After spending 10 years in the United States Marine Corps and serving two tours in Iraq, Nick Swaggert, director of Genesis10′s veterans program, entered the world of corporate America. What he found there was — in some ways — dispiriting.
While working for a major retailer in Minnesota, Swaggert found himself asking, “How are we recruiting veterans into our company?”
“I didn’t really get a good answer,” he says.
In fact, bad answers are not unique to Swaggert’s former employer: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate for Gulf War-era II veterans — those who have served at any time since 9/11 — was 9.0 percent in 2013, compared to 7.4 percent for Americans overall. Both of those rates have dropped since then, but Gulf War-era II veteran unemployment rates still tend to be a few points hire than the non-veteran population.
This fact does not sit right with Swaggert — especially when you consider how bad the unemployment rates have been for younger veterans. “Look at unemployment rates for veterans vs. non-veterans under the age of 30,” he says. “If you’re a veteran — you’ve gone through military training, and you’ve learned valuable skills — you’re 50 percent more likely to be unemployed. Why does that make sense?”
Employers Hold Powerful Misconceptions about Veterans
It doesn’t make sense, but Swaggert thinks he knows why it is the case: employers by and large subscribe to certain stereotypes about veterans. These biases influence them — consciously or not — to pass on veteran candidates and choose non-veterans instead.
These stereotypes — like most, if not all, stereotypes — are easily dispelled, and Swaggert does just that:
Misconception No. 1: Veterans Just Follow Orders
“I can give you a history of warfare and why that’s not the case,” Swaggert says, “but the long and short of it is that every decision that gets made on every level is so impactful from a social media and Internet standpoint [today]. You can be a young, 19- or 20-year-old and be faced with a big decision, and you don’t have anywhere to turn. You have to make a good decision, and that decision might be broadcast on CNN. So what we realized in the military — about 20 or 30 years ago — was that we needed to start empowering our junior leaders to make those decisions and to train them to make decisions, not to train them to just follow orders.”
Misconception No. 2: People in the Military Just Shoot Guns
“I was in the Marine Corps infantry. I went to Iraq twice, but I pulled the trigger on my rifle zero times,” Swaggert says. “I was on the front lines; I lived outside the wire; I slept on the ground every night — but quite frankly, I spent most of my time in diplomacy or logistics, not shooting guns. That’s just the way of the war. It’s not like the movies.”
Misconception No. 3: Veterans Have No Technology Skills
“They call it ‘military cutting-edge technology’ for a reason,” Swaggert says. “I think there’s this [thought], ‘Oh, you don’t know how to use the computers because you’ve been shooting guns.’ No, we use computers and such all the time. One of the jokes we have in the Marine Corps is that the issued weapon to a Marine Officer — even an Infantry Officer — is a laptop.”
With the stereotypes dismantled, veterans appear not as mindless drones, but technology-savvy decision-makers — an employee profile on most every company’s list.
And aside from the skills that veterans offer, Swaggert notes there is another reason why employers may want to tweak their approaches to hiring former members of the military — one that even the most biased of companies should take to heart.
Federal Government Requires an Annual Hiring Benchmark for Veterans
When people talk about why companies should hire veterans, they often make moral appeals, claiming it’s “the right thing to do.” Swaggert calls this the “patriotic case” for hiring veterans — and, frankly, Swaggert doesn’t see the use.
“I never talk about [the patriotic case] with anybody, because no one in the business world is like, ‘I’m going to spend this money because I think it’s the right thing to do,’” Swaggert says. “It just doesn’t happen, as many of us know.”
One can make a skills-based case — as Swaggert does when he disproves the military stereotypes — but that doesn’t always work either. This brings us to what Swaggert calls the “compliance-based case” for hiring veterans.
On March 24, 2014, U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs added veterans to the affirmative action metrics for federal contractors. As law firm Holland & Knight explains,
The new regulations require a contractor to establish an annual “hiring benchmark” for veterans. The benchmark must be established as either 8 percent of the contractor’s workforce (which represents the current national percentage of veterans in the workforce), or a figure established through other sources concerning veteran employment.
Swaggert suggests that, after giving federal contractors a year to get their houses in order, “March 24, 2015, [will be] like open game for D.O.L. compliance officers to audit companies.”
“The compliance officers don’t want to sit there and rake everybody over the coals, but they want to see people moving forward,” Swaggert explains. “I’m speculating that in about 2-3 years, they’re going to make an example of somebody. They are going to sue somebody just like they sue people for affirmative action.”
And your company does not want to be the the example. According to the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of Americans feel proud of their soldiers. “It’s like the one thing Americans agree on,” Swaggert says. “If you’re the company that doesn’t support veterans, and you get sued by the DOL for that? That’s going to be a very bad PR day, or month, or year for you.”
So, employers can either see the value of veterans and hire them for their skills, or they can wait for social pressure to break their bias. Either way: they have good reason to actively recruit veterans.
But how to do that? Check out part two of our in-depth discussion with Nick Swaggert, where he talks about what employers and veterans alike can do to improve the veteran unemployment rate.