Hiring Heroes: A Good Deal for U.S. Companies

Tags: Education & Careers, Military Logistics

Handshake between people dressed in business suit and camo

The logistics sector is waging war against high unemployment among veterans with aggressive hiring programs that benefit both sides.

For David Padilla of Bronx, N.Y., five years of service in the U.S. Navy and participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom provided unparalleled opportunities he couldn't get elsewhere.

"I started off as a basic navigator, and eventually worked my way up to database manager," he says. "As database manager, I was responsible for keeping track of the ships around us at any given time." That could be as many as 15,000 to 20,000 vessels of vastly different descriptions.

Padilla also had experience as an air controller for the helicopters that operated off his ship. Once, with a man overboard, he had to direct five different choppers as they sought to rescue one floundering sailor in a churning sea. He did so with the top brass perched over his shoulders, intensely invested in every move he made. The stress was immeasurable; the cost of failure too high to contemplate, he says.

"Once veterans get trained, we hit the ground running. We don't like to crawl." —David Padilla, UPS

 

When he left the Navy in 2009, Padilla, still in his 20s, couldn't find a job. He submitted resumes and pounded the pavement for two and a half years, while he completed the final courses for his bachelor's degree at Mercy College. He went to job interview after job interview, only to see the coveted positions go to someone else.

Upon asking why he didn't qualify for a banking position he'd really wanted, he was told that his skills and knowledge didn't translate to a financial setting. In other words, he had no experience handling cash.

True enough. "But I did successfully navigate a billion-dollar ship," he notes.

Then his luck changed. "I was at the VA hospital and happened to meet a representative of PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment, a program created by the Paralyzed Veterans of America)," he recalls. "We just got to talking."

Padilla recounted his don't-call-us, we'll-call-you stories to the PAVE representative, who offered to help him connect with potential employers—even though he wasn't disabled or a traditional candidate for PAVE's assistance.

Shortly after that chance meeting, Padilla was hired for full-time work by UPS, which needed a package dispatch supervisor in New York City.

From Padilla's perspective, it was a match made to order: a steady paycheck; night hours that would let him pursue graduate studies during the day; significant responsibilities managing people, packages, and trucks; and a culture that valued the attributes he brought to the job.

"UPS understood my military background," he says. "I didn't have to explain it."

The company also promised that if he worked as hard at UPS as he had in the Navy, he could advance through the ranks. That message spoke to Padilla's values and aspirations. It was language he could attach to a personal goal and an organizational mission. It was what he'd waited more than two years to hear.

Since joining UPS, Padilla has seized every opportunity to lead and achieve. "Once veterans get trained, we hit the ground running," he says. "We don't like to crawl."

Now Hiring: Employers Commit to Veterans

UPS will welcome many more veterans like Padilla in the coming years, if Patrick O'Leary, veterans affairs manager at the Atlanta-based expediter, has his way.

"UPS has always been a military-friendly employer, but about two years ago, we decided we needed to do better," O'Leary explains. That's when the company charged him with synchronizing and turbo-charging veteran recruitment efforts across its nationwide operations.

The commitment generated immediate results. In 2012, UPS hired more than 10,400 service men and women, a 35-percent increase over the previous year.

UPS took this step for what O'Leary considers obvious reasons. "Somebody recently asked me why we hire veterans," he says. "I just looked at them and answered, 'Because they make excellent employees.'"

That's also the consensus at Miami-based third-party logistics provider Ryder System Inc. "Vets are great hires; they're ready for more," says Ed Tobon, the company's director of staffing.

Because veterans bring a can-do spirit to whatever task they're assigned, Ryder is determined to employ more of them. In fact, in 2011, the firm embarked on a campaign to hire 1,000 veterans by the end of 2013.

Hiring programs such as these are increasingly being implemented at large corporations and small companies throughout the country. Working in concert with veterans and military agencies, the private sector is bringing its own can-do spirit to the perplexing problem of high unemployment among veterans—all while accessing trench-tested talent for critical positions.

Throughout much of the economic downturn, veterans of various age groups have experienced unemployment rates at least two percentage points higher than the rates for their civilian counterparts. Among some groups, the rate was far higher than that. The unemployment rate for veterans aged 18 to 24 averaged 20.4 percent in 2012, Time magazine reported in early 2013. That was more than five percentage points higher than the average among non-veterans in the same age group.

Such high rates have caused chagrin on Main Street, in the Pentagon, and even the Oval Office. The Obama administration is so concerned that, in late April 2013, it announced a new Joining Forces initiative to employ 100,000 veterans and military spouses in the private sector. (At a White House event to kick off the program, a beaming Padilla took to the podium to share his job-search experiences, and introduce his former commander-in-chief and Mrs. Obama to the assembled reporters and dignitaries.)

The Joining Forces campaign is just one of many such initiatives, some of which are spearheaded by veterans groups and some by private-sector players. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation launched Hiring Our Heroes in March 2011. The brainchild of a senior executive at the Chamber and a former Marine, Lt. Col. (ret.) Kevin Schmiegel, Hiring Our Heroes was created not just out of sympathy for individual veterans transitioning to civilian life, but also out of concern for the military itself.

"It's a national security issue," says Hiring Our Heroes spokeswoman Kim Morton, noting that the military will face serious recruitment issues if service doesn't lead to meaningful career options.

"Who is going to raise their right hand and take that oath of service if they don't think there is a job at the other end?" she asks.

Hiring Our Heroes set a goal of helping 500,000 veterans find private-sector work by the end of 2014. To that end, it has ventured to all 50 states to stage job fairs for veterans, averaging more than one per day. At these fairs, and via its Web presence, Hiring Our Heroes also has worked to educate veterans about how to sell themselves to civilian employers. As of December 2012, the job fairs and other efforts had resulted in 18,400 veteran placements.

The job fairs go a long way toward helping veterans find work, but Hiring Our Heroes is also asking employers to get proactive about recruiting and hiring former service men and women. To date, Hiring Our Heroes has secured 230,000 hiring pledges—and 108,000 actual hires—from a wide swath of employers.

Count Ryder's hefty pledge of 1,000 hires among them. Much to its delight, the 3PL no sooner set its goal than it exceeded it. "We were able to claim the 1,000 hires at the end of February 2013, 10 months ahead of schedule," Tobon says. "And we're adding 70 to 80 veterans each month."

These and other programs appear to be making headway. In April 2012, the jobless rate for post-9/11 veterans fell to 7.5 percent, down from 9.2 percent in March, reported the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for veterans of all generations was 6.2 percent in April, compared to 7.1 percent in March.

As encouraging as these numbers are, they capture a fleeting moment in time. As The Army Times cautioned in its coverage of the April numbers, this reduction was so dramatic that it might be statistically invalid—the result, perhaps, of an oversampling of veterans.

Still, job prospects for veterans are improving. And that's thanks to companies that are making the employment of veterans a priority.

Fighting to Find Work

After completing four years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps infantry, Matt Vroman expected that his resume would command a little respect.

Instead, it was greeted with a combination of indifference and mystification. Employers weren't sure what to make of his military experience, so they offered him the same jobs they might have offered someone fresh out of high school.

"The majority of companies that would entertain hiring a veteran were offering entry-level positions," Vroman recalls.

Like so many veterans, Vroman didn't know specifically what he wanted to do when he left the service, but he knew he wanted a job that came with high expectations. After all, he'd survived the Corps' notoriously tough boot camp, and assumed responsibility for the lives of his fellow Marines every day. Nonetheless, prospective employers didn't know how to put his skills to use.

This is a reality that confronts—and confounds—many service members hoping to find a place in the civilian job market. It's especially true for the so-called 9/11 generation, whose members often joined the military before pursuing college degrees or securing a first job. They have so little experience in the private sector that they don't know how to negotiate its mores and procedures.

They're also bedeviled by stigmas. Media coverage has stoked the impression that veterans uniformly suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or that they're inclined to engage in sexual harassment. As a result, many employers greet their applications and resumes with wariness.

Although Vroman encountered no biases against military personnel during his job search, it did take him a while to find an employer that recognized the achievements embedded in his resume. In 2012, two years after being discharged from the Marines, he went to work for Cincinnati-based freight brokerage Total Quality Logistics (TQL), where he serves as a logistics support specialist supervisor in the Carrier Services department.

"I am enthusiastic about logistics. I think it's a good environment for transitioning veterans." —Matt Vroman, Total Quality Logistics

 

Vroman's responsibilities may not rise to the life-and-death level, but they do satisfy his need to make a significant contribution. He not only assists customers and carriers with moving shipments, but he troubleshoots solutions to emerging challenges that sometimes confront carriers or product receivers.

"I am enthusiastic about logistics," Vroman says. "I think it's a good environment for transitioning veterans."

That's because it offers a clear chain of command, its own acronym-infused vocabulary, and rigorous training that reminds Vroman of the instruction he received in the Marines. It's also because he is trusted with problem-solving responsibilities, a hallmark of military life. Thanks to his immersion in military culture, Vroman says, "there is no quit in me."

If he is enthused about logistics and the opportunities at TQL, his employer is gung-ho about hiring more veterans like Vroman. Matt Disher, TQL's military recruitment specialist, favors veterans because of their dogged persistence. "Failure is not an option—even if barriers are thrown in front of them every step of the way," he says.

A veteran himself, Disher believes the military offers one-of-a-kind experience that is essential for work environments where the pace is intense and ongoing learning is essential.

"Veterans are people who can learn on the fly," he says, noting that most had to contend with some of the world's most sophisticated weapons and transportation technology. And, because TQL requires its employees to master its highly complex technology, the company wants flexible learners.

"Across the board, in any position in this company, we like to hire go-getters," Disher explains. "You must be the kind of person who stands up to a challenge and doesn't back down."

Recruiting and Retaining Veterans: Best Practices from the Field

As valuable as veterans are to the workforce, recruiting and retaining them brings challenges. And, say O'Leary and Tobon, recruiting efforts will be undermined if they aren't supported by initiatives that help veterans adjust to the civilian workplace.

Recruiting is made easier when companies partner with the various groups and agencies dedicated to the service community. TQL, for example, not only attends VA and Hiring Our Heroes job fairs, it advertises its job openings in publications for service members and veterans. It has also affiliated with the Army's Partnership for Youth Success (PaYS) program. PaYS' partners commit to interviewing all interested and eligible Army candidates who apply for a particular opening.

"It gives us first access to transitioning army members," Disher says.

Another way to attract veterans is to put a veteran in charge of recruitment. O'Leary—himself, like Tobon, a case in point—acknowledges that veterans often feel most at home with others who have experienced the military lifestyle. During a disconcerting job hunt, they open up to people who understand and respect their backgrounds. What's more, once a company hires a few veterans, they spread the word to their former squad and platoon members.

At Ryder, assistance for job-seeking veterans begins in cyberspace. "We created a military landing page on our Web site in 2012," Tobon says. "With it came a military skill set converter." Veterans enter their military occupational specialty (MOS), and the converter points them to relevant positions.

Once they identify the jobs they should pursue, veterans often need help tailoring resumes accordingly. Many of them have so little experience with the private sector that they don't know how to describe their skills to a non-military audience. Too often, potential employers can't decode their acronym-laced resumes or decipher the lingo in their cover letters.

That's where initiatives such as Hiring Our Heroes can make a significant difference. The program trains veterans on how to communicate with civilian employers. Its online "personal branding resume engine" helps them apply their MOS to a civilian job description. Customized for all branches of the service, the engine also helps veterans develop resumes—and personal brands—that showcase their skills for non-military employers.

"We don't want them to just write, 'I was a scout sniper in Iraq,'" Morton says of veterans crafting resumes for the civilian world. Instead, she says, they should call attention to how they maintained millions of dollars worth of equipment and successfully arranged its transportation to a war zone.

Employers are doing their part to help veterans create market-responsive resumes. At job fairs, Tobon reviews resumes and offers suggestions about how to "civilianize" the document. A typical veteran, he explains, might produce a ship-shape resume that lists assignments, classes completed, and awards received. Although it might read crisply and succinctly, it may be short on accomplishments and results—in part because military service is about squad or platoon, and not individual, success.

Within his organization, Tobon has offered training to hiring managers, helping them interpret the lingo and identify the skills associated with an MOS. Tobon also encourages hiring managers to ask open-ended questions that elicit stories and circumvent the habitual "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir" responses.

"Ask master sergeants what else they did besides their primary specialties, and you will hear the stories," Tobon says. And with those stories come real insight into the candidate's capabilities.

Once veterans are hired, it pays to offer specific transitioning advice and counseling, as well as a few reminders of how the civilian workplace differs from its military counterpart.

What challenges do veterans face in the civilian workforce? "Sometimes they overpower their coworkers," O'Leary says. Give them an assignment and they sprint ahead, leaving their coworkers at the starting gate. It doesn't hurt to tell them to dial back the intensity—though not the drive and commitment.

Nor does it hurt to treat the cultural differences with a respectful sense of humor. "In the civilian world," O'Leary jokes, "we go to lunch, not chow. We go to meetings, not briefings."

To ensure that veterans succeed at UPS, the company created a business resource group—what O'Leary calls an internal veterans network. The group connects new veteran hires with established employees who share their military background.

"It gives established employees the opportunity to do a little mentoring," O'Leary says. Just as important, it gives new hires the benefit of seasoned insights. New veteran employees might need a few pointers on everything from interacting with supervisors to adjusting to a less hierarchical structure.

Like UPS, Ryder also offers its new veteran employees some additional attention. The company makes a point of coaching them in the demands of corporate teamwork. Where military commanders may have expected immediate and unquestioning execution of orders, Tobon says, "corporate America wants you involved in the process.

"We want you to provide recommendations," Tobon tells onboarding veterans. "We want you to be part of solutions. We want you invested in day-to-day process improvements."

TQL's Disher agrees, noting that new veteran hires often struggle to understand their place within the civilian job site. "One challenge I see frequently is veterans wondering where they belong," Disher explains. Because of that, TQL emphasizes inclusion, and urges veteran hires to learn about all facets of the operation.

Once they've been shown the welcome mat, veterans are eager to become part of company teams. As UPS' O'Leary notes, the military is about belonging, and companies that cultivate a membership culture are likely to attract and retain veterans.

With recruiting and retention in mind, he says, UPS makes engagement a central part of its corporate culture. For example, employees of all backgrounds are encouraged to volunteer for projects and causes that support veterans, the troops, and their families. It's a great way to reinforce respect for UPS while building bonds between veterans and their fellow employees.

The Right Thing to Do

Since joining UPS, David Padilla has adopted a motto from his seafaring days: Full steam ahead. Once he finishes his graduate degree, he's hoping to continue his ascent at UPS.

Vroman is just as focused on career success. While on the TQL payroll, he plans to pursue a degree and learn everything he can about the business world. "I intend to be an executive one day, or own my own business," he says. "A very successful business."

To O'Leary, Tobon, and Disher, hiring veterans such as Padilla and Vroman is an investment that pays dividends for their companies. "We know veterans add value to the corporation," Tobon explains.

As an added bonus, hiring veterans is also a way of thanking them for their service.

"It's the right thing to do," Disher says. "These people deserve an opportunity to show off their skills."