Veterans are a high-demand talent pool, but how do you attract them to your company? They represent a large demographic swath of the United States, with different preferences in what they look for in employers. For this article we spoke with five veterans from different branches for insight into what they look for in employment. Understanding these desires — mentorship and leadership, skill development, family support, and inclusivity — will give you an edge when discussing what they want in a job and finding the right fit.
Mentorship and Leadership
One aspect that servicemembers evaluate is leadership structures and styles. Nikolas Borak, who served as an army medic, discovered that he preferred less structure in his job. “I liked independence,” he says. “I sought a career where I had more autonomy.” Conversely, other veterans may desire more structured management. “My biggest fear about [civilian work] is that I’m going to have a lack of structure,” says Brad Lykins, a senior non-commissioned officer in the Air Force. While veterans’ preferences for leadership and structure will vary, they generally appreciate knowing who to go to as a superior and mentor for expertise and guidance. “Mentorship is one skill that I’m really looking forward to taking to the civilian sector when I [leave the service] in a couple years,” says Lykins, “I’ve never really had the opportunity to lead in the same capacity.” Showing veterans that they will have mentorship or can be mentors can have a significant impact on their interest in a company. Joseph Coffey, a 13-year Air Force reservist, says he would appreciate a system that helps veterans transition to the civilian workforce. “A veteran liaison where the company has a prior veteran that works for them that can help people transition into [the private sector],” he suggests. When talking with veterans about their military experiences, ask them about their leadership preferences. Find out what kinds of leadership they seek or avoid in civilian work to get an idea of how much autonomy or structure they want in their career.
The Ability to Use and Improve Skills Developed in the Service
Veterans also want to apply and build on skills they learned in the military. These can be both hard skills like taking a blood sample, or soft skills like improvising during a stressful situation. Borak found a very direct translation between military and civilian skills. As a Ranger medic, he found an easy adjustment into the University of Washington’s Physician Assistant Program where his medical experience directly benefits his work. Conversely, James Solberg felt the skills he developed outside of medicine were the most useful for his work in law enforcement. “I’m not in the medical field at all, so those really don’t apply to anything I’m doing in the future,” he says. More important to him were the skills he developed while in training and in his unit. “The soft skills are the things people are going to notice less and think about less,” he explains. “Working with people, basic leadership ideas, the ability to work on the fly. Things that people don’t immediately associate with the military but pertain to their actual job.” The question, Solberg says, is “how do you make that tangible?” When discussing skills with veterans, emphasize that “skills” isn’t limited to what’s on their resume. “What job skills from the military are going to help with this job,” suggests Borak, who’s work ranged from medicine to vehicle maintenance. “That gives the veteran the opportunity to define what he calls skills.”
Veterans experience long work days ranging from 12 to 24 hours. While they are used to these demands, many veterans that leave the service have families and are looking for companies that can accommodate those commitments. “The main reason why I got out was primarily because I didn’t want to be constantly away from my family,” says Jonathan Diaz, a psychiatric technician. “I chose to start a family as I was getting out. I didn’t want to put someone else through that stress.” Coffey says that having the resources and time to care for his family is a major factor when he evaluates job options. “I think the biggest thing is healthcare and decent benefits,” he says, having turned down multiple opportunities because they lacked a manageable work-life balance. “There are jobs that I’m looking at now and I think ‘I can’t do that because I have a family.’”
A Culture That Includes Them As Civilians
One interesting thread through our conversations was that veterans want to be included because of what they contribute — not because of what they are labeled. They’re proud of their military background, but many don’t want it to define them. Veterans also fear that they will be hired for positive publicity. “There’s a lot of pandering, it’s an easy way to earn points with the military and general public,” says Solberg. “We’re not ashamed of our service, but it should be part of us,” says Lykins. “It’s not all of who I am, it’s a part of who I am. It makes you question ‘did they hire me for my skill set and my abilities or did they hire me because I’m a veteran?’”
With All Things in the Military, It Depends
When talking with veterans, the words “it depends” have remained the most prominent. When a Drill Sergeant answered soldiers’ questions about their future (will I see combat, will I get stationed in Germany or Oklahoma, will I get my requested job) his most common response was “it depends.” It’s a phrase that goes beyond the military context and is true of recruiting. Like anyone else, what veterans look for in their work depends on a number of factors that can only be revealed through effective interviewing. The only way to really understand how a veteran can benefit your organization is to provide them with a consistent, structured interview process — such as a video interview — that treats them like anyone else applying for a position.
A properly structured video interview can surface the skills that matter instead of focusing on the traits that don’t.