The White House, both houses of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, professional staff, the Pentagon, and the Departments of Labor and Education all seem to understand the problem of veteran education and transition in fundamentally similar ways. The problem seems to be that veteran unemployment is directly tied to three massive political issues for which there are no easy solutions: the nation’s waning economic competitiveness, the budget imbalance / debt crisis, and the larger unemployment picture.
There is an opportunity here though. If we can learn to fix veteran unemployment in a permanent and scalable way, then we may have a kernel of solution for these broader challenges. But unfortunately, the political story seems like its being written following trite old patterns: our veterans have sacrificed for us, so now it is our turn to sacrifice for them.
I fear that this narrative will lead to the opposite of a scalable solution as companies develop a charity mindset when interviewing veterans—or worse it may convince them to set quotas just high enough to stay in the Administration’s or Congress’s favor.
In order for companies to hire people into good jobs they need to rebuild their competitiveness. They cannot do this if they are making hiring mistakes. So to reduce veteran unemployment we need to ensure that veterans are consistently the best people for the job, and of course do that with existing resources, without increasing the debt.
This recasting of veterans into the best employees for companies seems like something that should be possible. After all, the military builds its own workforce.
The problem is that no such training exists for Silicon Valley, Detroit, BioTech, or GreenTech nor any other industrial cluster, and given that people are only staying in jobs for 2-4 years, companies won’t invest in the training anymore. The media likes to say that the military to civilian transition is a translation problem, but military skills take years to build, just like those of other professions, and they don’t always translate. The transition is hard from Detroit to Silicon Valley, too. Translation, it turns out, is only a minor part of the challenge.
The broader issue is that soldiers need to retool and fundamentally reinvent themselves post service. Their training prepared them to serve and win in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is only a base upon which they can build for their civilian career.
Recently, the CEO of SimplyHired.com, a job board aggregator that collects job openings across the web, showed me a graph that supports the “labor supply demand mismatch” hypothesis across the economy. His data showed the trends of job openings on the web since the economy crashed. And here’s the shocker: there are as many open jobs today as there were a month before Bear Sterns and Lehman went bankrupt.
What’s changed? Jobs are remaining open for 3-5 times as long. Jobs are remaining open because employers can’t find people with the skills they need to help their companies compete. Fidelis has had 75 conversations with leading companies about their hiring challenges, and I promise that they’re all talking about the problem in those exact terms.
Here’s a straight-forward approach that will work for veterans. Find out what skills employers need to win, and build those skills. Layer those skills on top of a solid military foundation and a little social polish and then get out there, talk to people and build a trusted referral network. The jobs ARE out there. We need to go beyond the translation mindset to start preparing our veterans for the new economy.
Gunnar Counselman served in the U.S. Marines from 1999 to 2003 and is now founder of Fidelis, a company that partners with Universities to better serve niche education markets.