Decoding the Military for Veteran Hiring Success

By Karin A. Vernazza, SPHR, as told to Archana Mehta

Three years ago, President Obama announced a challenge to the U.S. private sector — hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans or their spouses by the end of 2013. Many companies nationwide took on that challenge and started veteran-hiring job fairs to attract military talent but found this initiative difficult.

Companies across America have answered the call to recruit and hire very talented veterans but struggle to decode the complicated military specialties and rank structure. So this article and its “HR Decoder” are intended to simplify it for mutual success.

Over the past 40 years, since the end of the U.S. military draft in 1973, the nation has assembled the greatest, most talented fighting force in the world, but its all-volunteer, professional nature has divided our service members from the nation they represent. Military members come from all around the country, but they are less than one percent of the U.S. population of more than 300 million. Once upon a time, every family had at least one close relative serving our country, but that is no longer so common.

Did you know that only about 10 percent of the U.S. population 18 to 30 years old is even qualified to join the military, given educational testing requirements and health factors? Those who understand the full benefits package in military service quickly find that the military is one of the best new employers in the country, with job security, medical benefits, education benefits and 30 days paid vacation to name just a few of the advantages. But life in the military isn’t easy!

We in the United States don’t have basic education in military structure, responsibility and opportunity to serve. Most of what we know comes from the movies, and most people have a hard time even identifying the five armed services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard). Military recruiters are challenged daily to fill that education gap, and veterans are equally challenged to identify their skill sets for civilian employment. One company tried to develop a guidebook of all military ranks and titles. To be honest, though, even after boot camp, those of us in the military have a hard time deciphering the structure of the different services, so I can understand how challenging it must have been for the company.

After talking with HR hiring professionals who were struggling to figure out the military, I decided to create a decoder. I thought there had to be an easy way to convey this information to the general public, so I researched civilian business models of expertise levels and then aligned military pay grades to them. I had to be especially sensitive to the cultural aspects at the senior enlisted levels from the joint service perspective. For instance, in the Navy, there is a big difference between E6 and E7. The promotion to E7 means that the individual’s leadership and professional abilities enabled him or her to be selected by a very competitive board to become a Chief and join the Chief’s Mess (any room that is off-limits to anyone not a Chief, except by specific invitation). The same applies to officer promotions from O6 to O7, when the officer joins the Flag and General Officer Community.

Next, I worked on salary-range targets. This was the most elusive task, given that our base pay is misleadingly low, and I wanted veterans to understand what salary they would have to make in order keep their standard of living. I factored in national pay averages, comparable housing allowances, exceptional medical benefits and other significant tax advantages for military personnel.

The salary targets are within an approximately 15-percent range, depending on the area of the country and the desired skill sets. If a veteran doesn’t have a highly competitive skill set, then he or she will be on the low end of a target. However, if the veteran is a nuclear-trained engineer, for example, he or she will most likely exceed the 15+ percent limit. Each veteran has to negotiate his or her unique value to an organization.

The Basic Military Veteran HR Decoder that is included in this article helps bridge the military-civilian gap for better understanding and veteran-hiring success (see decoder on page6). The core element that naturally integrates the two experience based systems is the “military pay grade” located at the bottom of each civilian specialty building block.

There is a similar white-collar and blue-collar structure, with officers (O’s) and enlisted persons (E’s) progressing in seniority from 1 to 10. The relative size of each pay-grade block represents the relative population of that block compared to the others. The majority of service members range from E1 to E4. They enlist at age 18 and serve one or two tours of duty ranging up to six years of service.