/11 consistently trail their civilian counterparts by 1 or 2 percent. Companies would do well to focus hiring initiatives on this extraordinary and undervalued talent pool.
Unfortunately, given today’s civil military divide, few employers are aware of how military service can prepare prospective employees for their companies or how to properly recruit and assess veterans. With that said, a Monster.com poll of 767 companies showed 67 percent of them wanted to hire veterans.
To do so successfully, companies must modify hiring practices.
Too often, companies overemphasize the importance of similar work experience and education above the soft skills and life experience acquired through military service. Personally, I would rather hire a 22-year-old who just spent four years leading troops, collecting vital intelligence, developing cross cultural relationships with tribal leaders, using technologically advanced communications and tactical systems, and managing the herculean logistics challenges of supporting, feeding, fueling, equipping, and arming a small team in the world’s most austere and dangerous environments than a 22-year-old who has mastered the art of the keg stand between classes.
But most employers will take the degree over the life experience.
For veterans who choose to use the GI Bill to get that degree, they face the challenge of entering the civilian workforce for the first time in their late 20s. They become stuck in a weird purgatory: overqualified for entry-level positions, but underqualified (on paper at least) for management positions.
But there’s a reason that 99 percent of companies that have hired a veteran are interested in hiring another. They should be viewed through a different lens.
At the New York Stock Exchange, Duncan Niederauer and Lisa Dzintars-Pahwul did just that. They built an associate program, modeled after their college intern program, to train and select military veterans for positions on the exchange and other financial companies. Fifteen military veterans spent 8 weeks learning the ropes. Five received job offers at NYSE Euronext and one was hired by Goldman Sachs as an analyst.
One approach companies should be wary is using Military Occupational Translators, who attempt to match military occupations with their civilian counterparts. Veterans should be valued for their soft skills more than their hard technical skills. For one, the assignment of specialties in the military is fairly arbitrary. The needs of the service always take precedence over the desire of the individual. So just because someone was a helicopter mechanic in the Marines doesn’t mean they wanted to be a helicopter mechanic, that they were a particularly good helicopter mechanic, or that they would want to be a helicopter mechanic upon leaving the service.
Won Paulson, now completing her Master’s degree in nonprofit management at Columbia University, served as a gas turbine and electrical engineer aboard a Navy destroyer. She could easily work for an airline, power plant, or cruise line. But other companies would do better to look at the nontechnical skills she acquired through military service.
This is why Miller and Cotter understood when they approached Holman, who didn’t have an IT background, about applying for a job at Microsoft. He did not have an IT background, but they knew they could teach him what he needed to know within six months. What he’d already learned and proven himself at as a Marine was more important: managing teams, making decisions, managing customer expectations, and ensuring deliverables were met on time and resources were properly managed. In short, the abilities of a successful independent-project manager.
This also highlights the greatest resource companies have to hire veterans: veterans within their ranks. They should be leveraged to recruit and screen talent for opportunities within the organization. They know both worlds best and can play a vital role matching opportunities with military talent.