June 12, 2012

Lost in Translation: From the Battlefield to the Office

Picture a young soldier who joined the military shortly after high school. As  an infantryman he has shipped out several times over the past decade to a far  away country (sometimes more than one), where for months at a time, he lived in  semi-squalor, walked up and over mountains again and again, negotiated complex  agreements with local leaders and led operations to build streets, sewers and  schools. And with alarming frequency, he did this while people were shooting at  him or trying their best to blow him to smithereens.

After some time as a follower, he was put in charge of as many as a dozen  troops. Now, in addition to accomplishing the hundreds of tasks that make up a “mission,” his job as a sergeant was also to keep his buddies alive. At some  point, after 4 years or more, he left the military to re-join the civilian  world. Today he finds himself in the human resources office of a company like IBM or Delta or Disney, and a recruiter asks him, “Tell me about a team you’ve  lead. Describe a project you initiated and completed. What would you say is your  greatest weakness?”

The first question throws him for a loop–does a rifle squad count as a team?  And projects, well there were hundreds everything from monthly weapons  inventories to organizing multilayered combat operations; which one should he  try to explain to the civilian on the other side of the desk? And throughout  entire interview there’s a nagging question in the veteran’s own mind: What does  an infantryman, whose official job description is to “close with the enemy  by means of fire and maneuver to defeat or capture him” have to offer Disney?

It turns out, quite a bit. Looking for someone with “a collaborative working  style?” How about someone who lived, ate, slept and fought with a squad for  months at a time. Need a manager with “strong leadership and management skills”? Try someone who planned and led combat patrols in a hostile city with limited  resources under constant threat. Does the company need someone who is “action  oriented with a high standard for quality and performance”? There’s a saying in  the Army: They are all no-fail missions.

But translating those values to corporate America is harder than it seems. To  begin with, the military has its own language that works remarkably well on the  battlefield, but baffles most civilians. “You have people talking two different  languages and you need a translator in between,” says Paul Rieckhoff, who led an  infantry platoon in Baghdad before founding Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of  America (IAVA). “A veteran doesn’t know how to talk to the companies and the  companies don’t know how to talk to the veterans, and neither one knows how to  find each other in a constructive matching mechanism.”

Finding that translator and creating those mechanisms is now an urgent  mission. According to the latest labor statistics, unemployment among veterans  who’ve served since 2001 was 12.7 percent in May, a big jump from the 9.2  percent in April and well above the national average of 8.2 percent. But as  Rieckhoff points out, without a major push, that number will get much worse: as  the war in Afghanistan ends and the military downsizes, tens of thousands of  veterans will enter an already anemic job market.

Clearing the way for returning vets to enter the workforce is a national  issue that goes beyond the interests of the 1.6 million veterans of recent wars  who have left the military. A veteran who leaves the service without a job is  far more likely to end up homeless; if he is unemployed, his health care will  come solely from the VA, which is already overstretched. The bottom line  economically is that unemployed vets cost the taxpayers a great deal of money;  the bottom line morally is that they gave years of their lives in service to  their country, and at the very least deserve to make a civilian life for  themselves. So before the crisis becomes a calamity, players on all sides are  trying to help vets overcome the crippling language barrier that often holds  them back.

The federal government is stepping in with new initiatives to reduce the  debilitating financial and psychological effects of joblessness among vets. In  addition to a federal program offering subsidies to companies who employ vets,  on May 31, President Obama announced a partnership with the Manufacturing Skills  Standards Council to allow troops to get industry-recognized credentials based  on their military training and experience. “If you can save a life on the  battlefield, you can save a life in an ambulance,” President Obama said. “If you  can maintain the most advanced weapons in the world…well, you can manufacture  the next generation of technology in our factories.”

Ironically,  the toughest people convince that military skills do  translate to corporations back home, are sometimes the vets themselves. “The  immediate thing people say is, I drive a tank. There’s no tanks in corporate  America,” says Kevin Preston, Disney’s director of human resources-Veterans  Initiative. “You’re right, but every organization, every corporation has  leadership roles. There are directly transferrable skills right out of the  military, right to the corporate side.”

Organizations such as IAVA, and even companies like Disney, are trying to  help bridge the communications gap with workshops  that help vets adapt  their resumes to reflect the universally valuable skills they acquired in the  military. “What the veterans need to do is take what they’ve done and put it  into civilian terms where these companies understand it,” says John Lundberg of  Recruit Military, company that matches vets with businesses looking to hire  them. “If I’m a sergeant in an infantry unit, I call tell these folks that I was  responsible for 10 individuals and X amount of equipment on a daily basis.”

A retired Army colonel who worked for part of his military career in human  resources, Preston acknowledges that veterans often aren’t skilled in the  specific tasks of a certain job or have trouble with the language of the  corporate world. So one of the first steps Disney took was to train 150  recruiters on military culture. Now, if a recruiter asks a vet, “Tell me about a  team you’ve led?” and gets a blank expression while the veterans tries to figure  out what he means by “team”, the recruiter won’t write him off. Conversely, if a  vet tells the recruiter he served as a squad leader, the recruiter knows that  means he was in charge of nine junior troops, which in any company would be a  pretty good size team.

Once Disney has hired a vet, there are specific parts of the onboarding and  training process designed to help with the transition. “We’re looking at  veterans as a unique group,” Preston says. “They’re coming to us with a  different background, in some cases a different language and a different set of  values.” After the initial orientation, the veterans are pulled aside for  additional classes on Disney and the corporate culture. In the military, when a  service member moves to a new assignment, he or she usually assigned a “sponsor” to help with the transition to the new place and unit. So at Disney, each vet is  assigned a sponsor, a veteran who has been at the company for some time and can  answer questions and help the vets get on their feet.

A recent study by the Center for a New American Security  surveyed 69 companies and found that while translating military experience into  the civilian workplace is one of the largest challenges, hiring veterans gives  companies employees with proven character, discipline and loyalty. While the  public relations value was one of the benefits of hiring vets, the companies  surveyed ranked it last out of 11 benefits to hiring veterans. Dozens of  corporations such as Budweiser, IBM, TimeWarner and JP Morgan-Chase signed on to  the 100,000 Jobs Mission, an initiative to hire 100,000 transitioning service  members by 2020. Coca-Cola is in the process of rolling out their vets  hiring program, which includes educating their human resources personnel in  military culture, using existing associates who are veterans and looking not  just at degree, but the level of experience and maturity a candidate brings to  the table.

“It’s easier to mold a military veteran than it is a college grad,” says  Matthew Litton, who served nine years as a Marine Corps infantry sergeant. “We’ve already been molded once and we know how to follow orders better than  someone who hasn’t had to follow orders, literally to life or death.” In many  ways, Litton exemplifies the type of veteran who needs companies to give him a  chance. Four days after graduating from high school, Litton joined the Marines.  He served two tours in Iraq during which he saw heavy fighting, rose to the rank  of Staff Sergeant and at one point in his career he was in charge of more than  two dozen Marines.

But Litton has no college time on his resume, just a high school diploma and  his Marine Corps schools. He suffers from PTSD and physical injuries from his  service. That combination has made it hard for him to convince companies that  his years of leadership and management experience, both in training and under  fire, make him a potential asset.

As this latest generation of veterans has begun to return home, there has  been an outpouring of goodwill from much of the American population. But as  wonderful it is to see Americans–even in this age where there is an enormous  chasm between the military who are less than one percent of the population and  the rest of the country–supporting veterans in spirit, hiring them is about much  more than just doing what’s right by the people who have protected our  freedom.

“They are not a charity, they’re an investment,” Rieckhoff says. “Think about  these folks as a generation of leaders. They’re a generation of dynamic,  innovative, strong, disciplined young men and women, and if we invest in them,  they can go on to do great things.” Disney, Coca-Cola and other companies are  banking on just that, and if they can succeed in overcoming the communications  challenges by the time the war in Afghanistan finally comes to an end, both  veterans and the companies who’ve hired them will reap the rewards.