Editor’s note: This article was contributed by Matt Feldhaus of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. Find more at https://ivmf.syracuse.edu/.
I looked up at my program supervisor in an odd combination of shock, confusion, and frustration. I thought to myself, “Did I hear him correctly? Did he really just say ‘these aren’t the type of candidates we’re looking for,’” in reference to the stack of enlisted candidates’ resumes our team had acquired and organized?
A colleague and I had attended a hiring fair aimed specifically at veterans. As I shuffled through the list of candidates, many of whom my colleague and I had deemed very qualified and professional, I realized that my mission differed greatly from our leader’s. I am a veteran. My colleague is a veteran. Our leader was not.
This scenario plays out more and more in the workplace. Hiring managers prefer the low-risk, “cookie-cut” candidates that resemble the rest of the members of the team. They have similar job experiences, similar education levels and the list could go on and on.
My colleague and I were under the impression that “qualified candidates” included both former officers and former enlisted personnel, with diverse backgrounds, whose military experience made up for occasional gaps in formal education.
The company’s mindset, we realized, seemed entirely driven by the regulations governing companies and government contracts. Simply meeting a quota became the underlying motivation. The process reduced the veteran to a simple box checked on the application.
So what now? Is hope lost for veteran hiring initiatives?
No, not at all. Even in my experience, we made progress. My leader began to understand some of the underlying values and characteristics of service members that are often overlooked or underemphasized on resumes. Our program began funneling more than just high-ranking, graduate-level candidates to hiring managers. The concept of “what we’re looking for” expanded, as integrity, teamwork, leadership, resolve in stressful environments and other soft skills became apparent in candidates of all ranks and military occupational specialties.
Unfortunately, this did not significantly impact the number of veterans hired. Why? There is often a disconnect in most companies between the veteran recruiting team and the actual hiring managers. This disconnect is a significant barrier in the effort to assist our veterans transitioning from military to civilian life. How do we correct this problem?
Responsibility for solving it falls not just on hiring managers but also on veteran applicants themselves. The applying veteran should take the time both to translate the terminology on their resume to fit the job they are applying for and also to emphasize the soft skills and underlying core competencies that they honed during their military experience. They should ensure that someone unfamiliar with the military would still see value in their duties, experiences, and competencies. In that vein, I think a squad leader from the infantry could still be a good fit as a program manager at a software company. Why? That soldier has tested and proven leadership experience, in complex and high-stress environments. They are able to navigate ambiguous situations with multiple conflicting priorities. Those are the things we need to emphasize, not shooting expert on the most recent rifle qualification or a PT score.
Some companies use a “skills translator” that determines how your military job might match with one existing within the company infrastructure. Were you an officer? Awesome, now you’re a manager! Did you enlist as a military truck driver? Great, now you can drive our trucks!
Often lost in this approach is the fact many enlisted service members led teams of 20 to 100 men and women. Starting back at the bottom is an injustice to their experience level. Even a basic appreciation of military experience could make a big difference in a candidate’s potential within a company.
My experience during four years in the military was much more valuable than that of my four years spent in college. However employers tend to put more weight on rank than on expertise and experience. We need a paradigm shift around how we view service members in the workforce.
Let us shift our focus to the many successful habits, professional experiences and iron-forged core competencies that often separate service members from their civilian counterparts. Our veterans, commission and enlisted alike, must be truly understood and appreciated for the diverse set of skills and experiences they bring. Only then will our great nation’s veterans go from being just a checkbox on a job application to fully reintegrated citizens and valuable employees.