Workforce Development: Hiring Veterans Can Help Bridge the Gap

military personnel

Workforce development has been heavily on the minds of many in the industry in recent years, and NUCA has been actively engaged in helping the industry find, train, and retain skilled workers. A large part of that is through NUCA’s dedicated Workforce Development Committee (see page 38 for more details on the committee).

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The Workforce Committee is finding and creating new recruiting tools, including introducing young people to the benefits of working in construction and establishing/supporting training and vocational programs. NUCA has also partnered with the Center for America to help match companies looking for skilled employees with military veterans looking for civilian employment. Often, veterans offer the skillset – and mindset – that companies are looking for, but making the connection can be difficult.

To learn more about the Center for America and its activities in matching companies and potential employees, Utility Contractor interviewed Steve Nowlan, President and CEO of the Center for America. Nowlan has directed public affairs and litigation management initiatives for more than 100 Fortune 500 companies and been retained by more than 50 foundations to develop giving strategies, policies, and program evaluation techniques. He has worked with many nonprofit organizations across America to improve their communications, marketing and management objectives.

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Workforce issues have been a hot topic recently, especially so in the construction industry. How would you rate the situation? Are contractors able to find qualified employees? How is this changing over time?

Nowlan: A very high percentage of small to medium-size companies (those up to 100 or more employees), including construction companies, depend on non-HR managers sharing HR responsibilities on a part-time basis. In CFA surveys, we learned that about 70% of these managers have no formal HR or recruiting training. Some of the shortage arises because these finance, sales, administrative and operations personnel are able to spend only a few hours a week on HR issues, and often, “high voltage” HR issues (terminations, injuries, benefits, etc.), crowd out recruiting duties.

A majority of the HR manager group cited above, and a surprisingly high group of full-time HR managers in small to medium companies, are not aware of all the sources of employee and veteran referral sources they can go to for free help to get candidate resumes.

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Additionally, a majority of the HR managers are not proficient in evaluating military candidates based on their resumes, and often, in in-person interviews. This often leads to hiring the wrong candidates who leave the company or are terminated, or, overlooking the candidates who are qualified and who would make excellent employees. There are very few opportunities for an HR manager to get training in evaluating candidate military experience. In fact, only a small percentage of HR managers receive any formal training in recruiting new employees – they generally learn by experience which can take months or years depending on how many people they are involved with hiring.

Most part-time and full-time HR recruiters are over-worked and constantly under pressure to complete a long list of projects. Projects are often completed to an “adequate stage” without having time to complete them fully. So, when it comes to recruiting, managers often have to “fit in” the recruiting effort – a little here, a little there. There is little time for networking outreach to the referral organizations (state, military, nonprofit) that will help by providing referral candidates IF they understand the company’s needs adequately.

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Part of the problem is that company CEOs typically don’t state clearly that hiring veterans, National Guard and Reserves as a high priority. Without explicit clarity about hiring military candidates, staff will do their best, but often not follow through assiduously to do the networking necessary to find military candidates that match, especially in light of other pressing deadlines that have been identified by the CEO as high priority.

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What factors are leading to the shortage of workers in the construction industry?

Nowlan: Most companies advertise or post jobs without communicating much if anything about the company, its culture, and the career opportunities it offers. Veterans come from a rich and transparent culture in the military and most veterans are looking to have a career in a company that offers a value-centered culture and clearly stated opportunities for training and advancement. Companies that make little or no effort to connect with veterans on their culture and career aspirations generally don’t attract applicants.

Most companies, including construction companies, greatly undervalue the skills, experience and levels of responsibilities of military candidates – and wind up assuming that all veterans that they will attract are “entry level.” This arises because HR managers and others don’t know how to evaluate candidates effectively. We’ve heard many examples of veterans with very advanced skills and experience being offered entry level jobs when their track record should merit hiring into an advanced role with double or triple the compensation. Many veterans would rather take two or three part-time jobs while they look for a job equivalent to their skills, than take a full-time job where they have to start at the bottom all over again.

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In most states, when an active duty military person leaves the military, there is an average of 26 weeks of unemployment benefits available. If they don’t find a full-time career job within this period, most will take the part-time jobs just to support their families or make ends meet. In some states, the unemployment benefit is considerably less than 26 weeks.

In addition to the 1.8 million veterans now in minimum wage jobs (not counting National Guard and Reservists), there are 200,000 active duty military transitioning into the private sector marketplace each year for the next five years. Yet, most industries do little or nothing to communicate with these veterans (and Guard and Reserve members) about careers they offer. Most industry associations default to the view that “veterans will find us.” However, this is shortsighted because the goal should be to attract the veterans whose skills and passions most closely connect with the industry so as to maximize the match. Often, any industry recruiting company that is launched, will feature only civilians in the pictures and speak only in terms of civilian experience (high school or community college) without referencing anything about welcoming veterans. Veterans and civilians need to be understood to be two different demographic markets.

Without the benefit of solid information about attractive careers in the industry, how will veterans learn about the industry? For example, there is not often an opportunity for veterans or active duty military to subscribe to industry publications, and there is not much in the general news media about any given industry to motivate veterans to pick out the industry and its associations to spend much time Googling. Even when veterans visit industry websites, most industry association websites have very little content directed at attracting veterans, Guard and Reserve members.

Too many companies have the expectation that non-profits, the military and state agencies will do the recruiting for them when it comes to veterans. In effect, they try to outsource the recruiting because they think these organizations are somehow supposed to provide fully vetted veteran candidates. This perception is incorrect. The veteran referral organizations will do their best to sift and sort available candidates, and then provide the resumes to the employer for the employer to follow-through. Too many employers take umbrage at this and conclude that no one really helped us.

How is your organization addressing the issue? What are the challenges that you are facing trying to match veterans and employers?

Steve Nowlan: Center for America (CFA) works with trade associations and employers to provide them with the knowledge and networking resources they need to find and hire veterans. Our free how-to Guides and State Resource Directories have been downloaded more than 170,000 times by employers across the United States. We help associations provide free access to these resources by providing them with co-branded Veteran Hiring Resources web pages they can link to their association websites.

CFA also provides free webinars hosted by associations for their members, as well as free webinars for unaffiliated employers. We provide presentations at association meetings, customize our publications in collaboration with associations, participate as guest members of association workforce development committees, and publish video briefings. We also author articles for industry publications.

Our overall goal is to help build the self-sufficiency of small to mid-size companies to find and hire veterans, National Guard members and Reservists. Through all of our communication channels, we offer our materials to more than 75,000 employers annually.

In terms of challenges, in addition to the points made above, industry and company leaders in the manufacturing, technology and infrastructure industries are often focused on very high priority issues in the broader political and economic environment, such as the recent focus on tariffs, taxes and immigration, all of which have major impacts on the ability and opportunity to hire and manage employees.

How do you rate training in the industry? Do you find that there is sufficient training available or are you required to train employees after they are hired?

Nowlan: A great deal depends on whether the company is focusing its recruiting on veterans whose training and experience relates closely to its industry, or, whether the company is much less focused and is hiring military candidates even if they have no related skills.

A surprising number of companies hire veterans, without regard for related occupational skills, just because they are more disciplined and drug free. These veterans will need training which can often take the form of community college programs, which in turn, are often collaborations with industry. The number of these collaborations is growing, but due to the number of parties involved and the complexities of creating consensus around curriculum content, these collaborations often take a year to three years to establish. So, the increase is something of a trickle rather than a strong flow.

Those companies that identify and reach out to military units that train and utilize skills closely related to the company’s work, can often recruit employees who need in-company mentoring more than formal outside training. There is a trade-off in that it requires more company time to develop the relationships with the military units, but, the employees recruited need less company time to get acclimated and on the job.

In every industry there are examples of companies that are doing a really good job of providing in-company training to all the employees they are hiring. However, many companies, perhaps the highest proportion, want to hire employees who are already fully trained and simply need orientation. These companies don’t want to spend the money to provide training, perhaps in part because the recruiting process may not yield new employees who will stay long enough to complete the training. One major company we know of had particularly poor recruiting and hired 100 veterans without any particular selection criteria, and had 60 of the 100 wash out during the six-month training program.

Unfortunately, many industries that vocally complain about the shortage of skilled employees offer on-line or in-person training programs that are misaligned with military occupational skill levels and require military candidates to pay relatively high fees to enroll. When these programs are not certified by the State Approving Authorities (in each state acting on behalf of the Veterans Administration), the military candidates cannot use their GI Bill benefits to pay the tuition costs. More industries need to consider either lowering the training program fees or eliminating them altogether for veterans as part of an inducement package to attract veterans to participate. In addition, some industries need to review the misalignment issue, so as, for example, to accept military training attainments as the basis for waiving some industry course completions.

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