Retaining Military Veterans: The Next Battle for Employers

The unemployment rate for military veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 has been trending downward in recent years. As of April 2017, it stands at 3.9 percent—the lowest rate since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping statistics on the population as a group.

Source: Pekic, Getty

This positive development is the result of efforts by the recruitment community, employers, and others who have made veteran employment a priority.
Yet, recruiting and hiring are only part of the equation. Employee retention matters, too. And the news on this front is not good.
A 2016 U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation study finds 44 percent of veterans leave their first post-military jobs within a year, and an additional 15 percent leave by their two-year work anniversary.
Recruiting Daily Advisor asked Diane Hudson, a career coach, resume writer, and speaker specializing in military conversion and transition assistance, for insight into how employers can improve veteran retention.
RDA: Skills matching has been an issue for veterans in the past; that is, explaining how military skills transfer to the civilian workplace. Does this likely play a part with regard to retention?
DH: Yes, this may play a part in retention. Veterans often have trouble identifying their transferable skill sets. Many tell me, “I just do my job.” An infantryman may laundry-list his official duties based off of his military occupational specialty (or equivalent) job duties. However, his actual duties and accomplishments may involve a number of experiences ranging from inventory to logistics, to administration, training, and more—programs and projects not detailed in a job description. Even though he is well trained, educated, and experienced, he may be missing something specific to corporate. For example, a human resources specialist in the military may manage personnel actions and strength management, but not actually hire anyone, handle EEO complaints or work with unions. Accepting a position in HR may or may not be the right fit for transferable skill sets from military work.
Another reason veterans leave jobs in corporate America to move into a new positions, is being under-challenged. Most veterans are very well trained; they are leaders, they manage people, equipment, and money under often very stressful, fast-paced, and austere working conditions. I hear from many veterans after they start new jobs that they get bored quickly.
RDA: A number of companies have found that networking and affinity groups help military members adjust to the workplace. Mentor relationships can also make a difference. How important is ongoing support?
DH: Ongoing support is crucial to help veterans become accustomed to the new “corporate culture” and assimilate into the new work environment. For many veterans making a transition from 20 years of military service to corporate or federal can be like speaking Greek—or moving to a foreign country. The networking and affinity groups help the veterans learn of the new corporate culture, the differences in chain of command, and learn the new “corporate language.” This networking effort and mentorship also provides support and empowers veterans to excel in their new positions, as they add to their skill sets. The experience of transitioning from military to corporate is challenging and takes time; networking groups are a real benefit to veterans.
RDA: Needless to say, a corporate environment is very different from the military. Because of this, it seems as though transition would be ongoing. For example, processes and procedures probably come up all the time that are new or different. How important is it for companies to understand what veterans face, and how should companies address this issue?
DH: Mutual partnering and affinity groups also expose the corporate mentors to the military culture—so they can learn about the challenges the veterans face as they make the transition from military to corporate. One military officer said to me, “Diane, I feel like I am walking up to the edge of a cliff and I am not sure how to get down.”
Sometimes, veterans are misunderstood. For example, one of my clients was asked in a job interview, “Since you used ‘orders’ to get work accomplished, how will you manage a staff and volunteers?” He stated that he had only issued one “order” in his career and it was in a warzone and intended to save lives.
With this possible misunderstanding, it is important for companies that hire veterans to ensure transparency in communications, offer training, and integrate information about new processes and systems into the affinity groups.
RDA: As HR and related functions becomes more data-driven, frustration with veteran retention numbers may lead to scaling back of recruitment efforts. Why is it important to continue to recruit and hire veterans, while working to improve retention?
DH: The benefits of hiring veterans are many: They are well educated and trained; most officers and senior enlisted have degrees; they are hard workers—at age 25, with only six or so years of experience, many veterans have managed more people, resources, money, and equipment/inventory than most people in corporate will manage in a career. Veterans are smart and learn quickly. They are given the opportunity to operate in several jobs areas; they brief senior leaders, they write reports, and they travel the globe. They are disciplined and polite.
Given the opportunity to learn a new challenge in a new industry—their transferable skill sets can take companies to new levels. One of my clients, a submariner, landed a job with Pepsi in a bottling plant—and he loved his new project management position; another client got a job with Amazon and excelled; another client got a job with Walmart in logistics and stayed for another 20-year career; a physician and administrator got a job with the Veterans Administration, where he said he could give back to the military for several more years. Most retiring veterans with 20 years of experience are between 38 and 42 years of age; they have to offer another 20 years of experience and mentorship to the next generation of workers.
As companies and veterans collaborate together to teach each other about each others’ cultures, they will begin to embrace their differences and work together to ensure success for the employer and the mission.