Sunday, August 26, 2012

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

I got a phone call last week with the best news I have heard all year.  It was from a young Marine Corps veteran who told me he found a job!  I wish I could take credit for it but I can’t.  He found it on his own after more than a year of unemployment.

My New Year’s resolution this year was to help at least one veteran find a job.   The blog post titled "Occupy This!" outlined the challenge facing veterans in this difficult economy.  I thought this would be easy.  After all, military veterans are disciplined and goal-oriented.  In addition, there is a tax break for employers who hire veterans.  Who wouldn’t want to hire a vet, thought I?

Almost everyone, as it turns out.  I was blown away by how difficult it is.  Some of the objections fell into the usual categories.  “This is not a good time.”  “He’s not a good fit.” Others were blunter.  “Not very polished,” said one hiring manager. 

It’s no wonder that in May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate for combat veterans under 25 was 29.1%. 

Our nation has always endeavored to care for veterans but it hasn’t always turned out well.  It was an excerpt of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address that has become the motto of the Department of Veteran Affairs:  “…to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.”

Lafayette Park 1932
But, budget cuts always follow wars and veterans often find they are left out in the cold.  Veterans camped out in Lafayette Park across from the White House in 1932 to protest government’s failure to follow through on the promises of the World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924.  General Douglas MacArthur ordered the third cavalry (commanded by Major George S. Patton) to attack them.  Fifty-five were injured and 135 were arrested. 

About 4 years ago, I joined the board of the Florida Chapter of Operation Homefront.  It’s a national non-profit whose mission is to support veterans and their families.  It’s a great organization.  Operation Homefront has received the highest rating from Charity Navigator for six years running.  Ninety-four percent of funds received by Operation Homefront go to service delivery.  A scant 3% goes to overhead.

Our mission has morphed as the needs of combat veterans have evolved.  At first, it was helping young families cope with the absence of a breadwinner and parent.  Then, the focus became helping the severely wounded transition back to civilian life.  Along the way, I heard some heartbreaking stories.

Now, the focus is on helping veterans find jobs.  But, we are not alone.  There are hundreds of charities with a similar objective.  United Way of Broward County has brought many of these groups together under the banner of “Mission United”.  The goal is for all of the South Florida charities dedicated to helping veterans to become aware of each others’ capabilities.  No need to duplicate efforts if we can refer our veteran clients to another group whose operations are better suited to the needs of that individual, right?

It’s important for community leaders to raise awareness and support this cause.  But, ultimately what matters is what’s happening at the street level.  I haven’t made an academic study of the problem but I will tell you what my experience has taught me.  The problem is not the vet; it’s the employers – the business owners, the corporate hiring managers. 

By way of explanation, I’ll tell you a personal story.  When I was with Citicorp Diners Club, the diversity police (from New York) showed up at our little outpost in Denver.  “Not enough women and minorities at the VP level,” they decreed.  In response, the president of Diners Club commanded that every other new hire at the VP level must be a woman or a minority starting with the very next one. 

It was an eye opening experience.  We found many qualified applicants we might never have interviewed were it not for the tops down directive.  During this period, an executive recruiter actually admitted to me that he would never have sent me an applicant who wasn’t a white male had I not directed him otherwise. 

So, imagine what might happen if a substantial number of hiring managers decided that every other new hire would be a veteran?  I should say that there are some challenges to overcome.  From my personal observation, I would summarize them as follows:

  1. When I was discharged from the Navy, nearly every hiring manager was a veteran.  They understood the value.  Now, it’s exactly the opposite.  Few hiring managers are veterans and they don’t understand the value.
  2. There is a language barrier.  Military folks speak in acronyms.  Even if they spell it out for you, you still can’t understand what they did in the military.
  3. What employers are looking for today is specialized experience.  What veterans bring are general skill sets – leadership, goal-orientation, discipline.

But, those obstacles can be overcome if we, as a business community decide they should be.  There is no reason that the strengths of a military candidate can’t be a great offset to their perceived weaknesses.  Tommy’s new job has little or nothing to do with his background in the military.  He was a logistics specialist.  Now, he is a grade school coach for kids.

What’s needed is for each of us to decide that WE will lead.  So, here is my call to action.  If you are in a position to hire, decide to hire a veteran.  Make it your goal.  Decide to overcome the challenges.  In other words, if you say you support the cause of veterans, put your money where your mouth is.

So, this week’s answer to the question WHO WILL LEAD? is… YOU.



  1. Excellent John ....... who better to champion hiring vets than vets?
    Posted by Ken Mayeaux

  2. Excellent! MY stepson retired from the Air Force September 2011 with an Electrical Engineering degree and excellent credentials...he's STILL looking for a job.
    Posted by Bernardette Enochian

  3. @John Send your vets to that site. My company works with them and there are a number of jobs listed on their website. In addition my company provides a free Career Direction assessment via the vetjobs website to help them.
    Posted by Miranda Johnson

  4. @Bernadette

    Definitely send your stepson to the vetjobs website. There are 150 jobs for electrical engineers listed on the site.
    Posted by Miranda Johnson