THE BLOG
11/10/2014 10:28 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

On Veterans Day, Let's Help Keep Vets Employed

DanielBendjy via Getty Images

The nearly three million men and women who have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan are encountering what veterans of previous wars have long known -- that the transition from the all-encompassing regimen of military life to the free form competition of the civilian workforce, presents many challenges.

Thanks to the commitment of hundreds of large employers, veterans are finding meaningful employment opportunities. Where once our challenge as a society was simply finding a good job for our veterans, today it is ensuring that they remain employed for years to come. We know that turnover rates are extremely high -- nearly 50 percent in year one and almost 75 percent by year two. We must do better.

Adjusting to a new career can create challenges for veterans, especially the significant number -- nearly one third -- who have newly acquired disabilities. But what about those veterans living with invisible injuries? Even those employers that do have an awareness of the career needs of persons with disabilities often have little exposure to the issues and challenges facing recent veterans, especially the "signature" but often invisible issues of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan -- traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress or major depression. By some estimates, one in four of all returning veterans will be diagnosed with these conditions.

At the National Organization on Disability, we have provided advisory services to numerous Fortune 500 employers and worked with more than 350 Wounded Warriors -- 70 percent of whom achieved career success. Our experience over the last six years has shown that many employers need help in recruiting and assimilating veterans with disabilities into the workforce. Part of the problem is the stigma associated with cognitive and mental health issues. Managers may be influenced by often-exaggerated media accounts of cognitive or psychological injuries and may (consciously or not) exaggerate the issues involved in hiring a Wounded Warrior. Co-workers and managers often don't understand military culture or disability. Even the most motivated employers may be unprepared for subtle issues that can arise and many welcome the knowledge that a trusted advisor can provide and whom they can call in the event of concerns or complications.

But as many American businesses are learning, those who have volunteered for today's Armed Forces and returned home with disabling conditions have learned to operate in complex work environments, in diverse teams, often on accelerated learning curves. They tend to function well in results-oriented organizational cultures. They've often been driven by a strong sense of mission and purpose and are looking for opportunities to make a meaningful contribution in civilian life. And they've built up extraordinary resilience and ingenuity, learning to triumph over adversity again and again.

That's why we have taken what we've learned over six years of applied research and are sharing our findings with employers. This Veterans Day, NOD has released an important new guide, the Employers Guide to Welcoming and Supporting Wounded Warriors, that complements our other offerings, with leading employment practices and actionable tips for not only recruiting and on-boarding veterans, but also supporting and retaining veterans within a company's workforce to avoid high turnover rates. This is especially significant for the nearly 50,000 federal contractors who are subject to new regulations on hiring protected veterans, including those with disabilities, under updates to the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act.

These guides may be found at NOD.org. A few of the tips include:

• Start with a cultural assessment of the organization: Do you provide training for managers and supervisors on working with veterans or people with disabilities?

• Consider "up-ending" the recruiting process, where job placements begin with the veteran rather than the empty position, to gauge where a veteran's skills can best contribute and what jobs will be a good fit.

• Accommodations like checklists, assistive software and adaptive technology are low-cost but effective tools for those with cognitive issues.

• The military is a team environment. Many veterans report that they miss that camaraderie. Engaging veterans with disabilities in veterans' employee resource group can make them feel welcome and connected.

The successful transition of injured veterans into satisfying civilian employment provides an invaluable opportunity for our country to continue benefiting from the dedication, talent and leadership of its bravest young people. But more fundamentally, making sure that this transition is successful is the ultimate debt we owe to those most severely injured in their country's service.