American businesses need to rethink what veterans can bring to the table

Give vets a chance, and an interview.
Give vets a chance, and an interview.
Image: AP Photo/David Goldman
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The ongoing debate about how to improve the quality and cost of care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) misses a key factor that could benefit not only the VA’s fiscal position but also the lives of the veterans it serves.

A significant number of veterans rely on the VA because they are underemployed, trapped in low-wage jobs that don’t provide health benefits or a sustainable income. The unemployment rate of veterans aged 18 to 24 is double that of their civilian counterparts. With 250,000 veterans transitioning from active duty to the civilian workforce each year, there is a growing population of highly trained and experienced individuals whose skills go unrecognized and unused. Connecting veterans with growth opportunities in high-value industries can reduce the burden on the VA while creating an engine for growth within the companies that hire them.

My new book, A Light in the Darkness: Leadership Development for the Unknown, explores how current attitudes toward veterans have created a generation of elite men and women who are uniquely prepared to assume significant leadership positions in civilian industries—if only those industries would change their mindset about veterans and the value that they bring to the table.

Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment firms, demonstrates the benefits that companies can realize when they recognize unconventional talent. Chris Woods, a veteran about whom I write in the book graduated from an elite college (USMA) and led over 150 people in combat, an extremely complex environment. Yet when he left the service, several companies refused to hire him because he didn’t have an MBA or other formal business experience or education.

Recognizing that important skills and knowledge can be acquired outside an academic environment, Blackstone hired Chris to manage its global client operations team of 20 people within the global hedge funds solutions business. He thrived in the company, and was soon pitching the CEO on creating a Military Internship Program that gives Blackstone a tangible way to transform its commitment to veterans into action. His argument for the program was based not on the veterans’ financial capabilities (usually they had none), but rather their ability to think creatively and lead amidst ambiguity—abilities that transcend war and have broad application throughout the business world.

Chris credits Blackstone’s focus on organically growing the skills and talents of people in the firm through job training and leadership development rather than finding them elsewhere as the key to the company’s successful track record with hiring veterans.

Elekta, a company that creates innovative clinical solutions for treating cancer and brain disorders, is another example employer that offers uniquely challenging and meaningful careers for veterans. Kenneth Morton is one of many veterans that make up 80% of Elekta’s engineering and technical positions, and the company has benefitted from valuing capacity (the ability to effectively tackle any unanticipated challenge), over the typical capabilities on a hiring checklist.

Morton joined Elekta in 2011 and, after four years as a field service engineer, became a product support specialist providing real-time virtual technical support to leading medical institutions nationwide. Throughout his naval career, Kenneth learned to maintain, troubleshoot, and repair sophisticated equipment and managed the software systems that support the machines—skills that prepared him for his second career in the medical device industry.

More corporations need to recognize the value of capacity and transferable skills. A study published in Harvard Business Review found that nearly one-third of managers identified “difficulties adapting to changing market circumstances” as their greatest strategic challenge. Members of the military are trained to make quick decisions in tough situations and, as Chris Woods has said, during battle soldiers must look “beyond preconceived notions about what ‘right’ looks like.” In other words, they can operate in ambiguous environments, known to most of us as “thinking outside the box.”

Chris and Kenneth are two examples of how veterans can provide extraordinary value even when they don’t appear to fit a set of pre-determined employment criteria. Veterans have already demonstrated their commitment to our country. Enabling them to fulfill their potential once they leave the service is not only responsible business, but also gives everyone a better chance to come out ahead.