Maximizing the Value of Veterans

11/10/2017 05:33 pm ET

The unemployment rate for military veterans has dropped to a record low, 2.7%, this past October, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This demonstrates that our country’s public-private focus on hiring veterans has worked, since unemployment of veterans hit a high point of 12 percent in 2011. This improvement is thanks to government incentives, and to a broad private-sector understanding that military training has equipped veterans with a special combination of leadership experience and technical skills. Yet the challenge of helping veterans transition to flourishing civilian careers extends far beyond a job. When it comes to connecting veterans to meaningful careers, we still have work to do.

Research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) finds that veterans are stalling out once they enter the U.S. workforce. The technical and leadership skills that they have earned through their military experience—skills that should put them on a fast track to promotion in civilian life—often get lost in translation.

Mission Critical: Unlocking the Value of Veterans in the Workforce finds that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the 1,022 veterans interviewed for the study say they’re not using three or more of the technical and leadership skills they have that could be relevant in the corporate context. Among the skills being left on the table, the top technical capabilities veterans say they’re not leveraging in the workplace are: social media, language fluency, computer programming, accounting, and statistical analysis. Among the leadership skills: managing the career development of others, transparent decision-making, relationship/stakeholder management, and team building. Among 43 percent of veterans who aspire to a more senior position, 39 percent report feeling stalled in their careers.

Managers have an opportunity to leverage their veteran talent and make veterans feel included in the workplace. Some organizations are experimenting with cutting-edge approaches to connect veterans with leadership positions that suit their unique skills and experience.

Prudential is taking a highly programmatic approach to creating an inclusive culture for veterans. The company has an active veterans’ employee resource group (VetNet) with hundreds of veteran and civilian members. The company also partnered with a nonprofit organization called Workforce Opportunity Services to recruit and select veterans for specific opportunities, according to the unique skills they gained in the military, such as IT, project management, or quality assurance. The highly configurable program, called VETalent, recruits candidates with a passion and interest in the available positions, and then develops a training program to best prepare the participants to perform that role. “We don’t want to just give veterans jobs; we want to give them meaningful careers,” says Charles Sevola, Prudential’s vice president and head of Veterans Initiatives who administers VETalent for the firm.

Managers can also leverage their veteran talent through sponsorship.

As explained in Forget A Mentor, Find A Sponsor, sponsors are senior leaders who get behind talent they feel have leadership potential and advocate for their advancement. Sponsors talk up their protégés with other senior leaders in closed-door meetings; they also defend their protégés from would-be detractors. With a sponsor, CTI research shows, a rising leader is more likely to ask for a raise, get a plum assignment, and be satisfied with his or her rate of advancement. But according to the CTI definition of sponsorship, only two percent of the veterans surveyed have sponsors.

Those who do have sponsors or senior-level advocacy receive the critical feedback they need to succeed in the workplace. For instance, Kate,* a former officer, recalls getting critical feedback which changed her trajectory at the firm. Her sponsor took her aside and said, “I want to share something with you. I have to tell you, the way you dismiss others’ ideas sometimes makes me cringe. This isn’t the military. And if you don’t address this, it will shut down your career.” Kate didn’t know her directness was a problem. She immediately set about modifying her leadership style. She decided to take seminars and practice her communication with her peers. And it worked. Today, Kate is a marketing and communications specialist at a major pharmaceutical company, and she coaches senior leaders on developing their own style in leading others diplomatically.

Sponsors can help veterans learn how to lead more inclusively and drive results that get them on the radar of leaders and/or other potential sponsors. Veterans who have sponsors can also learn how to connect with their coworkers and close the distance that they often feel from their civilian teammates.

As we celebrate and honor our veterans this Veterans Day, employers need to take the time to truly understand their veteran employees and successfully help them adapt their military leadership strengths to stand out in the corporate sphere. Any company can hire veterans but not many are successfully utilizing the immensely valuable skill and experiences that veterans bring to the table. Companies that identify the key barriers that are inhibiting veterans in the workforce can unleash the innovation potential from this unique and diverse workforce.

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