A Covert Job Problem for Military Veterans

As Memorial Day approaches, experts say employers should update their approach to hiring and retaining veterans.

From the numbers alone, the battle looks won. After years of stubbornly high unemployment, the jobless rate among U.S. military veterans has been declining steadily for two years, hitting 3.7% in April. That’s lower than the national unemployment rate of 3.9%.

While that number looks great, experts say it’s masking a more troubling problem: veterans re-entering the civilian workforce have little trouble finding jobs but they have significant problems keeping jobs. Research shows that 43% of veterans leave their first civilian job within their first year, and 80% leave before the end of their second year, citing a lack of opportunity for career advancement and personal development. “It’s sort of an ironic backlash of the incredible efforts of the government, nonprofits and businesses that have been focused on bringing down the veteran unemployment rate,” says Susanne Blazek, senior manager of thought leadership and outcomes research at Korn Ferry. “It’s, of course, better to have a job than no job, but the question now is how do we get them into the right job.”

Experts say it’s time for organizations to focus not merely on hiring more veterans, but also on putting them into roles that better suit their needs and strengths. Nearly 70% of professionals say that their own organizations don’t train hiring managers on veteran-specific hiring practices, and more than 60% said there was no onboarding or transition support for veteran hires. “With about 8% to 9% of the workforce having served in the military, focusing on veteran retention is more than just a ‘nice to have’ for employers -- it’s critical,” says Blazek.

One option is for employers and recruiters to do a better job understanding a veteran’s Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), the code used by military members to indicate role while in service. “Most recruiters have no idea what a person’s MOS means,” says Adam Kabins, a Korn Ferry senior consultant. “How do you translate what it is to lead a tank mechanic team into a fitting civilian job? It’s not an easy translation.”

Indeed, because many recruiters lack the experience of placing veterans, many veterans find themselves going to the Department of Veteran Affairs and other so-called “soft landing-pads,” including police, firefighting and defense contractor roles. These areas provide job opportunities but there may be man other industries that might be a better for individual vets. “These jobs have a strong veteran culture, but we’re seeing that often vets aren’t getting the role that’s right for them,” Kabins says.

Another way to help vets returning to the workforce: some time with friendly faces. At Capital One, all new hires who identify as veterans have lunch with a local chapter leader from Salute, a military business resources group, are offered a civilian mentor, and introduced to another veteran employee. The new recruits are also encouraged to enroll in specially designed classes for veterans and spouses of veterans.

All of this is meant to help veterans mitigate the “culture shock” they often feel in transitioning into a civilian job. “Sometimes they were literally in battle a year before, and it’s hard to adjust,” says Kabins.