Top 10 Fails of Recruiting Military for Civilian Jobs

Top 10 Fails of Recruiting Military for Civilian Jobs

This article is a shortened version of the Pulse post published by Daniel Nichols, Chief Product Officer of Victory Media.

Launching and sustaining a successful military recruitment program is not easy. What roadblocks does your organization face when recruiting from the military? Daniel Nichols reflected on his experience in corporate recruitment and military transition to identify the most common fails of recruiting military for civilian jobs. Which sound all to familiar, and what military recruitment strategies should you use instead?

#1: Failing to look beyond the MOS

I was counseling a navy cook, and I recall the frustration he was having in planning his transition. The thread of conversation followed a well-worn path: “I’ve talked to several companies … that isn’t the problem … the problem is that they ask me what I did in the military and when I say what I did I immediately see the rejection on their face. Every interview is basically a matter of waiting for the rejection that is sure to come … even cooking jobs!”

What he was experiencing has been hard-coded into nearly every digital skill-translator that exists … MOS to Occupation. A cook is a cook, and probably a short-order cook in civilian translation, and so his eight years of experience and training are boiled down to a binary unit known as the “job title.”

How do we avoid this mistake when recruiting military for civilian jobs? Begin by quantifying a candidate’s experience in more general terms. Ask questions like:

  • How many people did you supervise?
  • How many people did you serve on a daily basis
  • What was your budget?
  • What was the value of materials / supplies over which you had direct control / supervision?
  • What was your work schedule like?
  • What types of training have you received?
  • How were you evaluated and how did you perform?

The story begins to take shape as we fill in the details around these types of questions. For example, take the navy sailor I mentioned earlier. He directly supervised 12, served 85,000 per day, and was responsible for millions in materials, including total oversight over ordering, storage, and security, all while working a 16-18 hour work day. And that was only a small snapshot of his contributions.

#2: Failing to include relevant military experience in job postings

When I first took on responsibility as a Director of Recruiting at a health system, I was overwhelmed with the 3,000+ different job titles that existed at the organization. I had to ask the question, were there really 3,000 different sets of skills required? I took a sampling of 218 job titles, deciding to focus on entry to mid-level technical positions that did not require a specific license or credential. After careful analysis and discussion with various managers, I discovered that all 218 fit into no more than three “skill groupings”, or what I’ll call “sets of competencies.”

But none of that was as interesting as what I found in reviewing the types of candidates selected and those not selected. Almost all of the jobs included the line “prior experience in…” and this was a “requirement” not “highly desired / preferred.” I thought it odd that we would require prior experience for an entry level job. How do you get the experience if you can’t get into the job to begin with? Apparently the strategy was to hire from other smaller organizations.

More striking was the realization that “prior experience in” generally excluded military experience. Sure there were direct correlations with some clinical support roles, but HVAC or mechanical positions, for which any number of military specialties would make a fantastic fit, were a no go. That’s when I began writing in “or relevant military experience” into every job description. As I grew more familiar with the actual skill and knowledge requirements I could even call out specific military occupations, some that by job title would seem not to be a fit, but from an actual “what did you do during the day” perspective were spot on.

I could even call out specific military occupations, some that by job title would seem not to be a fit, but from an actual “what did you do during the day” perspective were spot on.

If you aren’t including military experience as part of your job postings you are likely part of the problem, especially in industries with no relevance to the military environment.

#3. Failing to target relevant military-to-civilian transition points

Those in the military understand that the vast majority of installations have a specific mission, which means they have specific skill sets represented by specific specialists. They also have a well-honed and unique culture and unique challenges that mold a person professionally. From the outside, the majority of civilian hiring managers just see the military as the military. It’s just one big lump of “militariness” on a “military base” doing “military things.” So from a recruitment perspective – they treat every military installation as basically the same. Well good luck recruiting nuclear technicians out of Camp Pendleton. For sure – you can drive up I-5 past Camp Pendleton and see the nuclear station at San Onofre, but you’re not going to connect with your target audience by attending a job fair on a base there.

The majority of civilian hiring managers just see the military as … one big lump of ‘militariness’ on a ‘military base’ doing ‘military things’.

Where you are matters and where you recruit matters… A military recruitment program that just wants to “hire” veterans is not really doing anyone any good. Veterans don’t want a handout. They want to be respected for what they do well … and they want the same shot at the American dream provided to their civilian counterparts.

#4: Failing to research the culture of the branch services to understand cultural fit

I’ve written a good bit about veteran recruiting and cultural fit. Here is an excerpt from my article:

“Each branch of service, each base, each command, and each unit has its own “operational tempo” – the speed of operations or the bias toward action. This specific culture rubs off on every member that becomes part of that operational unit. These micro-cultures are part of what makes a veteran so unique. Not only do they transition jobs and geographies every 3-4 years, but they transition cultures. This cultural upheaval creates a level of resiliency and adaptability that is quite frankly entirely unique to the military experience. Any veteran can adapt to nearly any culture … and during their initial transition from the service that’s exactly what tends to happen – they pick a soft landing and transition to the new culture without ever taking the time to consider the best fit for them.

This cultural upheaval creates a level of resiliency and adaptability that is quite frankly entirely unique to the military experience.

On the corporate recruiting side, the majority of hiring managers have a set view of a veteran in their mind… one that roughly corresponds to the ESTJ Myers Briggs type. Stern, organized, detailed, diligent, by the book. Because of this, military recruiting programs generally shape themselves to fit this singular “cultural stereotype.” What would be far more effective is to present your organization’s culture first … or better yet, its wide array of cultures. Offer the veteran job seeker a chance to rub shoulders in authentic situations and environments.

#5. Failing to recruit veterans from college campus

I would place the number of active duty military transitioners around 200,000 per year (less-than-honorable discharges account for 9% of that total annually). The number has been pretty static since I worked at labor a number of years ago. That’s a highly skilled, but tightly sought group of new professionals entering the workforce each year. If you don’t have a pretty robust recruiting program and brand recognition, you’re going to struggle recruiting from this pool until you can build your reputation. On the other hand, there are currently around one million veterans enrolled in post-secondary education.

That is, one million new professionals completing degrees in addition to having prior work experience … and their presence on campus is increasingly more prominent with veteran centers, dedicated staff and numerous resources that are ready not just for the veteran, but for engagement by corporate recruiters. I didn’t have this kind of luxury during my recruiting days, but I can guarantee you I would have taken advantage of it. In all likelihood you already have a campus recruiting presence, and you probably struggle to find a place for those new grads who have no work experience. Here is an opportunity not only to find top graduates, but graduates with a significant and successful work history and almost certainly leadership experience.

#6:  Failing to tap your internal word of mouth network

The military community is a small world. While there are a lot of people in the military community spread all across the globe, and while they are constantly on the move, many of my fellow vets will confirm that word spreads rapidly, and it spreads primarily through word-of-mouth … and social networks have only accelerated the speed. What this means is that your brand reputation will travel ahead of your marketing and outreach efforts. Good news travels … but in the modern world of hyper-criticism … bad news  (bad service, bad interview experiences, bad representation at a job fair, low offer rates) travels like lightspeed.

Have you recently hired newly transitioned veterans? Have you treated them well? Are they engaged in their new roles? Enlist their support in reaching back into that network while it is still fresh.

The veteran network is not nearly so robust … when veterans get together, however, they tend to bond very quickly and information will travel in those interactions. Additionally, your veteran employees will know how to access and connect to their active and reserve communities in authentic ways.

One additional note, about military spouses. Not only are they a great addition to your workforce (yes, they will likely transition out in a few years) but having hired thousands of them I will tell you with certainty that they are as a group over-educated and over-prepared, and ready to hit the ground running to work hard and effectively for your company.  Military spouses are a significant part of this vital and vibrant network. If you haven’t connected your military spouse employees with your recruiting efforts, you are missing out on a significant internal resource and competitive advantage.

#7: Failing to incorporate veterans on your recruiting teams

I’ve seen two primary ways that veteran recruiting programs are structured:

  1. A single director for military recruitment, usually reporting to a diversity recruitment manager or directly to the VP of Recruitment or HR.
  2. Veteran recruiting as an added responsibility for a segment of the existing team. This team is tasked with attending the “military stuff and events.”

The first instance is pretty common for new programs … someone higher up suggests that the company start a veteran recruiting program and so a veteran is hired to run it. They are given a modest budget, they might have prior experience recruiting for the military or in Personnel, and they are generally tasked with handling interviews or candidates with a military background and representing the organization at “military stuff and events.”

The second instance is more common in organizations that operate in fairly close proximity to military installations, and who naturally receive a solid volume of applicants from the military.

Your veteran employees will know how to access and connect to their active and reserve communities in authentic ways.

I would suggest that neither of those approaches are effective. I recall a not-too-distant conversation with a large company who took the first path in establishing a new military recruitment program. They found a form Army Medic who was good with people and put them in charge of building their military recruitment program. The Director I spoke with proudly shared their process where “all military resumes” were filtered to this individual who would “translate” them for hiring managers. I was glad that we were on the phone and they couldn’t see my face. “So what types of positions do you hire?” the reply … “mostly diesel technicians.”

Expecting that the “token military representative” on your recruiting team is going to have the knowledge to accurately translate all military experience for your organization is ludicrous. Instead, hire military with prior recruiting experience as part of your total recruiting team, and assign them requisitions that are both military and positional. Let those team members interact with everyone on your recruiting team. Allow their knowledge and insight to flow into your recruiting efforts in an authentic and natural way through team dialogue and problem solving that comes with working together toward a goal.  This is how the military works and, while it will not seem as fast, you’ll have a far more authentic and effective program before the year is out.

#8: Failing to translate military experience

Realize that a military candidate is not an entry-level candidate. They are skilled and professionally trained. The challenge for them is that they must prove their skill mastery and prove themselves, not write some pointed narrative with high density-key words and pithy action-statements.

Expecting that the ‘token military representative’ on your recruiting team is going to have the knowledge to accurately translate all military experience for your organization is …. Well it’s ludicrous.

Far too often recruiters rely on the candidates to figure their system out and get the words right. If your recruiting team proudly uses cheap tricks rather than doing the work and finding similarities between work activities across positions or industries, then you are going to lose the battle for the best. Veterans don’t want a hand out – but they do want to interact with a recruiting process that actually employs the power of a human mind.

#9: Failing to see beyond stigmas

I recall a meeting with a CFO who told me point-blank that I should slow down my military hiring initiatives because of the likely impact it would have on our long-term-disability premiums.

It is the single most shocking thing I’ve heard in nearly two decades of military recruiting. And worse, I don’t think it is uncommon. The pervasive view of a veteran (while far superior to the post-vietnam era stigma) is that they are broken, used up, and more likely to become ill, injured or violent. This view is sickening and it is false. Veterans are better off for having served. We bring experience and skillsets and levels of leadership and responsibility that cannot be simulated or developed in the civilian workplace. The military does better at developing personal resilience than any other profession. They have to; our lives and liberties depend upon it.

I recall a meeting with a CFO who told me point-blank that I should slow down my military hiring initiatives because of the likely impact it would have on our long-term-disability premiums.

When you set up a veteran program, do not set it up for those who are “broken.” Set it up with the assumption that everyone going through that program is intent on being the next CEO, because that is far more likely the truth.

#10: Failing to think outside the ATS

The Applicant Tracking System is a modern marvel of engineering and artificial intelligence. It is capable of parsing narrative in countless languages, handling thousands of applications and candidates and schedules with ease and delivering sophisticated reports and analysis… and in light of the applicant tracking rules and compliance requirements it is also a necessary evil.

It is, however, probably the worst part of your entire process from a candidate’s point of view.

“Wait, I just uploaded my resume and now I have to put everything in my resume into this online form as well?”

“Wait, your system only parses text documents?”

“I got an auto-response but haven’t heard from a human being …. ever?”

Is your overwhelmed recruiting team hiding behind your technology? Let me offer a different view of your ATS: it is your compliance tool. Period. Your recruiters and your hiring managers are your recruiting team, not this chunk of code. And while you may be spending big bucks for your ATS, it is probably killing your military recruiting effectiveness because, while it may translate Spanish, French, Japanese, or even Mandarin, it is not equipped to make the military-to-civilian-job translation.

I ran an analysis of 100,000 resumes and their relative scoring by our ATS and found that resumes with military experience scored 50% lower than equally qualified peers with civilian resumes. What did this mean? Our ATS was a significant source of vulnerability for de-selection bias. Having been on both sides of a federal audit, I would caution all recruiting departments to take a serious look at their ATS. Not only are you probably missing out on great candidates; you are possibly opening yourself up to trouble if the ATS is the center of your recruiting process.

For the win, move beyond compliance

To truly benefit the veteran and military community, and to reap the big benefits of hiring military, your recruiting programs must have more purpose than just meeting compliance requirements. There are organizations who have military recruiting programs with no real value placed on military experience and no actual desire to hire candidates with military experience. This creates tremendous market confusion, leads to underemployment, wastes time, and derails careers.

There are plenty of phenomenal organizations that are dedicated to being Better for Veterans – hopefully yours is one of them.

Has your organization bumped into any of these obstacles? We’re here to help guide you along the way!

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