Helping veterans make their way in the corporate world
ST. PAUL, Minn. — In a commentary last week, manufacturing entrepreneur Erick Ajax discussed how his firm, EJ Ajax Metal Forming in Fridley, makes hiring veterans a priority. Ajax's story outlined the various strategies his company has developed to make this happen.
No doubt Nick Swaggert would like to see more companies like this. As St. Paul-based director of veterans' programs for Genesis 10, a national corporate staffing firm, Swaggert works both sides of the job hunt: helping veterans hone their job skills and helping companies that are hiring see veterans as more than security guards.
The challenge in each case is getting people to try something different.
"I call myself a military interpreter," Swaggert said, "someone who sits in both worlds."
An infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1999-2010, Swaggert served two tours on the Iraq-Syria border; he remains a company commander in the reserves.
"I'm making that transition once a month," he said. "Every month, I literally take my uniform off and go from being Captain Swaggert to being Nick, so I'm uniquely situated to work with both the corporate environment and also the military understanding."
He said it was while finishing up his master's in public policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs that he had "one of those moments, an epiphany."
At that point, he was looking for a civilian job in municipal government. After all, in Iraq in 2007, he practically ran the city of Anah, in the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province.
But looking for a job here, "it became very evident very quickly that my experience in Iraq, managing a city, was not going to translate in the eyes of the interviewers.
"They thought I was a great fit culturally — very enthusiastic, good education, well spoken, someone who could work on their team. But invariably it was, 'you don't have the experience we're looking for working in cities.' I said I pretty much did this working in Iraq, and they said it's not Minnesota."
And so Swaggert saw a business opportunity. The job he eventually landed came about because he was enrolled in one of Genesis 10's veteran recruiting programs.
"I had some ideas on ways to improve it, and they said, 'Why don't you come on board and help make this program better?'" That was in September last year.
In a recent interview, Swaggert described the challenges veterans face returning to the civilian workforce and what employers need to do as well.
Describe the disconnect between veterans and civilian employers when it comes to hiring.
"I'll give you an example. Last week, we were at the veteran job fair that (the state) ran, and one of the uniformed military members got up there and said, 'All you companies should really consider hiring veterans; they're physically fit, they're drug-free and they're morally sound.' Well, I've never seen those things on a job description.
"That's a great example of the disconnect of where the uniform side says how great veterans are, and the companies say, 'I don't really need that, that does not affect me at all.'
"But you'll see a lot veterans working as security guards. The most recent two hires we had at Genesis 10 had their degrees, and they were working as security guards. You can't tell me they're not frustrated.
"I've had employers say, 'I've seen the movies, I understand the military,' and on the other side, veterans, like myself, we don't necessarily immediately walk in Day One speaking the corporate lingo.
"These are the things that atrophy in the military: Networking is considered going out of your chain of command; networking is a bad thing. You do not write a resume in the military, your service record book is simply looked at; interviewing skills: you don't want to talk about yourself, you want to talk about the team. Yet, those three things are the way civilian employees get jobs — three major attributes that are considered negative or don't occur in the military."
So how does one bridge that divide?
"On the employers side, it takes someone who is really dedicated to trying something different. They absolutely have to have that initiative. Not only that, they have to have dedicated veteran roles. That is to say, 'Look, we are going to hire a veteran in this role.' If you don't do that, if you just size them up next to each other, it is very difficult to say I want to try something different.
"In Minnesota, the veteran population is about 3 to 5 percent; so there's a 95 percent chance the person sitting across the table from the hiring manager is not going to be a veteran.
"It helps when their boss makes the commitment or there's executive sponsorship at a level above, an executive champion. I've seen CEOs in the Twin Cities that have done that — I'll even name one: Xcel Energy, Ben Fowke. He has been an outspoken advocate for hiring veterans.
"So the trickle-down effect of that is the hiring managers are more comfortable."
What about on the veterans' side?
"We have a template for our Reverse Boot Camp for some of the hard and soft skills — the hard skills being the Microsoft Outlook, Powerpoint, Word, Excel, that's an online learning management system module that we put them through.
"But primarily what we are helping more with is the soft skill stuff. One of the classes is on the new chain of command, working in a matrix organization.
"In the Marine Corps, there're 20 major job categories. Well, there are 200,000 members of the Marine Corps. So even though you have a job category, you do a lot of different things.
"Take a guy who is a truck driver. But he doesn't want to be a truck driver in the civilian world. So how do you help him understand what he can do? 'What else did you do?' 'Well, we had to take accountability of parts and we inventoried them three times a day.' 'So you could be an inventory management administrator for any number of the warehouses in town,' and they say, 'That's something I could do.'
"A lot of veterans serve in the military, then go to school with their GI Bill, and they typically go into liberal arts degrees. History and political science are two huge ones. And most veterans, while they're getting their degree, don't know what industry they want to go in.
"First thing I tell each one is they have to go on their own journey and figure out where they fit in the world. And they say, 'How do I do that?' Well, first off, don't go to a website. There's a slew of websites out there telling veterans how to transition. It is an oversimplification of very complex problem. There's no algorithm for a human being."