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The great divide

An 'unfair fight' for job-seeking veterans

Army veteran Ray Watkins discusses flooring options with a customer at the Home Depot store in Bethesda, Md. Watkins was unemployed for eight months after leaving the military, despite an aggressive approach to finding a new job.

WASHINGTON — Home Depot wants to hire more veterans. But as its human resources staff sorts through stacks of resumes each day, they often can’t find a reason why they should.

“Veterans resumes are often too wordy and don’t explain really what their skills are,” said Eric Schelling, director of talent acquisition for the company.

“We see things like overseas ribbons and military certification classes and we know it’s probably impressive. But on the civilian side, we don’t really know what any of that is.”

Home Depot isn’t new to hiring former military personnel. The company is one of the largest private employers of veterans in the United States, with more than 34,000 associates spread out throughout the country and 1,500 guardsmen and reservists currently mobilized worldwide.

Still, they struggle.

They face the same veteran-hiring problems that plague companies parsing through job candidates in an uneasy economy: figuring out how to bring returning war heroes into a civilian world that doesn’t really understand what working in the military means.

“My approach to everything (veterans) put on the resume would be, ‘How would I explain this to someone who has never been in the military?’ ” Schelling said. “Because the person reading it probably hasn’t.”

America has been at war for more than 11 years, but the impact of those deployments and wartime stress hasn’t been felt by most of the country.

As the rest of the country strived for status quo at a time of war, veterans deployed. They developed a new language of FOBs and terps but missed the rise of “American Idol.” They learned basic Farsi while friends back home got marketable degrees. They saw the war, while much of the country did not.

Pentagon leaders in their “support-the-troops” speeches remind listeners that less than 1 percent of the population has served during the last recent war, while the number of veterans from past conflicts has steadily dwindled.

Slowly, the divide between those who served and those who didn’t has grown from a troublesome gap to a gaping chasm.

That’s particularly evident on the jobs front, where unemployment among the youngest generation has remained stubbornly above national averages for the last five years. Employers say they want to hire veterans, but rely more and more on computer systems that routinely filter out military job titles and skills in favor of familiar civilian phrases.

It’s a language barrier between troops who have worn their resumes on their sleeves and a civilian hiring system that doesn’t know a captain from a colonel.

“Over the last few years, the bigger companies and the ones who have already hired veterans, they sort of get it now,” said James Schmeling, co-founder of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. “But the ones who have had no exposure to the military, they’re never going to get it.”

Researchers at the Institute say that’s not just a reintegration headache for veterans and their families. In a recent strategy paper, they argued that those types of problems represent the first cracks in the nation’s fragile promise to honor the sacrifice of the newest generation of servicemembers.

“Such a failure will have adverse implications for the sustainability of an all-volunteer force, and thus our national security,” they wrote. “Additionally, failing to effectively, efficiently and meaningfully empower those who have shouldered the burden of the nation’s wars may precipitate social and economic challenges capable of overwhelming these supportive services for decades.”

Veterans without jobs are more likely to succumb to depression, struggle with substance abuse, ignore post-traumatic stress disorder and end up living on the streets, researchers said. Veterans who find civilian sector jobs are more likely to speak proudly of their military service and encourage their children to sign up.

Ray Watkins, who served 24 years in the Army and Army Reserve, was unemployed for eight months after leaving the military, and says the frustration of the job search quickly becomes infectious.

He thinks he was lucky to land his current jobs: a full-time job with the Food and Drug Administration and a part-time job at Home Depot’s Bethesda store. Both took numerous online forms and months of waiting.

When a district manager at Home Depot finally called him, the process sped up rapidly.

“I got a call to come meet some local managers,” Watkins said. “I thought I was coming in to shake hands and they offered me a job. But I had to get my resume into a manager’s hands first, get past all those computers.”

Watkins worked in Army personnel, writing thousands of promotion recommendations and protocol documents. He has years of expertise in picking out the right keywords for the right paperwork. Even he admitted that translating a military resume to civilian language was constant stress.

“I’d spend hours a day on it,” he said. “You learn to change ‘senior NCO’ to ‘senior manager’ or ‘senior adviser.’ You can’t even mention the TOC (tactical operations center) or an overseas base. It takes a while not just to write that, but to actually think that way.

“And I was used to writing these kinds of things. I can’t imagine how an infantry guy even gets started.”

The military does have resume writing tips in its transition assistance programs, but veterans groups grumble that the advice is too broad and basic to really help in civilian job searches.

Schelling said one of the biggest mistakes he sees with Home Depot applicants looking for those jobs is skipping over employment buzzwords in their resumes. For example, civilian workers don’t “command” employees, they “manage” or “supervise” them.

“If you’re applying for a project manager job but using your military job description instead, what you’re doing is putting yourself at a huge disadvantage,” he said. “Recruiters don’t have 30 minutes to review every resume that comes across their desk. They need to see clear and concise language that shows what you’ve done in civilian terms.

“If you’re not using those keywords, you’re getting filtered out by our technology before we even see the resumes.”

Home Depot has created an online military translator to help veteran job seekers overcome those pitfalls, twisting “parachute rigger” into “service technician” and “cavalry scout” into “receiving supervisor.”

Schelling said he has seen marked improvement in how veterans are marketing themselves to the company, which in turn has made hiring them easier.

Over the last three years, an entire mini-industry has emerged around those military skills translators, with Fortune 500 companies and veterans groups offering their own takes on the theme. The military services each have their own, as do the departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs.

In March, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce took the idea a step further with their new Personal Branding Resume Engine, which allows veterans to input their military accomplishments and get a interview-ready resume, business cards and personalized pitches for the job interview.

Kevin Schmiegel, founder of the Chamber’s Hiring our Heroes campaign, said the idea grew out of the hundreds of problematic elevator pitches he heard from veterans at job fairs over the last few years.

“It’s an unfair fight for the veterans,” he said. “For former enlisted guys, 24 and under, who are getting ready to talk to an employer for the first time, they don’t have the tools to compete.

“We see a lot of (skills translators) that try and fit a square peg in a round hole, Schmiegel said. “Guys in combat arms only get to look at security jobs. We need to stop pigeonholing them based on their military jobs, and start looking at the whole of their service.”

So “infantry work” becomes “trained, led and supervised subordinate personnel.” Logistics work overseas becomes “managed support of equipment and supplies in a challenging environment.”

The effort is half resume builder, half business lesson, Schmiegel said. The idea is to get them to think about a job application the same way their civilian competition does.

It’s not an easy task. At a Washington job fair last month, officials from the Military Officers Association of America offered free resume critiques to military job seekers. Many of the resumes were a mess.

“I’m stunned by the number of academy folks at these job fairs who can’t put together a professional resume,” said Jerry Crews, a retired Army colonel and job placement adviser for the association. “We tell them that they have to do a better job explaining their experience, showing their qualifications and figuring out what they really want to be doing.”

Army Capt. Vanessa Stoloff walked away from the workshop with a resume full of edits, although she said there was a lot less red pen this time than after the last critique she attended.

“I just have great difficulty translating my work from military speak into actual language,” she said, laughing. “I’ve come pretty far, but they’re telling me I still have some work to do.”

Even after a year of editing, she has too many acronyms, too many lengthy explanations of her work. She knows that many potential employers have no idea what it means to supervise projects for the Army Corps of Engineers, but she isn’t sure she’s found the right words yet.

That begs the question: Why not do a better job training the hiring managers? Nearly all of the national campaigns have focused on the values veterans bring to businesses, but provide few resources to help employers better understand the military.

Schelling said Home Depot’s skills translators aren’t used by their own hiring managers to decipher veterans’ resumes because doing so can run afoul of fair hiring practices.

Schmiegel, in a recent op-ed, argued that large employers are more attuned to those issues, but many small businesses still aren’t, which closes the door on tens of thousands of jobs across the country.

In the current competitive job market, other employers would rather skip to the next candidate than try and rebuild a veteran’s resume for them.

“At the end of the day, veterans are still a small slice of the population — too small for HR to really target,” said Derek Bennett, chief of staff at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “That gap between veterans and employers is likely going to be there for a while.”

He sees reasons for optimism. More young veterans are in the workforce than ever before, helping to establish Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as reliable employees. Bennett said the nationwide push to hire veterans, spurred by advocacy groups and lawmakers in recent years, has helped make a difference.

“But I’d still like to see more done on the employer end,” Bennett said.

The worst filter for veterans looking for jobs is “college degree.” Many prospective employers dump all applicants without one, even when the job might be better suited with someone boasting years of hands-on military experience.

Employers aren’t likely to change that anytime soon. Finishing college is viewed as proof of workplace competence in a way that honorable military service isn’t.

Schelling said his hiring managers have learned what a premium veterans bring to the workforce: reliability, flexibility, dedication and a host of other intangibles. Once veterans make it to the interview, those traits all shine through.

Getting those former troops in the door remains the challenge. Watkins said he thinks the job search is getting harder now, because more veterans are using those same skills translators and keyword replacements.

With 1 million servicemembers expected to leave the military in the next decade, that means veterans’ top competition might not be recent college grads. Instead, it could be each other.

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane

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