The US workforce includes roughly 9.8 million veterans, roughly 32 percent of whom served in the armed forces after 2001. These veterans and their spouses have become a focal point for progressive employers seeking to hire from a diverse and often highly qualified pool of talent that is often underutilized. Thanks in part to these efforts, as well as the work of many organizations dedicated to connecting vets with job opportunities, the number of unemployed veterans in the US has declined substantially over the past four years.
Organizations that make veteran hiring a priority do so not only out of respect for their service and sacrifice, but also because they recognize the value veterans can bring to their organization as employees. Our analysis at CEB, now Gartner, finds that veterans are slightly more productive than non-veterans and have lower turnover, by 2-3 percentage points. In fact, the average veteran employee contributes an additional $7,500 to an organization’s overall performance.
Yet despite the extra value veterans have to offer, many employers still shy away from hiring them due to misconceptions about their characteristics, abilities, and needs. At CEB’s ReimagineHR event in Washington, DC, on Thursday, Chris Ford, founder & CEO of the National Association of Veteran-Serving Organizations (NAVSO), led a panel discussion on strategies for recruiting and retaining veterans with Mark Erwin, Special Assistant to the Secretary at the US Department of Veterans Affairs, Ret. Major General Paulette Risher, Chief Programs Officer at Still Serving Veterans, and Dan Goldenberg, executive director of the Call of Duty Endowment. The panelists shared a number of important and in some cases surprising facts about veterans in the American workforce:
1) Veterans Can Be Hard to Find and Don’t Always Self-Identify
The first thing an organization needs to do if it wants to hire veterans is find them. Veterans can come into the hiring process through three different pipelines: While some may come straight out of the military, Erwin explained that fully half of the 250,000 veterans who transition to civilian life each year use their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to attend college, and so will be found through campus recruiting. Countless others, meanwhile, are already in the workforce, but they are not always easy to spot.
Many companies, Goldenberg noted, don’t even have an accurate picture of how many veterans they already employ. That’s because veterans don’t always self-identify as “veterans.” While the general public and employers tend to consider anyone who has served in the armed forces a veteran, service members may not consider themselves veterans if they are still on active duty or served in a non-combat role. Instead of asking employees or candidates if they are veterans, he said, ask whether they have ever served in the armed forces.
Some vets may also be wary of identifying themselves out of fear that they will be stereotyped, Risher added, so it’s important to make questions about veteran status, as well as disability, safe for them to answer. Another issue she brought up is that employers can miss veterans when they filter applications by ZIP code, as many veterans seek work in the communities where they grew up or other places far from where they are based. Veterans, particularly young ones, also often don’t realize where their skill sets fit in the civilian workforce, and so don’t know where to look for job opportunities.
2) Common Assumptions About Veterans Are Outdated and Inaccurate
Many of the images of military and veteran life that Americans acquire from Hollywood films and popular culture are relics of the Vietnam War era, Goldenberg said, so even to the extent that they were ever accurate, these perceptions and stereotypes don’t reflect the very different world of the armed forces today. For example, Risher pointed out, people tend to think of veterans as young, undereducated, and either psychologically or physically disabled. In fact, a full third of Still Serving Veterans’ clients are in their forties, while only 13 percent are in their twenties. Nearly half of them have at least some college education or an associate degree, and 23 percent have either a master’s degree or a doctorate. Many veterans do have disabilities and many do suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, but not all, and those who do still lead normal lives and become productive members of the civilian workforce.
Today’s service members also come out of their time in the military with a much more sophisticated set of technical and digital skills than previous generations of soldiers. Many of these skills are directly transferable to civilian jobs, but veterans themselves may not realize it. Translating skills is one of the difficult adjustments involved in the transition from military to civilian work, so employers need to think about veterans’ experience and value in terms of skill sets rather than job titles.
3) Veterans Are Team Players, Even to a Fault
Veterans, Ford told the audience, tend to have many qualities that make them great long-term employees. Think about why employees typically get fired, he said: They are disloyal, inflexible, uncooperative, bad at teamwork, or unwilling to face challenges. These negative characteristics are antithetical to the behaviors in which military service members are trained. Veterans are accustomed to being challenged and held accountable for how well they met expectations.
However, they are also trained against some of the qualities that tend to help employees get ahead in the workplace. Because they are so accustomed to working in a unit, veterans often have trouble telling a story about their own individual achievements. When promotions and other opportunities for advancement depend on differentiating yourself from your colleagues, veterans tend to be less willing to talk up their own achievements.
4) Onboarding and Mentorship Are Essential for Supporting Veterans
One reason why employers are sometimes reluctant to hire veterans is a fear that they will not last long at the organization. While it is true that veterans tend to leave their first job opportunity out of the military within a matter of years, they actually tend to stay longer than non-veterans at their next job and the one after that. Particularly if you are a veteran’s first civilian employer, their success at your organization often depends on how much effort you put into retaining them.
Onboarding matters for all new employees, but an effective onboarding program can go a particularly long way toward helping a new veteran hire integrate into your organization, Goldenberg said. While the stereotype of veterans as mindless order-takers is harmfully overblown, they are used to working in a highly regimented and hierarchical system, so veterans will benefit especially from an onboarding process that clarifies how your organizational culture is different, especially if it is focused on independent work, talking back to the boss, or generating new ideas from the bottom up.
Another way to effectively retain veterans and support them in their transition into the civilian workforce is through mentorship programs, Thursday’s panelists emphasized. Mentorship from superiors is a significant component of learning and development in the military setting, and vets will tend to value these relationships and get a lot out of them. Goldenberg noted that there are a organizations specifically dedicated to connecting veteran job seekers and employees with mentors, such as Veterati.
CEB Recruiting Leadership Council members can go through more best practices on recruiting and retaining veterans in our Veteran Hiring Portal.