Connecting Veterans to Their Next Career

I wrote previously about the immense challenges military veterans face as they exit the military and seek a new existence. The disruption of their sense of purpose and community can be emotionally crushing as the veteran seeks to find a meaningful new career and regain connection to a community beyond that provided by the intimacy of their military unit.

If a disconnect between employable veterans and companies desiring talented employees does exist, how do we address this problem? What can we do to link the supply with the demand? I believe that, as a society, it is urgent that we develop and implement solutions. I say this not purely from an altruistic sense of obligation to my fellow veterans- I say this in recognition of the tremendous economic and social welfare foregone by under-employing military veterans in America’s labor force. Significant financial value is NOT being created and captured because we are not leveraging the full potential of veterans in the work force.

There is a substantial body of evidence that indicates veterans are under-employed. I previously referenced a survey of over 1,200 Veterans in 2013 – 2014 conducted by VetAdvisor and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University that illuminated a significant first and second-year turnover rate post-separation, with over half of surveyed veterans leaving their initial post-separation position within the first year and over 65% within two years.

What is causing this? Why do veterans feel compelled to leave these careers in droves? What about these first post-separation career opportunities is so unfulfilling that veterans are willing to again wade into uncertainty and risk (loss of income, no health insurance, emotional instability) in order to continue searching for their professional passion?

I came across some additional evidence that suggests some reasons why we struggle to retain veterans. The employment website conducted a 2014 survey of military professionals and human resource professionals,  discovering that most employers (68%) do not have any retention programs in place to serve their veteran employees. In another survey of 1,022 veterans working full-time in white-collar professions conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, researchers found that only 2% said they have an executive who really champions and advocates on their behalf. By contrast, 19% of civilian men and 13% of women in felt the same way.

I believe 3 major obstacles exist to linking military veterans to meaningful careers where they remain and grow:

  1. The difficulty of identifying a meaningful career opportunity that ignites the veteran’s passion
  2. Dissatisfaction with job quality and company culture
  3. Lack of development or advancement potential

Despite the difficulty and complexity of reducing these obstacles, I offer 2 solutions I believe are worth consideration and action. First, we must connect veterans to the right roles that allow them to immediately apply their existing skills and abilities (leadership, character, drive, creativity and innovation, curiosity, task orientation, risk management, etc.) while also stretching the veteran to introduce challenge and enable development and growth. Second, once employed, a company would do well to support the veteran with meaningful corporate mentorship and connect them to veteran resource groups within the company.

To connect veterans to meaningful new careers, platforms and opportunities must exist to expose veterans to various industries, fields, and roles. Fortunately, a substantial number of organizations and resources already exist that endeavor to help veterans find their next career. I’ll highlight a few who do this exceptionally well:

  • Veterati is an incredible platform that links transitioning veterans with mentors who can help them navigate the complexities of the job hunt and provide access to their professional network. Mentorship is an extremely powerful tool that can serve as a “flotation device” for a veteran and help them organize their career search. The value of a mentor who is willing to provide access to their professional network is extremely salient- veterans frequently lack a robust network in the industries and fields they target and therefore struggle to network effectively.
  • BreakLine prepares veterans for high-powered tech careers by providing exposure to Silicon Valley’s titans. BreakLine’s founder and CEO Bethany Coates is a true giver and connector- she has committed her life to helping realize military veteran’s talent and capacity for innovation. Bethany is astonishingly well connected in “the valley” and exposes BreakLine participants to a revolving door of legendary tech founders and executives. Her organization consistently places veterans highly in companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, PayPal, Square, and Palantir (just to name a few).
  • Similarly, Stanford Ignite is a program through Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business that provides veterans an unbelievable entrepreneurship and innovation experience. The intensive 1 month program provides veterans the knowledge, tools, and network to successfully launch their own venture. I participated in this program in 2015 and it was absolutely transformative.
  • NextOp seeks to propel veterans into careers in heavy industry. Located in Houston, the epicenter of Oil and Gas and industrial construction, NextOp is well positioned to introduce veterans to careers in companies that benefit greatly from veteran’s existing skills. To achieve this, NextOp provides transitioning veterans with the mentorship and coaching necessary to support them into their new career in industry and beyond.

The next frontier of this effort is to expand the availability and quality of “internship-like” experiences to allow veterans to “try out” potential occupations through workshops and opportunities to shadow employees/managers/executives currently working in targeted roles. This type of experience would reduce the necessity of a transitioning veteran to choose a career arbitrarily or through trial and error.

Despite the existence of an abundance of high quality organizations that seek to inform and place veterans, I believe opportunity for improvement still exists. When I transitioned from the Army after 10 years, I struggled to connect with any of these organizations in a meaningful way. Despite my effort to market myself, I did not access support from a single one of these organizations successfully. In many cases, conversations with their leaders left me feeling even more confused, lost, and self-conscious than before. I did not gain the mentorship and enlightenment that I desperately needed to transition into a new career.

Once placed into a new career, the second part of the solution is for businesses to better support and nurture their veteran talent in ways that ensure the new employee’s professional abilities are applied and adequately valued. Providing a corporate mentor is an extremely effective way to educate and develop a new veteran employee, accelerating their assimilation into the company. The natural tendency is to link a new employee to another veteran employee; although this is a reasonable approach, I encourage companies to create a corps of mentors who are high-potential managers with a deep understanding the company’s culture and operations. The mentor’s status as a veteran is much less important. Another sound technique to improve retention is to connect veteran employees within intra-company communities where they can leverage one another as a resource and create a sense of camaraderie through shared identity. Employee Resource Groups are a great way to engage veteran employee’s inherent resilience and self-sufficiency. Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs, are generally informal and employee-run groups. ERGs provide a platform for veterans within the company to connect and also provide veteran employees a voice. ERGs create opportunities for veteran employees to learn from one another’s experience, network into more appropriate positions within the company, and increase cross-department collaboration through trusted relationships.

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