Casting Vets Into the Private Sector

Tags: 3PL, Education & Careers, Military Logistics

A businessman casts a shadow shaped like a soldier

After serving Uncle Sam, former military personnel are armed with the experience and skill needed to battle supply chain challenges.

The word logistics comes from the French term l'art logistique—the art of quartering troops. So it's not surprising that the logistics and supply chain sector is closely aligned with the military in many of its processes, strategies, and, increasingly, its workforce. As several branches of the U.S. military draw down troops, many private sector companies are looking to leverage those skills.

Many supply chain managers who work with veterans give glowing reviews of the teamwork, discipline, and focus they bring to private sector jobs. Employers agree that veterans have valuable experience to offer—even if they didn't specifically serve in logistics or transportation roles.

"Veterans have all been logisticians," notes Dr. Carmen Mousel, active duty Army logistics officer and instructor at Charles Town, W.V.-based American Public University, which offers degree and other programs to departing soldiers. "Waging war requires acquiring, shipping, storing, and utilizing personnel, equipment, money, food, and clothing—wherever it's needed. Doing battle means moving constantly."

Employers recruiting veterans for supply chain roles value that experience, as well as the skills and traits former military personnel possess. While every employee brings a unique background and character to the job, serving in the armed forces instills fundamental values such as leadership, teamwork, flexibility, integrity, focus on safety, resilience, pride of ownership, a sense of mission, and a global perspective.

The Right Stuff

Veterans are a preferred recruiting source for Joplin, Mo.-based carrier Con-way Truckload. "Veterans typically are disciplined, hardworking, and accustomed to challenging environments and varying conditions," says Bert Johnson, vice president of human resources at Con-way Truckload. "They're also the epitome of leadership, and they respect others and the chain of command."

"Military personnel have typically been trained to communicate effectively one-on-one, and to assume leadership in a group environment," adds Neal Collins, global sector leader, logistics and transportation services, for Los Angeles-based executive search firm Korn Ferry. "Those abilities are in demand among shipper operations and logistics providers."

Supply chain and military jobs share similarities. Both environments are fast-paced and labor-intensive. They rely on repeatable processes—but require the agility to shift tactics at a moment's notice. And supply chain organizations often promote from within, as does the military.

Jorge Pimentel joined the Army at 17 years old, and spent 13 years in transportation and logistics, most recently as a transportation management coordinator and logistician helping to set up and run a supplies warehouse in Afghanistan. When he interviewed for a part-time associate position at Walmart's Waco, Texas, distribution center, the hiring manager saw value in Pimentel's experience, and recommended he apply for a management position instead. Today, Pimentel is the DC's receiving area manager.

Veterans have also proven a good match for online retailer Amazon. "The leadership principles Amazon upholds align with the skill sets of former military personnel," says Kelly Cheeseman, senior manager, communications, at Amazon. Those principles include a bias for action, delivering results, and meeting deadlines—all valuable qualities for Amazon's fulfillment network.

Veterans also often find a great fit at military contracting companies. It's possible for some personnel to return to the same site they worked on during active duty—this time wearing civilian clothes. This arrangement requires minimal transition or training time.

URS, a San Francisco-based engineering, construction, and technical services contractor, recruits veterans with long-term employment in mind. About 60 percent of the company's employees have military experience.

One valuable asset veteran hires bring to the table is real-world insight about logistics operations, honed from firsthand experience. In the military, logisticians often travel with the cargo they're managing, so they see and solve challenges as they occur. "Veterans gain a wealth of experience living the supply chain," says William Surrey, program manager for URS. "They can't get that from books."

Recruiting ROI

Many companies experience real impact when they hire veterans. Extending job offers to former military personnel is a practical way to honor their service, but employers say there's more to it than that.

"We recognize the value that veterans contribute to a logistics operation," says Chris Peck, corporate vice president of human resources for UPS. "They bring a lot to the table."

Brent Danberry served 20 years as a Marine. He earned a bachelor's degree in transportation and logistics management at American Public University, and a master's degree in management at University of Redlands. Within one year of leaving the service, he moved from a store floor job at Target to a supervisory position at a Best Buy distribution center. He is currently starting a new logistics position.

One military skill that served him well at Best Buy was contingency planning. "When rolling out a new program, for example, it's important to consider all the variables and what could go wrong," Danberry explains. "You've got to look at all angles, just like the military does."

Despite the similarities between supply chain and military operations, both employers and veteran recruits may need to take steps to get accustomed to one another. Moving directly from active duty military to private sector job hunting and employment represents a culture shock for many veterans.

The first evidence of culture shock often shows up during the interview process, which can require veterans to shift their thinking. "In the Army, no jobs are done alone," says Dr. Mousel. "Enlisted personnel work as a team."

Soldiers are trained to see success as a team effort, and failure as their own fault. "I still struggle to take credit for accomplishments my team achieved," admits Danberry.

During job interviews, veterans tend to talk in terms of their team's achievements. Interviewers should be prepared to ask questions that help veterans identify their own skills and experiences.

Another tricky area in veteran recruiting is terminology. Both the military and the logistics sector rely on buzzwords and acronyms, but they often speak different languages. This becomes particularly evident when reading resumes and conducting job interviews. Many vets need help reworking military jargon and experiences into terms relevant to employers. One company developed a handbook to help its veterans translate military jargon into private sector supply chain terms when talking to customers and colleagues.

Military and private sector protocols also differ. Kirk Imhof, group director of diversity, culture, and engagement for Miami-based third-party logistics provider Ryder System, experienced this firsthand when a newly hired veteran stood outside his office waiting to be recognized instead of knocking for attention. "What may be perceived in the civilian world as an awkward moment may, in the military world, be expressing respect," Imhof explains.

Because military and private sector settings are fundamentally different, it can be tough to transition from the more aggressive stance required in war conditions to a civilian way of relating.

Don't Give me a Break

Another contrast is the programmed pace of many civilian blue-collar jobs—with their coffee breaks and lunch hours—compared with the military's stay-until-the-job-is-done orientation. Civilian supply chain jobs can be less regimented and procedure-driven, which represents a big change for some soldiers.

Many supply chain operations have lost this military approach. "Until the late 1990s, logistics providers were oriented toward command and control," says Korn Ferry's Collins. "Today, they are more sophisticated. They operate matrix structures, crossing international boundaries, and employing high-tech tools. That can make the transition difficult for veterans."

Letting Go of Assumptions

Some companies might hold pre-conceived ideas about how the military operates and what veterans are like. But some of these ideas may be outdated and/or inaccurate.

"Some employers believe stereotypes about veterans," says UPS's Peck—for example, that every veteran experiences post-traumatic stress disorder. "These companies see too much risk when they consider veteran job applicants."

These misconceptions reflect a need for employer education. "Veterans with psychiatric disorders are actually not that common," says George Vukovich, a Marine Corps vet and director of veterans outreach at American Public University. On the contrary, many vets have gleaned valuable lessons from traumatic experiences.

Another area of controversy is leadership style. Taking and giving orders is a necessary part of successful military operations, but the way they are typically delivered doesn't suit the private sector.

"Veterans in private sector leadership roles learn to motivate their workers individually, and understand what makes people tick," says Zack Deming, client partner at Korn Ferry. And, veterans at the mid-management level "have to master influencing without authority," he adds.

But not everyone agrees that today's military is led that way. "The military recognizes it has a volunteer workforce," says Peck. "Its leaders are just as concerned as private sector managers about employee engagement, discretionary effort, talent development, and retention.

"This is not the military of a generation ago," he adds. "The military must act more like a business to be successful."

Wounded, Not Unemployable

Another misconception is that veterans with mental or physical impacts from their years of service may not be a fit for fast-moving logistics jobs. But some companies are proving that idea wrong.

Flagship Logistics Group—a wholly owned subsidiary of Los Angeles-based food industry service provider Flagship Food Group—built a state-of-the-art, ADA-compliant customer contact center in Indianapolis, Ind., that enables hiring veterans using wheelchairs, hospital beds, or other assistive devices.

"Many servicemen and women are being passed over for more able-bodied individuals," says Keith Warren, president of Flagship Logistics Group.

The center helps Flagship market to potential customers using the talents and characteristics typical of many veterans. The company expects to expand its current staff of four to 12 by 2015.

Welcoming wounded warriors to its workforce was not just about cultural preparation. Flagship also had to design a call center with features such as modular furniture, adjustable-height surfaces, and wide aisles to accommodate assistive devices.

Strong commitment is a must to make such a program succeed, but it has been worthwhile for Flagship. "A company that hires wounded veterans should be prepared to be surprised at what they get in return," says Warren. "Our workers brought with them processes and procedures that helped us document the things we do every day, and that speeds up training for future employees."

Finding the Right Recruits

Numerous programs exist to help employers connect with job-seeking veterans. (See  sidebar for a list of programs.)

In addition to its own recruiting programs, UPS works with the U.S. Department of Labor's Registered Apprenticeship (RA) program, which integrates vets into the workforce. The program enables former military personnel to use their Post-911 GI Bill benefits to learn a skilled trade and improve their employability.

"UPS is working with the Department of Labor to have our delivery driver positions certified under the RA program," notes Peck. UPS plans to also certify its information technology, auto mechanic, and plant engineering facility mechanic positions in the near future.

Direct hiring is one way to find employees with military backgrounds, but supply chain companies can also participate in programs such as Air Force Education with Industry. This program places officers in residence with employers for 10 months for a specific responsibility and exposure to expand their knowledge of logistics or other functional specialties through the lens of private industry. Officers selected to participate have seven to 10 years' experience in their respective fields, and represent the best the Air Force has to offer.

Yes, serving in the military is different than working in the private sector. But shippers and logistics service providers are finding that, with the right support, military veterans will bring valuable skills, experience, and characteristics that make their own operations Army strong.