The Unreasonable Demand of Veterans

“They want a job!”  So said Mayor Alvin Brown of Jacksonville, Florida.  “They don’t want a handout.  They want a job.  They’ve earned it.”

Mayor Brown was speaking at the May 7 Robin Hood Foundation “Veterans Summit 2012” on the USS Intrepid here in Manhattan which I had the honor of being invited to attend.    It was an extremely worthwhile, informative and inspirational event.

But let’s get back to the Mayor.  Imagine that someone who has literally spent years risking his or her life to serve, protect and defend their country and, when they return home, are finally out of harm’s way, all they want is a job and there are none to be had.  One would think that they were making an unreasonable demand.  Of course, they are not.  Hiring veterans, to quote Steve Cahillane, the president and CEO of Coca-Cola Refreshments, is “the right thing to do” and “the smart thing to do.”

Just to paint the picture, in New York City, as Mayor Bloomberg noted, there are 8,600 unemployed vets.  Nationally, according Steven A. Cohen, the chairman and CEO of S.A.C. Capital Advisors, 29% of all veterans are unemployed and 20% of the homeless in New York City are veterans.  In fact, US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan said that veterans are fifty percent more likely to be unemployed than the general population and that more Vietnam veterans are homeless than died in that war.  Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, noted that the homeless rate for female vets is higher than for their male counterparts.  Even worse, Mr. Cohen quoted the figure, disputed by former Vice Chief of Staff, US Army, General Peter W. Chiarelli who now serves as CEO of One Mind for Research, that 18 vets commit suicide every day.

The problems are known.  They are not just statistics.  One of the major problems is the Federal bureaucracy.  When NBC’s Brian Williams asked Mayor Brown and his counterparts from Augusta, Georgia and Houston, Texas what would happen if cities had to wait for the Federal government to act, they all laughed.  Mayor Deke Copenhaver of Augusta said the situation would be “bleak.”

For example, family members of veterans, their caregivers, are not eligible for VA services.   Dr. Charles Marmar, who chairs the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, said that “you can drive a Mack truck through the medical health system available to family members.”

Admiral Mullen remarked that the transition programs ostensibly designed to help veterans transition to the civilian world, and he was clearly being diplomatic, “are at best inadequate.”  Moreover, he said that fifty percent of veterans don’t contact the VA and, and this has to have been the most ridiculous fact cited during the entire conference, the Department of Defense cannot contact the VA about veterans because of HIPPA regulations!

But even if they could, it probably wouldn’t matter.  Dr. Raul Perea-Henze, the assistant secretary for Policy and Planning at the VA, said that the VA only “captures” half of all veterans.  As he said, “We don’t know where the veterans are.”  Understand?  At best, the Department of Veterans Affairs can only provide services to one out of every two veterans because they don’t know where the other one is.  And by the way, according to the Assistant Secretary, the aforementioned transition program is not mandatory.

How’s this for bureaucratic insanity?  According to NBC’s Tom Brokaw, military drivers’ licenses are not recognized by the States.  So a veteran who was authorized, trained and drove a truck in Iraq can’t drive a truck in Iowa.  And a medic who was entrusted to save lives in Afghanistan, trained to do CPR and treat life-threatening wounds, isn’t licensed to be an EMT in Alabama.  One does not know whether to laugh or cry!

To be fair, it’s not just the government that is coming up short.            Nancy Berglass who is the director of the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund and a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, pointed out that there are some 30,000 non-profits whose mission statements include helping veterans.  And that, of course, does not include the number of for-profits, like my own companies, whose mission statements are similarly focused.  The problem is that there is a lack of coordination.   There is a lack of data meaning that advocates lack, according to her, the necessary information for strategic planning purposes.  Moreover, there is no existing collection of “best practices”  although Syracuse University is about to publish a free e-book which may go a long way to eliminate that deficit.

What is it that veterans bring to the table?  What do they have to offer employers?  First and foremost, as a number of speakers mentioned, members of the military are taught never to say “No.”  They always have to find a way to achieve their goal.  Who would not want an employee with that philosophy and a track record of making it a reality?

For his part, Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman and CEO of The Goldman Sachs Group, begins with professionalism, excellence and accomplishments.  But even with a proven track record veterans are, according to him, in an analogous situation to college graduates.  When a company is hiring someone fresh out of college, the hire is based on attitude, commitment and dedication.  As I note in my recent book (which has a chapter on issues facing veterans who are looking for a job), it’s a hire based on potential – something veterans have in abundance.

Expanding on that point, Joe Quinn, Wal-Mart’s senior director, Issue Management and Strategic Outreach, noted that veterans bring with them a high level of maturity and reliability.

What can companies do to improve the lot of veterans once they are hired?  What are the existing “best practices?”

Wal-Mart sponsors job fairs for veterans.  While some military jobs are difficult to translate into the civilian market, thereby necessitating a focus on skills, some are a perfect match.  Darrell Roberts, who is the executive director of the Center for Military Recruitment, Assessment and Veterans Employment, gave a few examples.  A sheet metal worker in the Navy is a sheet metal worker.  Same for maintenance workers and mechanics. He told the story of a veteran HVAC mechanic living in West Virginia who was hired to be an HVAC mechanic by Disney and moved, to the delight of his children, to Orlando.

Sometimes, as noted, the focus for employers has to be on skills and not actual experience.  For example, Jes Staley, the CEO, Investment Bank at J.P. Morgan told the story of the vet who they hired to oversee trading.  Obviously he had no previous trading experience, but he had been responsible for logistics.

J.P. Morgan has set goals for veteran hirings.  They want to hire 10 veterans a day.  Toward that end, they have established recruiting centers inside seven military bases.

How did J.P. Morgan get started working with veterans?  They foreclosed on the home of a vet while he was deployed!  To quote Mr. Staley, they were “rightly” criticized for it.  Today, every veteran who submits a resume to J.P. Morgan gets a call within five days.

They also learned that when looking for veterans as a monolithic cohort, they rejected nine out of 10 candidates.  However, when they started a focused search among the veteran community, a third were actually hired.

Oh, and to return to the foreclosure story, today J.P. Morgan is giving away 1,000 homes to veterans.

According to Coca-Cola’s Cahillane, veterans are mission focused so it is important for them to be inspired by the company’s mission.  Joe Quinn added the importance of understanding the corporate culture.  It falls on leadership and employees of a company to make that happen.

At Goldman Sachs they have a veteran intern program modeled after their program for women who are returning to the workforce.  It is an eight to nine week program where they learn the skills necessary to succeed in the positions for which they are hired.

Additionally, Goldman has an internal network of a thousand veterans who help each other with any issues that may arise.  A similar group exists at J.P. Morgan.  After all, having had similar experiences makes for easier communication.  Simply stated, veterans understand veterans better than anyone else.

And that leads to the issue of prejudices.  Understandably, there are concerns which some employers have about hiring veterans.  As Mr. Blankfein noted, fewer than one percent of the population serves in the military, the lowest percentage in 70 years.  Civilians just don’t understand veterans because they have not be exposed to them.

“The elephant in the room,” as Dr. Perea-Henze described it, is concern over mental health issues.  (Guess what, according to him, the VA does not track the mental health needs of veterans!)  Wes Moore told conference participants about the difficulty veterans have in Times Square.  The former paratrooper and founder and CEO of Omari, explained how soldiers in Afghanistan cannot have any white lights on at night.  They use red and green flash lights.  Being in Times Square at night, with all of the bright lights, is “an assault on their senses.”  It’s a little thing but an example of a real problem.

From the perspective of employment, one thing that I have encountered when providing career counseling services to veterans, is that some have asked me how to raise the issue of where they sit in an office.  Veterans do not like sitting with their back to the door.

Little things for us, lights and seating arrangements, can be major issues for them.

Mr. Blankfein says that the way to overcome prejudice is by hiring as many veterans as possible.  Once non-veteran employees see for themselves what veterans have to offer, prejudice will be replaced by actual knowledge.  Put differently, familiarity will eliminate concerns.  If you will, familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds understanding.

Why is it so important to find employment for veterans?  It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do.  There is also a national security component to the equation.  As Professor Michael Haynie of Syracuse University, perhaps the most veteran-friendly university in the country, asked, “What happens to military recruitment if we can’t find employment for veterans?”  Whose going to enlist if they know that when they are discharged, they’ll get a salute and a thank you, as Admiral Mullen noted, and then be left destitute to fend for themselves?

What needs to happen?  Three things:  Companies need to set minimum goals for the hiring of veterans and then take tangible steps (such as job fairs) to make it happen – and the employment succeed (as with internal veterans networking groups).  Non-profits have to get their act together and replace competition with coordination and cooperation (perhaps using Robin Hood as the model).  And as for the Feds, the Department of Defense has to make the transition program mandatory and create reciprocal agreements with the various States recognizing the licenses (as in drivers’ and medics’) .  That said, the VA doesn’t just need the resources and authority to do its job (HIPPA?  Really?), according to Washington Senator Patty Murray, the transition has to begin a year before veterans are actually discharged.  Hopefully her words will not fall on deaf ears.

(c) Bruce Hurwitz 2012