From War to Work

Untapped Resource

Companies find veterans offer advantages—but matchmaking proves to be a challenge.

As the economy slowly gains momentum, companies are hiring again and once again—many are finding that qualified candidates are not always readily available.

A resource that often goes untapped involves military veterans. Despite government efforts and public-service campaigns, unemployment among veterans remains notably higher than for the population at large—a curiosity, considering the skills that veterans can bring to private business. According to recent information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment was at 9 percent for veterans who actively served since September 2001; the most recent joblessness report for the nation put the civilian rate at 6.1 percent.

Along with the issue of recognizing those who have served their country, this also means thousands of people are available with training and experience in everything from health care to vehicle maintenance, from logistics to information technology.

The numbers involved are significant. Approximately 30,000 military personnel work at locations like Whiteman Air Force Base and Fort Leavenworth, plus numerous smaller offices in and around the Kansas City area. When their service is complete, many remain in the area.

“We have a lot of veterans here,” noted Jon Barry, director of the Show-Me Heroes Program and a member of the Missouri National Guard. “As we bring home more troops and see other developments, they represent a highly trained work-force pool that will be available in growing numbers.”

Making Connections

For local companies and organizations, accessing those workers is not always easy. For veterans of almost all ranks and skill levels, finding jobs can be equally difficult. One employed veteran said both groups often err by assuming things are simple. “It’s a process,” she said. “It’s not just turning in an application. It can be daunting, and it can be frustrating because a lot of things are not evident, but there is help and there are jobs.”

Solutions are increasing, as well. Jamaal Anderson is one of 43 “aces” across the country who represent a public-private effort funded by the Army Reserve and connected to the Hero2Hired ( program. Although some elements might confuse civilians, the help that is offered both veterans and employers is significant.

“I work with veterans and link with HR managers and job fairs,” Anderson explained. “More than anything, we’re a network for veterans to connect with employers. I’ve been in the program since 2012 and we’re getting the word out.”

The Show-Me Heroes program is another good example. Initiated in 2010 by Gov. Jay Nixon, it works directly with employers to place in jobs National Guard members and military veterans who are leaving the service. Although it works directly with businesses across the state, some of its most important work may be addressing the chronic barriers that often separate skilled veterans and potential civilian employers.

One of the biggest roadblocks is language—not the linguistics, per se, but the language of job descriptions and skill sets. Veterans and employers that have successfully tapped this labor market admit that, at times, the two parties require a translator to fill in the gap.

“A lot of it is learning how to translate the lingo,” explained Sophia Stachofsky, who, with Rachel Pederson, co-manages the Salvation Army’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families in Kansas and northwest Missouri. “There are a lot of skills that veterans have that can be applied in civilian positions, but they definitely need to be translated so they know where they fit and so that employers can see the fit.”

Barry agreed. “Everyone has their own alphabet soup and their own definition of things,” he said. “The military is very unique, and while the skills apply across every industry, the terms used don’t always translate.”

Anderson said the confusion is often simple but has serious impact. “We’ll have an employer who works in security and he’ll come to us” looking for former military police, he said. “But in today’s military, security is not limited to MPs. You’ll also find those skills in the infantry or engineers. It’s my job to put that out there for employers, and help veterans communicate that on their resumes.”

Another solution is the Show-Me Heroes’ Work Ready Employment Assistance Program which is creating some 20 career centers across the state that would help with this “translation” issue. While all military personnel receive Transition Assistance Program services upon discharge, WREAP is designed as a more advanced program to focus on key areas.

“We already conduct workshops and some of them focus on military skills and how to translate them into civilian categories,” Barry explained. “We often offer those for employers as well.”

Similar work will begin in October with a new program operated by the Salvation Army. Funded by a VA grant, it will add employment specialists for Wyandotte and Johnson counties.

Barry also stresses that veterans themselves should be part of the solution. “Our primary message is that the veteran has to sell himself to the employer,” he said. “It’s not up to the employer to figure out why he should hire.”

Anderson said younger veterans, especially, may need to polish their interviewing skills. “A lot of interview questions involve scenarios,” he added. “In many cases, these scenarios involve something that almost every soldier out there has done. The issue is, how do they articulate that to a civilian interviewer?”

Success Stories

Even with the best communication, some in the civilian world question how applicable military skills can be for private employers. Although today’s modern, high-tech military and sophisticated logistics should belie the image, constant news footage of GI’s with M-16s does leave a simplistic impression.

Brenda Bailey, business manager for the Antioch Dental Group in Kansas City, North, has no doubt that veterans offer skills for private business. “In the military, they have dental assistants, hygienists and other professions,” she said. “They have experience. They know how to work in a group setting. And they’ve applied their skills in settings you can’t imagine. We hire them.”

Bailey said the philosophy was not new for Antioch Dental. “Over the past 15 years, we’ve hired perhaps 14 or 15 people,” she explained. “Either veterans or their family members. It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done.”

The dental office recently earned a “Flag of Freedom” award through the Show-Me Heroes program. Another, and much larger, participant in the program is Cerner Corp. Like the dentist’s office, it has been hiring veterans for some time.

“We’ve always welcomed veteran applications, but we have made additional strides in the last three years,” explained Troy Teague, senior manager for Cerner’s Technical Recruitment and Talent Development. “They can bring value to Cerner and ultimately bring value to our clients. We find they quickly translate skills they’ve learned during their service into Cerner’s environment.”

Cerner’s experience is another illustration of how broad veteran skills can be. The corporation looks for talent in three main areas: clinical, business and technical. Veterans, including 40 hired recently, have to fit into all three areas.

“We have people in nursing, operations that we classify as business and the obvious technical areas,” Teague said. “A corporation our size also has ancillary services. Military police veterans are an obvious fit for our armed security-guard positions, for example.”

Teague also cited the “skill description translation” issue and said the international firm had addressed it directly. Although Cerner’s resources are larger than those of many companies, the concept is worth noting.

“From an employer’s standpoint, what you do is develop a recruiting team to translate that material,” he explained. “There are online services, but here at Cerner we created our own military decoder, where veterans type in their operations specialty number, and it matches them with the area we have.”

Teague noted that Cerner is not the only large organization promoting the hiring of veterans. He represents Cerner on the Kansas City Military Recruitment Board, which includes some of the area’s top companies. For just over 18 months, the group has been meeting to discuss ways to improve veteran hiring options. “Even though some of us are competing, we share ideas about what we can do,” he explained.

All Sizes

Somewhere between Antioch Dental Group and Cerner is the Auto Truck Group. Actually part of a nationwide corporation based in Chicago, the company operates a Kansas City location that recently moved to Hunt Midwest’s “Auto Alley” near the Ford plant. Not coincidentally, the Group performs a lot of work on Fords, including custom modifications to the popular F-150 pickup and the new Transit van. Other work provides custom vehicles for home centers.

Eric Schoenfeld, Auto Truck spokesman, said hiring veterans is an important part of the business. “The skill sets and values they bring are just tremendous,” he said. “We hire a lot of veterans.”

Like the other companies, Auto Truck has placed veterans in positions in nearly every level of its organization. A number of them work directly on vehicles in locations such as the Kansas City operation, applying mechanical skills learned in the service. Others apply leadership talents in Auto Truck Group’s managerial positions. Either way, transition is rarely a problem.

“A truck is a truck,” Schoenfeld laughed. “We look at their skills and find they translate very well. What you also see is a dedication and attitude of ‘getting the job done’ that’s a big asset for us.”

Grantham University’s online programs focus heavily on students who are in the military or recently discharged. But the university also hires a number of veterans, including at their new location in Lenexa. “We’ve hired folks who were leaders in the military; because of that, they bring great leadership skills,” explained Human Resources Manager Karen Grantham. “They’ve been able to lead a department or a section of the university, and their experience has been invaluable.”

Grantham also stressed that the university finds that veterans have other welcome traits. “Everyone in the military has a work ethic and knows the value of coming to work on time,” she said. “You don’t always get that from civilians, but with veterans, it’s almost always the case.”

Getting those strengths recognized by potential employees can be difficult, however. Grantham recommends that two of the things veterans should examine first are their resumes and interview skills.

“A lot of their skills translate, but they need to look at their resumes and see if those will speak to civilian employers,” Grantham added. “A number of times, they’re not clear on their resume about what systems they’ve worked on and how that would carry over into the civilian world. Those are the kind of things they need to look for.”

Grantham said the school is among the many organizations offering workshops for veterans, including programs on resumes and interviewing. “It’s beneficial for military people to have their resumes reviewed, even have them revamped, in order to capture what they’ve done and how that fits into the civilian world,” she explained. “There are also job clubs in Kansas City with speakers on networking and resumes. There are resources out there, but they have to go after them.”

Taking Advantage

A number of services are readily available, low cost or even free, but remain under-used. Chad Schatz is director of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Veterans Education and Training Section. Like their counterparts in Kansas, the section offers a number of services that should interest both veterans and companies that might hire them, including funding for training and education.

“When it comes to the GI Bill, most folks think of it as an opportunity to receive money to go to college,” Schatz explained. “What they don’t realize is there are benefits for job training out there, too. Our OJT (on-the-job training) and apprenticeship programs are excellent, but a lot of people don’t know about them.”

As an example, Schatz noted that many veterans have had college classes or training while in the military. When they leave the service, they may need some specific training or an apprenticeship before landing a full-time position in their area of training. In some cases, both the company and the veteran may hesitate or even avoid the opportunity because the up-front training appears too expensive.

“Say you’ve got the commitment to hire or even start,” Schatz explained. “That’s where we’d be called in.” Although there are variables—commission-only jobs don’t qualify—the program can fund up to six months of training or apprenticeship.

“I’ve been doing a lot of presentations to chamber groups,” Schatz said. “Once they understand it, they think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. I’m asked a lot, ‘When did this new program start?’ They’re surprised when I tell them it’s been around since World War II.”

The Show-Me Heroes program offers similar help. In one effort, companies can receive a 50-percent reimbursement for up to six months of wages for onboarding new veteran employees. With no salary or wage cap, that could a major savings. “If it’s a management job with a $100,000 salary, it’s still 50 percent,” Barry said. “Either way, it’s a great program.”

Almost everyone agreed the efforts are worth it. “The military experience can give you a worldly perspective,” Schatz said, “and in the business world, that can be invaluable.”

Pederson, with the Salvation Army, agreed. “The thing we have seen is an incredible dedication to work by veterans,” she concluded. “They bring a loyalty and a sense of the team that are invaluable in the work world.

“They know how to focus on the task at hand.”