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Why Veterans Are an Untapped Resource for Corporations & What HR Needs to Know

As his time at Google came to an end, then-SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock piloted an initiative to secure jobs for the hundreds of “remarkable, civically-minded people” who found themselves unemployed after the 2016 presidential election. Citing the limited opportunities for Clinton campaign staffers left without jobs, Bock’s hopes of connecting former Clinton and Obama administration staffers with recruiters in the tech and business world is but an example of the larger issue of finding employment for the civically-minded “people who were clearly talented but [don’t] fit a conventional mold.” While 800 Clinton staffers found themselves unemployed in November 2016 after working on the campaign, more than 200,000 United States military service members return to civilian life every year under similar circumstances. Although numerous organizations and foundations assist with veterans’ transition to civilian life, only recently has the job market shone a spotlight on the importance of employment in easing that transition.

In 2009, President Obama promised “to give veterans — particularly those who fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — an advantage in the long federal hiring queue.” Turning words into action, veterans were actively recruited into the public sector and given precedence over civilian candidates — as of August 2015, about 1 in 5 employed veterans worked in the public sector. It wasn’t until about five years ago, however, that the private sector began to take notice of the breadth of skills that veterans and military spouses have.

Russell Jolivet, Senior Vice President of Talent Acquisition for Corporate Functions and Diversity and Inclusion at SunTrust Banks, Inc., has handled veteran recruitment and retention since joining the company in 2013. According to Jolivet, there was minimal veteran recruiting activity at SunTrust prior to 2012, which led him to partner with the company’s executive leadership and ramp up the recruiting practices for veterans at SunTrust. And it doesn’t stop with Suntrust — J.P. Morgan similarly launched a Military and Veterans Affairs Office in 2011. Eric Seal, a veteran himself, presently serves as the Head of Veteran Talent Acquisition and Development at the financial services giant and says the opening of this office was part of the company’s deliberate effort to “continue to focus on the employment of veterans as well as various strategic initiatives and small business support.”

As signs show, there is “a tremendous amount of positive energy around veteran recruiting” in corporate America, according to Jolivet. Corporations are increasingly encouraged by the United States government to expand employment and career development opportunities for veterans and military spouses in an effort to highlight the workforce potential of this largely untapped talent pool. Amazon pledged to hire 25,000 veterans and military spouses over the next 5 years, in addition to training another 10,000 in specialized technology skills in order to help them get jobs outside of Amazon. Starbucks pays college tuition for veteran employees who work 20 or more hours per week, as well as for the education of veterans’ spouses and children who are employees of the company. Walmart has guaranteed jobs to any veteran who has been honorably discharged, while LinkedIn offers veterans one-year free access to LinkedIn Premium to help kick off the job search.

Veteran recruiting initiatives exist partly to show gratitude for veterans’ service to our nation. Equally important is that veteran recruiting programs recognize the valuable set of skills these individuals gain during their time of service, including leadership experience, managing high-level responsibilities, analytical skills, and the ability to operate in complex, hierarchical organizations, to name a few. “It comes down to veterans making up a vital and important talent pool that bring skills that we can definitely use,” Jolivet explains, “not necessarily industry skills, but qualities and competencies, such as problem-solving, analytical skills, driving for results, discipline, learning agility and the ability to learn quickly with high stakes at hand … That level of responsibility,” he continues, “and the attention to detail — all of these things are great for corporate America.”

As it stands, many corporations struggle with veteran recruitment initiatives given the difficulty HR departments find in translating a military resume to the experiences and qualifications required in the corporate world. “Hiring managers are often too focused on looking for the direct experience that non-veteran applicants have, rather than looking for the capabilities and competencies that these individuals have developed through different channels,” Jolivet explains. By weeding out applicants who lack direct hands-on experience in the industry, a large, capable group of talent is eliminated from the candidate pool. It is for this reason that he advocates for more “competency-based hiring.” At SunTrust, Jolivet notes that most people in the military don’t have direct banking experience, but they do have skills that can be valuable in the industry.

When changing corporate hiring processes, companies must tread thoughtfully, however, as issues can arise when trying to hold different kinds of applicants to different standards; the process, at the end of the day, must be fair to everyone. While corporations shouldn’t be expected to favor veterans or institutionalize target percentages that push out qualified non-veteran candidates from the hiring pool, Jolivet instead suggests that corporations focus on “injecting talent into an organization at many different levels and developing specific programs that don’t require direct experience” that work in tandem with current processes in place.

“Ultimately,” he notes, “veterans have skills that can be applied in new ways to be successful across industries and roles … it is just a matter of figuring out how to leverage them.” And Russell isn’t alone in his beliefs — just look at the Fortune 500, where a number of military veterans have worked their way to executive positions. Notable examples include Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, and Lowell McAdam, CEO of Verizon Communications, both of whom served in the United States Armed Forces and went on to utilize their skills in large corporations.

As domestic and global corporations alike take note, they not only have inspired a surge in the number of veterans working in the private sector, but have also highlighted the need for overall institutional changes and HR strategies that better incorporate veterans in Diversity and Inclusion initiatives. Aside from any resume “translation” issues corporations are now redefining, Jolivet pointed out that “there is a cultural adjustment that employers must take into account when bringing on ex-military talent, especially at newer, more innovative and agile companies.” He explains, “in terms of veterans being able to express themselves, corporate America is more about fraternizing with senior people and networking, whereas the military is more hierarchical… Hiring managers often think a veteran is not a good fit because they are quiet and focused, but they forget that this is what was expected of them while they served.” Elaborating on Jolivet’s comments, J.P. Morgan’s Seal explained to Raines Intel how the cultural adjustments can go far beyond communication and networking skills. In reflecting on his own experience he shared, “I had significant leadership, I was responsible for a large amount of equipment, both in terms of magnitude and dollar value, and I was faced with intense situations. Although very important situations arise in corporate America, there is a challenge to find that broader sense of purpose. Your responsibility for the security of the nation is no longer there.”

With these cultural adjustments in mind, corporations must also devote considerable resources to inclusion initiatives. “It’s not all about recruitment,” SunTrust Bank’s Jolivet emphasizes. “It is equally important to develop, retain and promote these people by developing programs specifically designed to accommodate those differences in experience and promote full cycle development that will help develop this specific talent pool in the short, medium, and long-term.”

This development can take many different forms. As Seal explains, “it’s a continuous learning environment.” As part of his role at J.P. Morgan, Seal is involved with various programs that engage with veterans at all stages in their career. While this includes some standard recruitment programs such as a Military Officer Executive Development Program for placing “recently transitioning officers into roles as full-time associates,” as well as a twelve-week Military Veteran Internship Program, it also includes a newly piloted acclimation program called Pathfinder that helps newly hired veterans assimilate into the firm. This program “partners newly transitioned veterans joining the firm with slightly more seasoned veterans that have been through the transition process to help them acclimate in a sponsorship type of environment.” While these programs are relatively new, J.P. Morgan has killed two birds with one stone: It created a veteran cohort with a “sense of community as they go through these development programs” that is structured from an induction, onboarding, and acclimation perspective, and it tackles the cultural and institutional obstacles many companies face in launching their own veteran recruiting and inclusion platforms.

Over time, firms are able to gain a deeper understanding into what types of programs work best. Seal and his team at J.P. Morgan have studied the success and retention rates of veterans compared to their non-veteran counterparts. “We’ve learned,” he shares, “that these development programs create environments that allow veterans to perform better and we have much higher retention rates.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, corporate America is headed in the right direction. The unemployment rate of veterans has been steadily declining in recent years, dipping as low as 4.6% in 2015, after hovering around 12-13% in the years following the recession. “Statistics show that companies are trying to do the right thing and make it work,” Jolivet concludes. As excitement and buzz around veteran recruiting continues to build, we look forward to seeing how corporate America translates excitement into action.