Even in a Pandemic, Military Culture Gives Veterans Advantages in the Job Market

Roughly 200,000 men and women leave the U.S. military each year for civilian life and, in most cases, the civilian work force.

But given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and economic and social factors that have pushed job vacancies to record highs, employers likely wish they could double or triple that number.

Veterans, many companies find, are among the most motivated and work-ready people in the labor pool, bringing a can-do spirit and a knack for problem-solving to their jobs, even if they don’t always have the formal training and college degrees that some nonveterans have.

Jon Tellier

“Companies would be hard-pressed to find a more qualified and motivated group of candidates to offset their labor shortages,” wrote Hari Kolam, the chief executive officer of Findem, in an email. Findem is a California company that uses artificial intelligence to help companies find and recruit talent.

“You know what you get with the veteran,” said Jon Tellier, a West Point graduate, retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and the president of JetCo Solutions, a Michigan-based consulting firm that helps small companies land business with the government. “They bring so much in terms of culture.”

“The military — and it wouldn’t matter what I went into — gave me the drive and the basics to be successful,” said Isidore “Izzy” Kharasch, who served about six years in the Army and is now a consultant to restaurants, bars and other hospitality businesses as well as a volunteer for veterans organizations.

The employment picture
The employment situation in the U.S. has seen great upheaval since early 2020, when pandemic-related job losses began, particularly in service businesses. More people started working from home, while others began rethinking their careers and changing jobs or leaving the work force.

Isidore Kharasch

Now, still in the midst of what some are calling the Great Resignation, the job market continues to churn; there were some 10.9 million job openings at the end of July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the August unemployment rate was 5.2%.

That was down considerably from the 14.8% unemployment seen in April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S., but still above the 2019 average of 3.5%, a low that hadn’t been achieved in 50 years.

Even during the depths of the pandemic’s economic devastation last year, veterans appeared to fare better: Nonveteran unemployment in 2020 averaged 8%, while for veterans the rate was lower at 6.5%. The average veteran unemployment rates varied widely between the states, from a low of 2.7% in Nebraska to a high of 11.3% in Michigan, the BLS said.

There were nearly 8.34 million employed veterans, among a total of employed U.S. civilians of a little more than 146 million, during 2020, according to BLS surveys. That’s out of a veteran population of nearly 18.5 million, more than 6.8 million of whom had served in the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War eras, meaning they were past retirement age. (Although some 1.16 million veterans from those eras were employed in 2020, the BLS said.)

A BLS study from 2018 found that 39.1% of employed veterans were in management, professional or related jobs; 14.2% were in service occupations; 16.5% were in sales and office jobs; 13.7% worked in natural resources, construction or maintenance; and 16.4% worked in production, transportation or shipping.

A 2020 study by Findem looked at the number of veterans in various industries and found that the technology-related businesses had the highest proportion of vets, at 32% of the work force, followed by the service sector (17%), manufacturing (12%) finance, consumer goods and retail (11%) health care (8%), travel and hospitality (5%) and real estate (3%).

‘They go the extra mile’
The Army used to have a recruiting slogan that could have applied to all service branches: “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.”

Veterans, and those who work with them, know this to be true. Veterans tend to be hard-working, results-oriented and adaptable, among other attributes that employers find attractive, said William E. Kieffer, an Army veteran and Ohio-based career consultant and executive coach who works with veterans.

Jennifer Carlson

“They go the extra mile, they work the extra hour, they bear down and they really focus because they believe in the mission,” said Tellier of JetCo Solutions.

“They’re clearly much more work-ready,” said Jennifer Carlson, the executive director and a co-founder of Seattle-based Apprenti, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides computer technology and coding training and arranges apprenticeships in tech, with a special focus on serving veterans, women and people of color. “The mindset is already work-focused.”

Veterans also tend to have a greater level of maturity, Carlson pointed out. “They understand having a physical presence and how to communicate effectively,” she said.

Tellier and his wife, Sue, in 2006 founded what is now JetCo Federal, which offers specialized packaging, logistics and warehousing services and has government clients that represent about 75% of the company’s business The affiliated JetCo Solutions is an offshoot of that firm.

(Sue Tellier is the president of the Michigan chapter of Women in Defense, a networking and development organization for people whose work contributes to national security and defense.)

Employees who were in the military, Tellier said, come with an understanding of how the federal government operates, which gives JetCo Federal an advantage in procuring government work.

“They have a practical knowledge of the Department of Defense,” said Tellier, who had a 23-year Army career, on active duty and in the reserves, and retired as a lieutenant colonel. “We talk funny, we really do. We use a lot of acronyms.”

Kieffer, who spent 12 years in the Army before separating in 1997 as a captain, said veterans are likely to have been trained in leadership and thrust into leadership positions early in their military careers. It’s not unusual, he said, for an enlistee to be put in charge of a team after just two years in the service.

William Kieffer

“Oftentimes in the civilian world a ‘leader’ is just a title, it’s a position” given to an employee who has advanced technical skills in his or her profession but may not have leadership skills or leadership training, Kieffer said.

In the military, however, “they train service members on, ‘What is leadership? What does it mean to our organization?'” Kieffer said.

Ongoing training and career development as a whole, he said, are a big part of life in the military, as it’s an institution that has to train its own talent.

Culture shock
Veterans’ work strengths are many, but the military culture in which they trained and worked while in the service can also mean they require some adjustment to the corporate world, some said.

While the military is well established, has a hierarchical structure and a core mission that’s easy to grasp — national defense — civilian workplaces can have widely varying cultures, organizational structures and missions.

“Oftentimes civilian organizations don’t have the rigor, the structure, the consistency and that singular focus on mission and purpose” that ties people together in the military, said Kieffer.

“Sometimes some of the veterans have more trouble with an abstract role,” Carlson said.

And although veterans had to be mindful of budgets while in the service, they didn’t have to worry about making a profit, which is a primary goal in the corporate world, Kieffer said.

“Our military veterans are more educated and savvy than people expect,” he said. But, he added, “They’re not trained in a money-based mentality.”

The military also instills a directness that, in the corporate world, can be viewed as overly critical or overbearing, Kieffer said.

“If they call the baby ugly they’re not going to last long,” he said. Veterans need to be mindful of diplomacy in their work communications, Kieffer said, and try not to come off as too negative.

Helping hands
Despite plentiful jobs in the current economy, getting the right people into the career roles that are right for them requires groundwork and deliberation, at least as much for veterans as for everybody else.

Fortunately, there are plenty of career-preparation resources that veterans can utilize.

For starters, service members preparing to leave the military have available the Transition Assistance Program, which offers both in-person and remote-learning courses on topics such as financial planning, accessing Department of Veterans Affairs services and translating skills learned in the military into employment credentials that are recognized in the civilian world. TAP is a cooperative program involving several federal departments, including defense, the Department of Education, the Department of Labor and the Small Business Administration.

The SBA has a separate organization, the Office of Veterans Business Development, designed to promote entrepreneurship by veterans, transitioning service members, reservists and their dependents and survivors. The OVBD offers access to all SBA programs, including loans, business planning, training and mentorship.

In addition, veterans and nonveterans across the country are offering their help.

For example, Kieffer, who worked in human resources and talent management in the corporate world before launching his consulting company, Kieffer & Associates, in 2018, has many clients who are service members preparing to transition to civilian life or veterans who have recently left the service.

“My job is to offer them insights about the work world they’re coming to,” he said. “I offer that as a veteran who survived a very difficult transition myself.”

Kieffer is the author of a new book, “Military Career Transition: Insights From the Employer Side of the Desk,” which he describes as a quick-reference guide for transitioning veterans.

“The perspective of the employer is rarely discussed in military channels, and it’s important to talk about,” he said.

Kieffer also works with The Honor Foundation, a nonprofit that helps military personnel in special operations units prepare to move into civilian life. “These are highly experienced, highly capable, really educated, really smart people,” he said.

Kharasch, the restaurant and hospitality coach, volunteers at the Midwest Veterans Closet in North Chicago, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. The organization assists veterans in need and their families. “There are a lot of veterans just in that area who need that kind of help,” he said.

Midwest Veterans Closet also helps active-duty personnel; its location near North Chicago’s Naval Station Great Lakes, Kharasch said, means its services are often used by active Navy personnel who are experiencing financial hardship.

Kharasch and the Midwest Veterans Closet are planning to establish a culinary arts program for veterans who want to get into the restaurant business. He said restaurant work is a good way for veterans to get into the work force quickly. (Kharasch had worked in a restaurant prior to joining the Army, and worked as a food inspector during his service.)

“For a veteran who has had a hard time in the military,” or a drug-abuse issue or post-traumatic stress disorder, “what we’re really trying to create is the easiest way for them to enter the job market and really get on their feet,” Kharasch said.

The culinary program, Kharash said, will be housed in a Midwest Veterans Closet multipurpose building for which organizers plan to break ground next quarter. He’ll begin with culinary education, he said, but plans on adding programs in other skill and career areas in the future.

Kharasch, who in his role as a restaurant and hospitality consultant has often appeared on the Paramount Network’s reality show “Bar Rescue,” also volunteers his services to other veterans organizations, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, to help keep struggling posts running.

Carlson, at Apprenti, said the apprenticeship program appeals to veterans who want to begin civilian careers quickly and may not want to start or return to college. Carlson co-founded the organization after a career in the insurance industry.

There are currently about 600 people in the program, she said, and that’s expected to grow to about 1,000 in 2022. Some 56% of those who are in or have been through the program are veterans, she said. About 40% of Apprenti’s enrollees go into software-development apprenticeships, Carlson said, and another 22% go into cloud administration.

Many of the veterans at Apprenti come with some tech experience, she said, although they may not have worked on the latest systems while in the service.

“It’s much easier to re-skill somebody up to the current platform rather than start from scratch,” she said.

Veterans interested in a tech career typically know the big names in the field — like Amazon, Google and Microsoft — but should keep in mind that technology is now a major function at companies of many types.

“Every company is a tech company … so don’t limit your scope when you think of moving to technology,” Carlson said.