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Veterans for Hire: Former Service Members Are a Source of Untapped Talent

After spending nearly half his life in the military, Command Sgt. Maj. Benny R. Kinsey retired from a successful career as an enlisted man in 2010.

He was ready, willing and able to enter the private sector. The private sector wasn’t ready for him.

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His path to ultimately finding work with Fortune 500 companies and becoming a successful consultant and author is an inspiring example of the many highly transferable talents that veterans like Kinsey can bring to “the civilian” working world. It’s also an illustration of the challenges that veterans can face as they attempt to enter the corporate sector after leaving the military. 

Finding a Niche

Following his retirement, Kinsey spent the next six months unemployed. Despite possessing an abundance of supervisory experience, his lack of “industry-specific” experience kept hiring managers at bay.

Finally, he found a job. But he soon discovered that it was a “horrible fit;” a $12-an-hour position that required him to prey on low-income families. As much as he wanted to be employed, Kinsey knew he couldn’t compromise his values in such a way — and certainly not for $12 an hour. 

Time rolled on. Eventually, Kinsey found a role that was better suited for him: tactical recruiter at Triple Canopy, a global staffing firm that works with former military personnel to place them in overseas assignments.

Kinsey and his girlfriend (now his wife) were attending a birthday party of a friend, where Kinsey wound up in conversation with a fellow party guest who worked at IBM, a company that was in the process of trying to increase their military recruitment efforts. This had proved challenging, as many didn’t fully understand how military experience translates out in the “real world.”

Given his experience, Kinsey was in a perfect position to help the company bridge the gap. A role was created for him and he joined IBM with the intention of starting a military recruitment program. Similar roles at General Motors Co. and then Fiat Chrysler Automotive followed.

An Unspoken Stigma

Along the way, Kinsey started to reflect more on his experience after leaving the military. He had done so well in the service; why had he struggled to acclimate to civilian professional life? And furthermore, if he had that experience, how many of his comrades in arms were going through the same thing?

He knew he couldn’t sit back and do nothing — that simply wasn’t his way. So, in addition to helping large companies spin up military recruitment programs, Kinsey started his own consultancy, BRK Strategies LLC, to help other companies launch similar programs. He also wrote a book, I’m not a Military Transition Expert, and Neither Are You.

All of this was in hopes of shedding some light on the struggles veterans face when they try to re-enter the civilian workforce.

In 2019, the unemployment rate for veterans was reported at 3.1%, the lowest figure recorded in 19 years. Post-COVID-19, the rate was a little higher, coming in at 9.1% in May 2020, which was down from 11.8% in April.

By comparison, the non-veteran unemployment rate was 13.3% in May 2020.

Kinsey, for one, thinks the unemployment rate for veterans is significantly higher than what is reported.

“Retirement checks are too high to qualify for unemployment,” he explained. “So, you can’t even be counted among the unemployed.”

It’s because of this that, even at the lowest rate around 4%, Kinsey suggests that the rate was closer to 12% to 15%.

“There’s an unspoken stigma about military vets,” he said. But why?

There could be several reasons why companies are hesitant to hire veterans. One of the biggest relates to mental health issues.

According to Mental Health First Aid USA, 20 veterans commit suicide every day. Among active duty and reserve military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 30% have a mental health issue that requires treatment. Only about half are actually treated.

“That’s not the majority [of veterans],” Kinsey noted. “But the stigma is there.”

Another large part of the problem is that companies believe that industry experience is more valuable than any other aspects of a candidate’s experience, even supervisory experience. When faced with the decision of supervisory experience versus industry experience, companies most often choose industry experience, Kinsey said.

Beliefs that military personnel — both current and former — are robotic and unbending further muddy the waters. And, in the case of those veterans who made a career of service, they may be deemed “too old,” with many in the 40 to 50 age range.

It’s these obstacles that veterans must face when they re-enter the workforce. And, at least in Kinsey’s view, the obstacles are unnecessary and can leave all parties — both employer and potential employee — feeling disappointed.

Making the Case for Veterans

Kleinfelder Inc. is an engineering, construction management, design and environmental professional services firm headquartered in San Diego. Many of its employees are skilled labor, and many are without college degrees.

In 2017, the company was faced with a problem: They needed people with a certain skillset — and there weren’t many to be found.

Laura Hartman, the company’s senior manager of human resources, had an idea. Hartman’s daughter, who had experience working with the Department of Defense (DoD), introduced her to someone who knew of a program called Skillbridge, which placed soon-to-be-transitioning service members into internship-like programs in the private sector.

For Hartman, this program seemed like the answer to the problem. She quickly connected with Skillbridge, and the company brought its first round of interns onboard in early 2019.

“Every single one we have received from this program has been really good,” she said. Most have, in fact, been hired by Kleinfelder or by one of the company’s clients.

Ultimately, Hartman sees Skillbridge as “a good opportunity for [the veterans] and a good opportunity for employers.”

Ultimately, the goal of people like Kinsey and programs like Skillbridge is not to merely find jobs for veterans. It’s to educate employers on the benefits of having veterans as employees and helping them understand the differences between servicemembers and civilians, and to underscore the attributes that make military members great candidates for many roles.

“They’re disciplined, they have an ability to communicate, they carry themselves well and they’re probably used to being yelled at,” said Hartman. That last one is likely important for companies such as Kleinfelder, given the often-tense environments at construction sites.

“If you recruit veterans, you will hit every diversity box you want to hit,” Kinsey added. “The military is really a slice of Americana.”

If an employer does in fact recruit veterans and train them in the ways of the industry and/or the civilian workforce, they can receive a high level of employee loyalty in return.

For veterans, Kinsey notes, a job is not just a job. They don’t want to feel like a drone.

“That’s the last thing we want to become,” he said. “We want to find the excitement, feed that fire.”

If an employer and their veteran candidate make the right connection, everyone stands to benefit.

“We just want to be successful,” Kinsey said. “We’ve been trained to be successful.”

About the Author

Stephanie Rotondo Bio Image

Stephanie N. Rotondo is a contributing writer for Workspan. Connect with her on LinkedIn.


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