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Businesses Backing Vets: How Companies Are Putting Veterans to Work

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Part of a Memorial Day series by Causecast that examines how Corporate America is finding new ways to help veterans.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that "the unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 -- a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans -- was 12.1 percent in 2011." Which means that if you were brave enough to serve your country, you have a much higher chance of being unemployed than if you had stayed home. Add to this the fact that 26% of Gulf-War-era II vets have a service-connected disability, and you've got a daunting obstacle course for vets who need to reintegrate into the civilian work world.

What's wrong with this picture?

Plenty. And that's why many leading companies are finding new ways of making themselves veteran friendly. What corporate social change trailblazers understand is that connecting vets with employment goes beyond hiring one vet at a time or sponsoring hiring fairs; it's about changing business cultures to recognize the value of vets while also helping vets articulate how their military skills are transferable to the civilian world.

Prudential is one example of this sort of corporate pioneer of good, with an entire department dedicated exclusively to helping veterans. I recently spoke with Prudential's Vice President of External Affairs, Stephen Robinson, to learn more about how the company is reinventing the ways in which companies can support those who have served.

One of Robinson's key jobs is to help Prudential develop best practices with regards to veterans employment issues and ensure that the company is a welcoming place for veterans transitioning to the workforce. Robinson's duties don't stop at Prudential's door, however; he's also charged with sharing these best practices with other corporate leaders to widen the national support net for veterans.

What experiences prepared you for your role with Prudential?

Everything in my life has led me to where I am today. I am the son of a three-tour veteran of Vietnam, who also served in Korea, and WWII. My father fraudulently enlisted at age 15, served close to 40 years and came home from these wars changed. I witnessed that journey, then I went off to serve. I served 20 years in military and saw the best and worst that humanity has to offer. During my time in the military I suffered many injuries related to the job, including blast injuries to my face and hands. I've seen the veteran issue from many sides. I have been a wounded warrior and patient, an advocate for veterans having testified before congress and helped with the development of legislation benefiting veterans, heightened the public exposure of veterans issues as a media spokesperson, as well as held leadership roles with nonprofits. And now at Prudential I'm given the extraordinary opportunity to leverage Prudential's philanthropic resources to support organizations that fill gaps in care and help returning veterans fully reintegrate back into society.

What does it mean for a company to be culturally competent when it comes to veterans?

Cultural competency means understanding who you're working with, how to speak with them, knowing their language, what they accept and don't accept, and how you approach someone that has a different set of experiences than yourself. Many veterans have an experience unlike their non-veteran counterparts: war. There's a shared bonding experience unique to veterans that only comes from witnessing the highs and lows, the best and the worst that humanity offers when serving in war. We tend to have a language of our own as well as common expectations and mannerisms. If you're going to work with veterans, it's important to understand who they are and the nature of their experiences. Likewise, the veteran needs to understand the culture of the place in which they work; they must shed some of their mannerisms and learn new ways of working with those in the civilian world. The veteran must understand the employer and the employer must understand the veteran if they are to work together successfully.

Veteran cultural competency needs to extend throughout an organization -- from recruiters to managers to employee assistance professionals-- even all the way up to the CEO. Leadership support is extremely important for the company to understand the value proposition of recruiting and hiring veterans.

Cultural competency doesn't just apply to veterans -- it can also be applied to any group that has similar experiences, cultural norms and beliefs. For many veterans that have served since 9/11, chances are they served in a war zone or directly in combat. And that means they have a unique experience that deserves to honored and understood. At Prudential, we have provided training and tools to managers and employees to help them better understand the veteran, their unique experiences and how to support them in a way that will help assure their success in the workplace. The training is also designed so that the managers focus on the individual's performance as they would with any other employee, not on a veteran-specific issue or behavior, that in turn helps ensure consistency.

What is your vision of how your company can help veterans?

Prudential has been and continues to strive to have a lasting impact on the lives of veterans and their families. In order to have influence in the space and to affect the employment and education of returning veterans, we have to be creative. Prudential has roughly 20,000 domestic employees and on our own we know we can't hire enough veterans to make a dent in the unemployment rate. We need to think of creative ways to influence others in corporate America to participate as well.

One aspect of our work is to support select nonprofit groups that can help make a difference by providing the necessary social services to help veterans find meaningful employment. After 10 years of war, it's important that philanthropic efforts focus on programmatic support for vets to find jobs and secure the kind of education that provides stability and resources they need to live in the post 9-11 world. I want to leverage everything I can within Prudential to share our thought leadership, use our advertising, global market research, philanthropy, and communications to create programs and policies that help returning veterans fully participate in society.

Besides hiring vets, we are working in other ways to make an impact on their lives. That's why we're supporters of the Joining Forces Initiative, members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Veteran Advisory council, and we serve on several working groups that are producing informational papers and policy briefs surrounding veteran wellness, veteran philanthropy, best practices insides companies, employment and education. My vision is that Prudential creates a movement in America that recognizes the value of veterans and why you should hire them.

What can companies do to help with the issue of unemployment for veterans?

The biggest thing is to change the perception of veterans from people in need to people you need. We're doing that in many different ways. We are involved at very high levels with the White House, Congress, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to make sure that America knows that returning veterans can bring value to your company. We recognize this as a company and are sharing our thoughts with others by introducing them to people who live and breathe it every day.

How do you see your goals around supporting veterans also helping Prudential as a company?

I believe 100% that in supporting veterans we help ourselves. We get people who are talented, motivated, dedicated, and this helps us improve how we do business and solve problems. The Institute for Veterans and Military Families recently published a white paper on the business case for hiring veterans. It reviewed 30 years of data around veterans, and this all boils down to many of the things that I know vets possess -- the intangibles that companies are starting to learn.

Veterans typically are the kind of people who -- if you give them a mission and help them understand their role in its success -- will go off and accomplish it without much supervision. Veterans are dedicated and have a demonstrated ability to work in arduous environments and take on complex tasks. The data also shows that vets typically work harder, longer, don't take as many sick days, and they have the demonstrated ability to inculcate themselves into the culture and improve the systems.

I like to tell people: what could you as a company do with someone who has, over the last 10 years, served in the world's most arduous environments, operated the most technically advanced equipment, made life and death decisions, in a place where those decisions have geopolitical consequences, and returned and served with honor? Those people could do pretty much anything you asked them to do and anything you will train them to do. When you hire a veteran and bring them into your company and they feel comfortable, safe, welcome and respected, you get productivity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, honesty and determination. Those things are hard to come by without having had some experience. Those are just a few of the many intangible attributes that veterans bring. Veterans display the ethos and morals and resourcefulness that hiring managers want. That turns into productivity.

I am the classic example of why giving veterans a chance is good for business. I served 20 years in the military. I wasn't exactly an honors student in high school and barely graduated. I became a senior non-commissioned officer and ended up being selected to work in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. My military experience has taught me to be adaptable, to know my job inside and out, to be able to work in a fast paced environment, make decisions under fire, be accountable and professional. All of that has translated into the work I do at Prudential.

I am also an example of how if you give veterans a chance and apply resources to the effort of veterans outreach, they will be successful. Education is important, but it isn't the only thing you need to be successful. Demonstrated experience also means a lot and can serve as a predictive factor about whether or not you have what it takes to be a leader.

How are you working with the community and other companies to help veterans find jobs?

I came from the nonprofit world as an executive director, government relations director, program manager and ultimately liaison to over 52 nonprofits. I understand the nonprofit space, and how valuable it is to fill the gaps that the government has difficulty filling when confronting the situation we have today, which is ten years of war and restrictive budgets. I am an advocate for veterans and for nonprofits helping veterans, a supporter of groups that are helping with meaningful programs and reintegration to help veterans reap the benefits of hard work and give them opportunity.

It seems like you have such a unique mandate at Prudential. Is a role like yours common at other companies?

I have been at Prudential a little more than 1-1/2 years, and in that time I have come across few companies and individuals who have positions and resources similar to what we have at Prudential. What's different about Prudential is that my counterpart and I work on nothing but veterans issues. In that sense I have only met about five companies that have positions like mine that are solely focused on veterans. It's a model we have shared with others and encouraged them to look at if they think it works for them. Many companies are starting to adopt this approach.

Do you think that more companies will follow Prudential's model in terms of in-house leadership around helping veterans?

Definitely, and we've been exposed to many companies that are doing things we had not considered. I often get contacted by companies who want to evaluate our model. We share it freely and enjoy the camaraderie of our Fortune 500 partners all working together to bring solutions -- program policies and resources -- to helping returning veterans so they enjoy coming home and are returning to society with our full support. We owe it to them. We're not in it for a pat on the back. We're in it because we believe hiring veterans makes good business sense. It helps us grow as a company and provides a tangible return on investment.