Vets: Battling for the Right Job

Veterans have no trouble finding civilian jobs, but studies show that a majority of them quit their first job early. As the country celebrates Veterans Day, Korn Ferry looks for answers.

For years, veterans fought hard to dispel the myth that they were unemployable outside the military. Those efforts have paid off. On Veterans Day 2018, the about 20 million veterans of the US armed forces have a lower unemployment rate (2.9 percent) than the overall population (3.5 percent).

But now the challenge for the about 200,000 veterans who transition out of the military each year is shifting from just finding a civilian job to finding the right job. Sixty-five percent of veterans, regardless of rank, leave their first civilian job within two years and nearly half leave within a year, according to a Syracuse University study. As before, veterans face a slew of preconceived notions about their skills and experiences that may be keeping them from the right role.

“Contrary to popular belief, veterans have been trained and developed to manage complexity, build effective teams, and instill trust, far more and at an earlier phase in their careers than have people who have not been in the military,” says Scott Harris, a retired US Army captain and principal at Korn Ferry. Harris co-authored Korn Ferry's report, “Debunking myths in veteran hiring,” in part to convince employers to stop discounting vets when it’s already tough to find talent.

The myths, according to the paper, fall in two categories: how vets think, and how valuable their skills are in the civilian world. Previous studies suggest that hiring managers tend to view veterans as having a lower capacity for self-control and flexibility, even though vets have the same levels of both as their civilian counterparts. Yet those perceptions might negatively impact the types of jobs veterans are selected for, Harris says.

There are differences between veterans and civilians in their mental abilities, with vets often coming out more favorably. Korn Ferry and Harris Corporation studied 292 vets who went through a four-month leadership development program and found that the vets had a better ability to examine problems in unique ways—so-called mental agility—than the general civilian population. Veterans also had a higher degree of “people agility,” or being open-minded and interacting with diverse groups of people to accomplish goals. The one area where vets lag civilians is in “change agility,” or the desire to embrace change or the ability to maneuver comfortably through a complex organization.

Vets also encounter stereotypes about how the skills they learned in the military translate into the civilian world. Harris says many hiring managers still assume that all vets can do is fight. Yet the US military has trained thousands of soldiers in healthcare, information technology, engineering, and a variety of other disciplines.

That’s not to say that organizations should treat veterans exactly like civilian job candidates. The report suggests that organizations should coach high-potential veterans through the application, interview and selection process. Once hired, vets should be quickly welcomed into the firm to help them more rapidly assimilate into corporate culture. Finally, organizations should pair vets with successful civilian leaders who can act as role models for the former soldiers. “Organizations that take hiring and retention of veterans seriously are often rewarded with resilient, trustworthy, and results-driven employees who succeed in dynamic environments,” Harris says.

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