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Help Crucial for Veterans’ Successful Transition to Private Sector

This Veterans Day, John Buckley, manager of outreach strategies at Koch Industries and retired U.S. Army colonel, explains how businesses can help military veterans transition more successfully to the civilian workforce

November 11, 2021

min read

This op-ed originally appeared in The Boston Herald on Nov. 11, 2021.

The Golden Hour is known by the military as the first hour after the occurrence of a traumatic injury and is considered the most critical for successful emergency treatment. After leaving military service, our veterans face a steep challenge to survive the private sector equivalent, which is staying employed for 18 months at the same company.

Unfortunately, American businesses are doing poorly when it comes to supporting the military to civilian transition. According to multiple studies, nearly 50% of military veterans leave their first job within their first year, and nearly 80% do so within the first 18 months. Although today’s unemployment rates for veterans are equal to or better than their non-veteran counterparts, recent studies indicate that retention rates for military veterans have not improved and veteran applications for new jobs have nearly tripled within the last year. Even before the pandemic, nearly one-third of veterans were underemployed — a rate about 16% higher than for their non-veteran peers, according to one survey.

Why? Not only are veterans inappropriately trained and educated on the hiring and selection process, but they are also being hired into companies and roles that are not right for their skills and abilities, with incorrect expectations, where they are underemployed and under-valued, without appropriate mentorship, and working for supervisors and leaders who do not understand the culture or language of veterans.

Initial conclusions are that both the transitioning veteran and private sector business leaders are shortsighted and inadequately prepared. Veterans are jumping at jobs because they are running out of time before Uncle Sam stops paying them, and business leaders are hiring veterans just for the sake of hiring veterans or just to fill a current vacancy.

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As a new veteran, I was not prepared for the military to civilian transition. The Army trained me for over 16 weeks to become an infantryman and trained me for only five days to become a civilian. After being hired in the private sector, I struggled with the culture of the civilian workforce. Luckily, I landed a role with my current employer at Koch Industries, whose values were perfectly aligned with mine, whose culture enabled me to find something I could trust in, and whose vision enabled me to self-actualize.

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It is time that businesses do a better job of enabling the new veteran employee to acclimate and assimilate into the private sector. Before creating a solution, we must first understand the problem. What is the barrier to the military to civilian transition? It is a profound communication and cultural gap.

This language and cultural barrier creates huge challenges in the application and interview processes and more so in the acclimation and assimilation phases of the military to civilian transition for the veteran, their spouse and their children. It can be debilitating and cause anxiety, depression and other behavioral difficulties. Private-sector supervisors and HR managers compound the complex situation because they often do not appreciate their new veteran employees’ psychological and cultural transition. They frequently interpret these military veterans’ responses and reactions as post-traumatic stress. Their uninformed and uneducated reaction often causes the veteran to leave their new job, sometimes leading to homelessness and even suicide.

Here are eight suggestions for organizations to help businesses overcome this barrier and build a more resilient workforce that creates value for the company and for society:

  • Create a program that enables veterans to take care of veterans, which initiates new veteran employee acclimation and trust.
  • Have a built-in “battle buddy” system or veteran mentoring program to assist the new veteran employee with their assimilation into their new culture and environment.
  • Encourage veteran employees to mentor military veteran job seekers and to make referrals.
  • Connect new veteran employees with civilian mentors who model success within the company
  • Include veteran employees in the recruiting and selection process, and train them to be compliant with the complex rules and regulations associated with recruiting government employees.
  • Educate recruiters and talent managers on the military culture so they can adapt their procedures. (For example, initiate discussions on growth and advancement opportunities sooner to assuage the concerns of veterans who are familiar with the up-or-out career development associated with military service.)
  • Seek out senior business leaders to be program advocates to enhance interest and improve the program.
  • Stimulate military and veteran advocacy so your veteran employees and other professionals can support veterans in your local communities.

These practical suggestions will ensure new veteran employees and their families survive the private sector and win their military to civilian transition battle. I know from personal experience that veterans aren’t looking for handouts. When businesses employ veterans, they’re thanking them for their service, but also empowering them to continue to serve and apply their talents to help others.

John Buckley is manager of outreach strategies at Koch Industries. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel, serving as a battalion commander, special assistant to a unified commander, director of the Army Command and General Staff College.