Tapping Military Talent: Shoes on the Ground
Companies win the talent battle when they have troops in place in supply chain positions.
Michael O'Leary joined the Army straight out of high school. He served as a paratrooper, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, and ultimately spent one decade in the service. Although his time in the military ended in the 1990s, it continues to comprehensively shape his life today. O'Leary, president of The Grimes Companies, a third-party logistics and supply chain management service provider based in Jacksonville, Fla., instinctively taps into his Army experience to navigate the many trials and tests he encounters managing a company. "My time in the military defines the way I approach challenges and obstacles," O'Leary says. "Being a veteran guides my decisions and actions. All of them."
O'Leary believes a military background is far from the only kind of background that can form a strong foundation for a career in supply chain and similar fields, but says his years in the Army have been critical to his personal experience. And O'Leary, who during more than one decade at the helm has helped Grimes develop from a trucking company focused on northeast Florida to a regional logistics company for the entire Southeast, says he has witnessed others find their footing in the supply chain field with the stalwart aid of their military background to guide them.
For veterans, the transition to a new career outside the military often is not easy. The core challenge is that both potential employers and veterans themselves struggle to identify how military experience aligns with the civilian workplace. "It can be frustrating for veterans to determine how to translate their military experience to new careers," O'Leary says.
The supply chain field provides particularly robust crossover opportunities, however, offering veterans the kind of disciplined, process-driven, and team-focused climate reminiscent of a military unit. That straightforward fit drives many supply chain and logistics providers to pursue veterans to join their ranks. Those companies represent a range of niches in the field—from large, national companies such as Penske Truck Leasing and Penske Logistics to regional outfits such as Grimes, and even to supply chain middlemen such as Total Quality Logistics, a freight brokerage firm based in Cincinnati, that connects companies that need products hauled with the carriers that can deliver them.
Many companies are strengthening their approach to hiring those with military experience. In particular, supply chain companies that provide trucking services are looking for veterans to help ease the country's chronic driver shortage.
For instance, Miami-based transportation, logistics, and supply chain management solutions provider Ryder hired more than 4,000 veterans between November 2011 and April 2016. And, more than 35 percent of flatbed trucking fleet drivers at TMC, a Des Moines-based provider of flatbed transportation services, are veterans. Reading, Pa.-based third-party logistics provider Penske has also accelerated its efforts to recruit and hire veterans over the past two years. In 2015, approximately 11 percent of the company's new hires were veterans.
"It's a growing priority," says Ron Schwartz, director of staffing for Penske Truck Leasing. "We look at the number of transitioning veterans coming off tours of duty in the Middle East, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Many of them had direct work experience as diesel mechanics and drivers, which matches the skills our industry needs.
"It would be foolish not to capitalize on that resource," he adds. "It's also the right thing to do, because service men and women coming home sometimes struggle to find jobs."
recruiting the recruits
A desire to hire more veterans does not net results without a plan of attack. Once a company commits to hiring veterans, it has to determine the best ways to identify and reach prospects who will be a good fit. Many choose a multi-pronged approach to recruitment that involves getting in front of both active-duty members of the military and those who have recently left the service.
For The Grimes Companies, veterans comprise a naturally rich local pool of potential employees. Jacksonville is the county seat for Duval County, which is home to two naval bases—Naval Air Station Jacksonville and Naval Station Mayport, the third-largest naval facility in the continental United States. It is only natural that many Grimes employees would emerge from such a critical demographic.
One simple way Grimes recruits is to participate in naval base job fairs, where it finds an abundance of potential hires who are preparing to transition to civilian life.
Penske's recruiting efforts have been extensive and varied. The company has visited government-backed and private military job fairs, partnered with organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes initiative, recruited at reserve centers, posted positions on military job boards, and advertised in military and veteran-specific publications. Penske also visits online recruiting events that allow companies to link up with transitioning military members.
"We know where certain logistical command units or transportation command units are located, and we focus efforts there to reach not only the veterans but also their families," Schwartz explains.
The branches of the military are all strong partners, too, quick to help their troops connect with potential employers, according to Steve Pitt, director of driver recruiting and retention for Penske Logistics, and a veteran with more than 26 years in the Army. "We see how the military sets the conditions to help veterans transition to civilian life," he says. "All the armed services make it a high priority to help with that transition."
At Total Quality Logistics, LeeAnne Ryan serves as a military recruiter, dedicated to finding veterans to work for the company. Ryan, an Air Force reservist who spent more than two years on active duty orders, focuses her efforts on transition assistance program events, employer-engagement events on military bases, and veteran hiring fairs. The key is establishing relationships with the people on military bases who work with transitioning personnel.
Ryan also works with other recruiters in the company to familiarize them with military resumes and the language that candidates sometimes employ, and to help them understand how those resumes translate to the skillsets needed for various positions.
Outside partnerships can also boost military hiring efforts. Penske's partnership with the Hiring Our Heroes program, for example, has spurred its commitment to hire several hundred more veterans in the next few years. And Total Quality Logistics has found support from a number of local organizations, particularly the TriState Veterans Community Alliance in Ohio and the KEEP VETS Coalition in neighboring Kentucky.
Finding the Right Fit
Penske taps veterans to fill driver, truck technician, and warehouse and transportation supervisor positions. "There's a veteran out there who can do every single job in our organization," Pitt says. "And Penske representatives keep their eyes open for veterans who are equipped to handle all kinds of jobs."
For instance, Penske's two biggest talent needs are truck technicians and truck drivers. The military is fertile recruiting ground for those positions.
At Total Quality Logistics, which does no shipping itself, veterans must employ their understanding of logistics to help forge advantageous partnerships for both carriers and shippers. Ryan doesn't worry about limiting her candidate search to those with military occupational specialty titles or job descriptions, because an extensive training program at the company can fill those gaps. She is more interested in how applicants demonstrate soft skills.
Ryan says she doubts whether most veterans would forge logistics careers on their own. "Logistics is not glamorous, but it is competitive, constant, challenging, and stressful," Ryan says. "The military tends to stand out in all those areas."
O'Leary agrees. He does not see most veterans seeking out logistics careers—largely because they are unaware of the landscape of the field. But, he says, many veterans transitioning to the civilian workforce recognize logistics as the type of environment where they can be comfortable once they learn the intricacies of the work and recognize how it overlaps with their background.
"If veterans enjoyed their military service, they will seek out the aspects of that environment in their next career," O'Leary says. "Logistics is a natural fit."
The Grimes Companies does not focus on recruiting veterans with particular backgrounds or areas of expertise, nor does it emphasize hiring veterans for particular positions within the company. Instead, Grimes seeks out strong recruits, and decides how they can best be integrated into the organization.
The result is veterans serving in a variety of positions. For instance, Grimes' director of fleet operations is a Marine veteran, and its safety and quality coordinator is an Air Force veteran. Grimes does not want to get locked into searching for apples-to-apples comparisons between military and civilian roles, O'Leary says.
"Veterans are always looking for ways to resolve challenges and we need that at Grimes," he says. "It's not necessary for someone to have been a supply sergeant to be effective in a logistics position."
While some military positions may be directly applicable to civilian supply chain posts, companies aspiring to hire veterans should not be too rigid in their thinking if they want to take full advantage of the large pool of potential employees that the military services represent.
"Employers need to understand and translate an individual's military service into a civilian job or career if they truly want to work with veterans," O'Leary says. "That can take work, but it's worth it."
Veterans, reservists, and transitioning military arrive on the job possessing the qualities Total Quality Logistics seeks in employees, such as drive, quick thinking, adaptability, teamwork, integrity, work ethic, and pride. "Pressure on veterans comes from an internal drive to succeed, not external forces, which makes them easier to manage. Veterans are mission-driven and trained to complete the mission successfully," says Ryan.
At Penske, cross-cultural skills are a key characteristic the company seeks in veterans. The company especially looks for individuals who have demonstrated an ability to work with people in a number of different capacities. This makes them good team members and flexible within the organization.
Another key characteristic that veterans bring to the table is being accustomed to focusing on the success of the team rather than individual accolades.
"Veterans are used to the decisions they make affecting the safety of their team, so they are particularly thoughtful of the consequences of their actions," O'Leary says. "Veterans develop a unique sense of responsibility and commitment that makes them more aware of their decisions."
Veterans also inately understand the need to take a disciplined, dutiful approach to supply chain processes. "The supply chain generates enough surprises without creating our own," O'Leary says. "And when surprises do strike, veterans have the experience and training to approach the problem with a calm, level head, maintaining their discipline and pursuing a solution without panicking."
Members of the military are trained to both obey the chain of command and know when they need to think independently to confront a difficult challenge or situation. "Veterans come from a problem-solving environment, so they're ready for whatever happens," O'Leary explains.
Penske's Pitt agrees that confronting the unexpected is an area where veterans have learned to thrive. "Veterans know how to handle complex situations," he says. "Companies that hire veterans are getting employees proven to be able to think on their feet and assess any situation in a hostile environment. They know how to identify and mitigate risks. Veterans develop a plan and then execute it."
Military men and women can be particularly diligent students of every step of the supply chain. It is second nature for them to spy inefficiencies and areas with room for improvement. They prefer working in a framework, but also are far from robots who uncritically stick to the structure without considering it.
"Some veterans who work in our supply chain operations have found the opportunity to improve a process because no one took the time before to map out and add structure to a solution," Schwartz says. "The benefit of a process improvement is that we can tell customers, 'Look what we can now do for you.'"
Employers say integrating members of the military into the workplace does not vary greatly from integrating any other new workers, although some resources can be helpful. For example, linking workers with fellow veterans as mentors can ease the transition.
The onboarding process for veterans at Penske does not differ from other new employees, except for the simple step of setting a start date. Members of the military who have had recent tours of duty, in particular, do not always want to jump right into the workforce.
"Veterans want to spend time with family and friends they haven't seen in a while and take some time off, but they want to know where they will be working. They want to have their roots set," Schwartz says. "The biggest challenge we have is setting the stage to identify individuals interested in working for us and making sure we set the path to get them into the door at the right time."
both veterans and employers reap the Rewards
Veterans' participation in the supply chain and logistics field is not just a boon for the companies that hire them; it also means a rewarding new career for them. Veterans such as O'Leary, Pitt, and Ryan all say they have found the kind of fulfillment in their current jobs that they enjoyed in the service.
For example, after spending more than 26 years in the Army, Pitt was unsure what he would encounter in the civilian working world. But he is energized by the responsibilities and challenges he faces working in logistics at Penske. "I find a lot of satisfaction in this work," he says.