SAN ANTONIO (MCT) — Tyler Dahl, a USAA claims service manager and retired Marine, says “desk attire” is one thing that quietly sets former U.S. servicemembers apart from others in the vast call center floors at one of San Antonio's largest employers.
The U.S. flags, the service ribbons and medals, the “Semper Fi” posters and military-themed screen savers — all displayed in cubicles as devotedly as photos of spouses and children.
But another thing is the sense of camaraderie that USAA's growing community of veterans share, especially those like Dahl, who was one of USAA's first employees to go through its “Combat to Claims” program after leaving the service in 2011. He's now a program mentor who readily admits to his own shell-shock transitioning to civilian life.
That disorientation isn't something readily understood by managers accustomed to hiring civilians. In the next few years, hundreds of thousands of veterans will find their mission changed from defending the country to meeting private-sector goals of customer service and turning a profit. Although they bring recognizable experiences of self-discipline and teamwork, they may not be able to easily match their skills to the bullet points on the job description.
During Dahl's eight years in the military, he worked, among other things, as an artillery forward observer, spotting the enemy and directing fire. He served in Iraq and rose to the rank of staff sergeant.
In his new role, he was to spend his days on the phone, assisting USAA members with car insurance claims. He was flummoxed just figuring what to wear.
“In the military, there's no question of 'choice.' You wear your boots, you wear your uniform,” Dahl said. “Now I'm in a civilian world where I have a choice. What is the right choice?”
Christine Dickens, a military widow who was recently promoted to human resources business partner at the San Antonio-based financial services and insurance company, finds that some veterans even have difficulty adjusting to defined workdays.
“They want to work more,” she said. “What I've learned from the individuals is, 'I'm used to doing whatever it takes to serve the mission — I don't leave anything undone for the next day.' It was the desire to continue to work in that type of environment.”
USAA was started by military officers, and its members are military personnel and their families. That gives veterans such as Dahl a sense of continuing service.
USAA is one of a growing number of companies that have embarked on campaigns to hire veterans. In USAA's case, 30 percent of all new hires must be veterans or military spouses.
Some 1.5 million veterans are expected to leave or have left the military between 2013 and 2017, with most of them transitioning into a civilian job.
“One thousand veterans are leaving our military on a daily basis,” said Kevin Preston, director of veterans initiatives for the Walt Disney Co., which last month brought its Veterans Institute workshop to USAA's North Side campus.
“This is a pool of talent that we need to access,” he told an auditorium full of representatives from more than 160 public and private companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations.
“It's a smart business decision,” Preston said. “There are still people out there looking for jobs that are bright, dedicated, loyal individuals.”
But as Kay Schwartz, a veteran and military spouse who is now USAA's military hiring adviser, told employers, “You can't just say that you're military-friendly.”
One of the biggest challenges is decoding a resume full of military vernacular, something that can stump the candidate and the hiring manager.
The employer may be thinking, “What is a chemical warfare officer, and why would they work at a financial services company anyway?” Schwartz said.
The candidate, meanwhile, may be thinking that he or she has no marketable skills in the civilian world, she said.
“They see themselves as soldiers, airmen, Marines,” Schwartz said. “They don't know what to do with themselves.”
It helps to have veterans in human resources who know what to look for.
Like companies nationwide, Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopters wanted to do its part to put military personnel transitioning from wartime into meaningful careers. But finding a match for the position of global trade compliance administrator, the person who makes sure internationally bound parts and products meet trade regulations?
Recruiter Kevin Washer, an Air Force veteran, knew where to look: transitioning military intelligence.
“So the first three people I sent (to the human resources manager) were intelligence,” he said. “She called me up and said, 'I have some bad news. I can't make up my mind which one I want.'”
Dana Cosner, a corporate recruiter at San Antonio-based Taco Cabana who attended the workshop at USAA, related both professionally and personally to the challenges of hiring veterans.
She recalled how her husband, a retired Army combat veteran, had trouble adjusting to his first post-military job as a scheduler for an ambulance company.
“He said, 'I don't understand when I ask somebody to do something, and they say 'Why?' I'm used to when I say do something, they say 'Yes, sir,' or 'Yes, sergeant.'
“His resume was seven pages long,” Cosner added. “I was like, 'No, sweetie. We need to condense it. We need to put down your awards and your accolades, and kind of refocus it.'”