June 25, 2013

Fresh from War, Veterans Need Interpreters to Land Jobs

Military veterans and hiring managers are at an impasse: employers are looking for the skills veterans possess, but military jargon goes one way, and business lingo the other, often leaving both parties lost in translation.

report issued last year by the defense think-tank Center for a New American Security found skill translation was the #1 negative factor hiring managers encounter when screening veteran applicants. Veterans load their résumés with acronyms an emphasize team achievements over individual accomplishments while employers fail to extract familiar concepts and terms from military taxonomy.

Despite this challenge, more companies have actively sought veterans to bring aboard—not as charity cases, but as force multipliers with added value for the private sector.The same report by CNAS identified many valuable intangibles that military-trained men and women often possess; leadership, expertise, discipline. Some companies have concluded it simply makes good business sense to recruit them. For many, then, the issue comes down to speaking the same language.

Google is up to the mission to bridge the culture gap while serving as a role model for recruiting and retaining veterans in the workplace. Last week capped 15 résumé writing workshops for more than 300 veterans in 12 cities across the country, hosted by the tech giant, in coordination with Student Veterans of America and the Pat Tillman Foundation.

The Google office in Washington, D.C., kicked off one of the last workshops June 18. The day began with ribbing and laughter after one Marine stood up to introduce himself prematurely. The rest of the 20 veterans clapped thunderously as he finished.

Veterans went around the room giving their name and branch of service. Army. Navy. Marines. Air Force. Google employees then paired 1-on-1 with the attendees to discuss their job history and military skills to begin building a résumé.The workshops were not the kind you might see at a night school, where fonts and punctuation are scrutinized. Workshop volunteers—several of them veterans themselves—pressed veterans to explain how their duties changed and matured overtime.

The keys? Toss around numbers. Budgets tightened. Dollars saved. Number of subordinates supervised. Class rankings in military schools. A supplemental handout explains few troops handle cash or quantify value monetarily, so efficiency had to be measured.

Former Army medic Michael Sessons chuckled when asked how many résumés he has sent out.“Probably about 15 to 20,” he said, with three leading to dead-end interviews. The tall, stout retiree still sports a military-style haircut after putting in his papers this year. He served a tour in Iraq in 2009, providing medical care to detainees. The work he did at military prisons was hands-on, but jobs in the private sector are just out of reach.

“There’s a lot of jobs out there,” he says, “it’s just getting an interview that’s the problem.” Sessons pointed to two challenges. The first, he says, is a gauntlet of “outdated” information provided by military outprocessing briefs, which focus on résumé- building over preparation for what the private sector is actually looking for in candidates. “They’re looking for those keywords,” he said. “And I didn’t know them.”

Another issue is the stigma of hiring from a pool of candidates perceived as stubborn and rigid. But often the reverse is true for battle-tested veterans. Waging asymmetrical warfare for more than a decade at war have honed the adaptability and strategic decision-making of troops who have worked continuously with limited information in hostile places. But Sessons says employers may think veterans cannot adapt independent of military structure.

“In reality I was managing active duty people and civilians,” he said. “So I had to learn how to use different leadership styles and techniques to deal with both groups.” He echoed a common trial for troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan—a delicate ballet of war fighting and counterinsurgency tactics that called for meetings with village elders as often as combat air support. Google has established itself as a model for seeing past stereotypes and stigmas to get veterans in the door. Harry Wingo, a former Navy SEAL and Google’s veterans community programs manager, emphasizes veterans as mental athletes. That is, they’ve trained and worked relentlessly to overcome a host of challenges thrown at them while in the service.

Wingo’s eyes light up when he eagerly explains the transfer of skills to from a technology-laden military to companies like Google. “We got veterans working in data centers,” he says, ” doing great things for our infrastructure.” The wireless generation raised on iPods and Playstation uses technology on the battlefield today that was unthinkable even during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are the folks Google wants to bring in the door.

“There really is a sea of goodwill to bring veterans in. The challenge is matching the details,” Wingo said. “They carried a rifle, but there’s a lot more there, and we have to figure out how to say that.”