Season 5, Episode 11:

The Disconnect Between Employers and Veterans Entering the Workforce

This week on Recruiter Fuel, Steve sat down with Bill Kieffer, president and chief advisor of Kieffer & Associates LTD to discuss veterans’ transitions into the workforce. As a veteran himself who has had a very successful career in HR, Bill had a lot of keen insights on the subject.

Bill’s Background

To kick things off, Steve prompted Bill to talk a little about his background.

“I started out my career in the military, I was a logistics officer in the army. I spent a fair amount of time out with light infantry divisions, out [with] muddy boots, doing real work…I managed to get around the world, central America, Somalia, I managed to get around the world and do some interesting things. I went through a little family circumstance long into my career, and I decided it was time to come home and take care of my family, and that got me into the commercial world. I came to the HR world because I had an HR degree.”

“I did the ROTC thing at the University of Toledo, so when I graduated from UT with my BBA, I also came out as a second lieutenant. Did the army thing, fully intended to do an army career, circumstances changed, and I thought well, maybe it’s time to use that college degree.”

“I had also taught graduate school for the army. I taught leadership and logistics at the logistics management college. So the HR, learning and development training piece seemed to kind of fit.”

Though he started out his civilian career in economic development, Bill soon transitioned to a manager of learning development role at a transportation supply chain company.

The Transition is Often More Difficult Than Veterans Think

How did Bill find the transition from the military to a true HR role?

“Surprisingly difficult…I didn’t know what I was getting into. And that’s similar to what most of our veterans find today. I came out fully confident in my abilities, I knew I had great experience, I had seen and done wondrous things, I was well-educated, I’m coming back to an area where I know the geography, I’m coming home. I was really confident life was going to be great, work was just going to fall to my feet, and it was all going to be wonderful, and in fact, I’m just another candidate for jobs. In some cases, the military experience was very attractive to folks, in other cases, not so much.”

In Bill’s role at the transportation supply chain company, he started with training 1,100 people on how to load and properly balance aircraft, manage freight, etc. He started running the training facility in Toledo, and moved up to running learning, development, and strategic HR for the enterprise. They were bought out by Deutsche Bahn, and Bill later had the opportunity to speak to the top 200 HR leaders of the company about leadership development at the Kaiserbahnhof (the Deutsche Bahn’s learning facility).

Bill then went on to Dana, where he worked to stand up talent management in a post-bankruptcy world.

“We had great success there, I was there about 8 years, ultimately I was their head of talent management of their enterprise and vice president of HR for the commercial vehicle group.”

What Does Bill Attribute That Success To?

“Hard work, quite frankly. I mean, at the end of the day I’m a pretty practical guy. There’s a lot of folks who will do a lot of good work, and it’s not necessarily lined up with what the business wants or needs. They’ll work hard, but they do a lot of work for the sake of the work itself. My focus is always on figuring out how we as HR and talent management, or any of the support functions, are trying to advance and enable the business strategy.”

Bill agreed it fell under the umbrella of talent optimization, which is something Steve was happy to hear!

“At the end of the day, if the organization has a strategy to do X, Y, or Z, I always look at it through the lens of, “do we have the right talent to do what we said we’re going to do?”

Do most companies do that though?

“I think most companies try to do it, I think there’s varying degrees of rigor and success, I think a lot of companies do it very informally. They kind of do a thumbnail sketch of “eh, I know Johnny, he’s a good guy, so it must be fine.”

Steve dug a little deeper, asking why companies don’t apply the same rigor that Bill does.

“I think there’s a lot of reasons, I think #1, the people component. While everybody says people are our most valuable asset, dealing with people is kind of a hard thing to do. It’s just easier to deal with financials, capability, process, tools, and all that, as opposed to sitting down and going “do we have the right people? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. We like them, so they must be right, or I hired them, so they must be great.” The other side of that is, it’s hard to look someone in the face and go, you know what, your performance isn’t as expected.”

It’s especially hard when you didn’t begin with the rigor and set expectations in the first place.

What’s the Priority and How Are We Keeping Score?

Steve and Bill then talked about how often employees fail in situations where the employers never properly set expectations in the first place. Why are we surprised that someone is falling short of expectations when those were never clearly established in the first place.

“I often joke with folks or business leaders: “Why are you surprised that Johnny or Sally wasn’t successful? You didn’t tell them whether they were scoring home runs or touchdowns. They’re working really hard, but we don’t really know, they don’t necessarily know, how are we keeping score, how are we keeping track?”

Bill discussed how in the vast majority of functions in a for-profit business, you have clearly defined metrics for success. But when it comes to people, most businesses define it a lot less clearly. The best way to handle it is not only define success, but define when you’re going to have checkpoints to see whether we’re on track or not.

How Do We Recruit Veterans?

Currently, Bill runs an advisory firm focused on four key areas: military/veteran career transition hiring and employment, executive and leadership coaching, strategic talent management, and meeting facilitation and public speaking.

Steve wanted to hear Bill’s thoughts on veteran recruiting in particular. Companies are always talking about wanting to hire more recruiters – but on the flip side, veterans find it hard to transition into the workforce and struggle to find jobs.

Bill detailed the situation with an analogy: he said he thinks of it as like a roiling, turbulent sea with two coasts. On one coast is the veterans thinking “I have wonderful capabilities that I need to bring to an organization, but I have this rough sea in the way.” The employers are on the other coast thinking “Wow, this hiring top talent thing is tough.” Both have great intentions, but no one really knows how to get to the other.

“As I developed the business and the mental model around it, really what I do is try to create a bridge.” Ultimately, what Bill wants to do is help improve the visibility of veteran talent, and help employers see what’s out there and what veterans offer.

Majority of Veterans Quit Their First Job Within 2 Years

Bill cited a study from Syracuse University that really put the issue of veteran recruiting and retention in perspective:

“Over 40% of veterans leave their first non-military service job in the first year. Over 80% leave in two years. Now there’s various studies that roughly support that, but it’s really because they get out into a world they don’t understand.”

Steve asked Bill why that’s the case, when veterans obviously weren’t always in the military. Bill emphasized that the military has a very strong acculturation.

“Basic training is there to do some strong, uh, orientation shall we say? Break you down, build you back up. And it’s important that they do that. If you look at orientation in the military, basic training, officer basic training, whatever that happens to be, versus what you get in many companies, it’s chalk and cheese.”

It’s About Service and Close-Knit Teams

Bill also emphasized just how different the culture in the military is from that of your average commercial organization.

“That is a purpose-driven organization. Air Force Mission, Marine Corps mission, whatever those missions are, we are there to support that mission and everybody there, it’s very clear, how you fit, what you do, and what your purpose or mission is. Most of the folks who enter the service, tend to (whether they want to publicly admit it or not) have a high sense of service. A lot of our veterans come into the military service, and whether they have a great experience or not…they find a sense of service there.”

Teamwork is also a huge part of military culture. The whole organization is incredibly team-oriented.

“Military members are trained not to talk about me, we talk about we. We took care of the mission. We accomplished the task. It’s all about we, because they recognize the value of the team. And we see a huge difference in the commercial world, where there’s some instances of that, but it’s not nearly as strong.”

“It shows up even in interviews…when you do an interview, one of the typical questions starts with “Tell me about a time when you…”

Bill noted how a good interviewer will press a candidate to focus on what the candidate themselves did, not their team. This causes a disconnect because the veteran is so used to talking about the team and emphasizing teamwork, but now an interviewer is pressing them to discuss their individual contributions. As a result, many veterans unfortunately blow the interview. Bill discussed how it was no one’s fault, both sides have good intentions, but it is a problem we need to address.

“The employer it’s understandable, the employer is hiring you, the individual, not the team you were with. So the focus has to be on, “what are you bringing to the table? I have work that needs to be done, I have expectations that need to be met, I’m looking at investing in you, tell me about you.”

“The other side of the sea is the veteran, who has been acculturated to everything is about “we” and “team.” and they’re not instructed thoroughly enough, they’re not exposed to this issue of “you’ve gotta talk about you now.”

Companies Need to Ask Themselves if They Really Want Veterans – and Why

So lots of companies talk about wanting to hire veterans. Likewise, many organizations want to improve teamwork and collaboration.

“How many times do we hear organizations say we don’t have enough teamwork. We’re here to collaborate, we want to be together. And then they get candidates that come in and say it’s all about we – “well, you didn’t’ talk about you, so we don’t want you!”

So Bill presses organizations and veterans on what they really want, and whether that’s what the other party has to offer. Sometimes, all it takes is a fresh set of eyes for an organization to see the value of what veterans have to offer rather than getting hung up on “we” interview answers.

Check back soon for our next episode with Bill, where the two will dive into what we can do about this disconnect between veterans and employers.

Do you want teams or do you want individuals?

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