(Photo by SDI Productions/iStock by Getty Images)

Employers across the U.S. have made tremendous strides in recent years when it comes to launching  programs to attract veterans. They’re casting a wider net and honing their hiring and training practices. But the transition from military life to the civilian workforce often remains difficult. Much of the challenge of easing that process lies with recruiters and HR managers, who need to be educated about the skills and life experience of transitioning veterans, said participants in From Day One’s recent webinar, “Matching Military Veterans With Your Need For Skilled Talent.”

“There’s a big difference between military-friendly and military-ready,” said Dave Harrison, executive director of national apprenticeships for Fastport, a software-development company that builds products to help military-community members find meaningful employment. Harrison himself is an Army veteran who served with the 82ndAirborne.

One of the biggest issues for military veterans transitioning to a business environment is adapting to a completely new organizational culture. “The danger point for everyone, and I can’t stress this enough, [is] in transitions, in the first six months,” said Harrison. “The higher-ranking they are, the more danger that is, because the more disenfranchised they’re going to be in that first transition. They’re used to being able to manage things at a whim; that they will not be able to do. So you need to create a culture that helps them assimilate to your culture.”

“Once they understand the landscape,” he continued, “you will be amazed at what those folks will do for you and how they will create a culture of problem-solving that you may not have had in certain areas–and how other people will follow them to you if you give them that kind of platform.”

Getting Managers up to Speed

That’s where training for hiring managers comes in, said Jacqueline Jarl, also a veteran and a military recruiting program manager at Stryker, a medical-technologies corporation. “In 2019, we decided that it was necessary for us to build what we call a military-talent familiarization curriculum” for recruiters, she said. “Given my Army background, I started building what we call Military 101,” which she describes as a “foundational” course for “somebody who has never really heard of anything in the military other than what they see on TV and movies.”

“It’s just the basics, the rank structure, the different services, the different components, what’s the difference between active and reserve and guard. So we started building these curriculums that are housed in our online-learning management system, so anybody has access to them.” That includes “your recruiters, your HR, business partners, your hiring managers, anybody who sits in an interview.” She added: “Every single new recruiter that comes into Stryker, it’s mandatory for them to go through that training.”

Employers must also come to understand the time frame associated with military transition, participants said, reaching out and keeping contact with candidates long before they leave the service. “Folks are going to start looking as many as 24 months in advance of their transition date,” said Greg Rivera, the military recruiting lead at Booz Allen Hamilton, the management consulting firm. “And they’re going to be doing various different things, whether they’re upskilling, getting a resume together, fine-tuning their interviewing skills, learning about business and how they can fit in and where they can fit in.”

“As we are engaging with those individuals,” Rivera said, “we’re making sure that we’re keeping them fully engaged on what’s going on within the firm, giving them that pulse check.”

Speaking on hiring military veterans, top row from left: Jacqueline Jarl of Stryker and Chris Cortez of Microsoft. Middle row: Dave Harrison of Fastport, moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, and Chuck Kluball of The Home Depot. Bottom: Greg Rivera of Booz Allen Hamilton (Image by From Day One)

The Need for a Sustained Focus

Harrison agreed with the need for prospective employers to take a long-term approach. “Anyone in the business of hiring, or trying to sell a military-ready program, you have to get the hierarchy to understand that this is not [the case that] the fish are going to jump in the boat in the next 10 minutes. You’re not going to get 7,000 hires tomorrow, especially developing a program. If you are talking to people who are 20, up to 24 months out from the transition, this is a long play,” he said.

Training and timeframe education for HR managers must also reinforce the fact that the military transition is far different from regular job switches, said Chuck Kluball, senior manager of military relations at The Home Depot.

“It is a strong culture shock,” said Kluball, also a veteran. “For many of the veterans getting out, this would be the first time they do job interviews. It would be the first time they will write a resume. It’ll be the first time they sit through an actual onboarding with a company where they don’t show up and have their entire day or their entire onboarding process planned out for them.”

“This will be the first time that they have to deal with different type of work environments,” Kluball said. “It’s a lot–and it’s also one of the only times in your life where you’ll go through a job change, potentially a relocation, health care change, education changes, potentially your family’s getting uprooted. It’s an entire life change versus just a job change. So companies that are prepared to provide support for that life-changing event, not just a job-changing event, we’re going to see higher retention. And then, because of the high retention, they’re going to see higher performance out of the veterans they are bringing in.”

Practical Approaches to the Transition

To capitalize on the potential of veterans, companies such as Microsoft have been particularly proactive. In 2013, the software giant began the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy (MSSA). “Think of it as a 17-week technology boot camp, where you come either through a transition, or you come through our program while you’re participating in the SkillBridge program, which allows you to go through these kinds of programs when you’re within the last six months of your service,” said Chris Cortez, Microsoft’s vice president of military affairs and a retired Marine Corps major general.

He added that “it doesn’t matter what your military specialty was, you could be a truck driver, you could be a cook, a medic­–we take them all. And at the end of this 17 weeks, you have the blocking and tackling that it takes to go to work–no kidding–in a technology company. As a matter of fact, we have over 750 companies that have hired from this program.”

The importance of networking and word of mouth cannot be overestimated when it comes to awareness about such veteran programs, participants said. “People that go through the program have friends,” Cortez said of MSSA. “So we get a lot of interest through referrals. The graduates from the program have their own social network, and they also talk about the program. And like all the companies here, we work with Hiring Our Heroes, the service academies, career conferences and others that reach out and touch our military–and we all talk about our programs.”

Opportunities for Military Families

The impact of such outreach and networking extends to military spouses and veterans’ families as well,  an effort that has actually been aided by the increase in remote working during the pandemic. “There’s an amazing opportunity that’s come out of the Covid transition and remote-working scenarios,” Harrison said. “There are a few companies that, very early on, figured out that there’s a whole population of talent out there that was untapped: active-duty military spouses. If you can find a way to have them work remotely, you will have a dedicated workforce that will stay with you for the long term. And there are companies that are now engaging military spouses stationed in Germany and Italy and Okinawa, etcetera.”

Other companies such as Home Depot work diligently to relocate military spouse employees to accommodate deployments and base transfers, said Kluball. But while many organizations have made great strides in attracting, training, and easing veterans’ transitions, work still needs to be done and more overarching outreach must be offered to the individuals who served the country.

“I believe we’re going to do better, because we’ve made some really radical changes,” said Cortez. “Our goal, always from the very beginning, was to get 100% [of trainees hired]. We’re not quite there. We’re at about 98%. But we want 100% of those that go to this program, to get them employed, get them a good job, get them a career in the technology industry.”

Sheila Flynn is a Denver-based freelance journalist who has written for the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Daily Mail, and Irish Times. She is the daughter of Vietnam veteran and Bronze Star recipient John Flynn, who served with the 101st Airborne Division. Upon his return to the U.S., he spent decades installing phone systems for AT&T and Lucent in New York City before starting his own telecom business.