Defense contractors rethinking veteran support

Illustration by Rafael Ricoy

Ever since President Obama started bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, military veterans have been increasingly entering the civilian sector in search of new careers.

Defense contractors, who have long employed military veterans, have been among the leaders in hiring these employees.

(Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business) - Air Force veteran Denyse Gordon works for CACI International in the Arlington company’s veteran transition and retention office.

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In four years, for instance, Falls Church-based Northrop Grumman has seen its percentage of new hires who are veterans surge to nearly 31 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009. Nearly half of Fairfax-based ManTech International’s new hires in 2012 were veterans.

As the ranks of veteran employees grow, companies are starting to refine their strategies on the best way to train and support them. Some are rolling out more structured mentorship programs, while others are starting new internal offices and partnering with veteran-focused nonprofits.

“I’m seeing a turn in the rally cry of, ‘Hire veterans.’ I’m now seeing, ‘Retain, retain, retain,’ becoming more popular,” said Dan Frank, whose company VetAdvisor offers mentoring services for companies that employ veterans.

Over the next five years, the Labor Department projects that 1.5 million service members will be making the leap from active duty to a civilian job.

Contractors from Northrop to Lockheed Martin are taking a hard look at the programs they have in place for veteran employees, considering whether they offer enough support for a group that can face major challenges in adjusting to the civilian workforce.

From uniforms to suits

The move to the private sector isn’t always an easy one for former soldiers — some of whom may be suffering serious repercussions, such as war injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, and others who are simply unaccustomed to a less straightforward chain of command, and having a choice in what to wear each morning.

It’s difficult to make generalizations about such a large population, but many who have made the transition report that the corporate world can be a difficult adjustment.

“Everyone goes through a little bit of a stumbling block,” said Denyse Gordon, an Air Force veteran who now works on Arlington-based CACI International’s veteran programs. “You’re hanging up that uniform — no more boots, no more PT. Some people have a difficult transition, and some people have it easier.”

For Gordon, who spent more than a decade on active duty and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, leaving the military left her lonely.

“I went from being part of this huge family to now I’m solo,” she said.

Gordon had also become accustomed to using what in the military is dubbed a “continuity book,” given to military members taking on a new role with details about duties, terminology and contacts. In the private sector, there was no continuity book.

After 20 years in the Marine Corps, Charles Miles said it was at times hard to translate his military experience into a résuméthat made sense to corporate America.

Miles, who now works for ManTech, at one point interviewed with a company that had never hired a veteran.

“They gave me a personality test, and ... they said I was too mission-oriented,” he said. “It just illustrates a lack of understanding that a lot of people inexperienced with veterans have.”

Veterans also go through the typical changes most employees make when switching jobs, such as adjusting to new terminology and work flow systems. Many also have to adjust to the personal life changes that come with giving up deployments.

“In the beginning, it’s a little bit like landing in another country without the phrase book,” said Susan Chiaravalle, a more-than-30-year veteran of the Navy who was hired by Northrop about three years ago.

Organizations focused on veteran hiring often try to tailor their strategies to reflect these job candidates’ needs.

For instance, the USO hosts smaller job fairs for veterans seeking new jobs. In a hotel ballroom in Springfield late last year, the nonprofit, which focuses on supporting troops, teamed up with the nonprofit Hire Heroes USA to offer a career fair tailored for former members of the military.

That meant there were fewer people — meant to make it less overwhelming for job seekers who might not be accustomed to massive job fairs — and each was invited to have his or her résumé revised by Hire Heroes staff.

“If they’re coming with their own version of a résumé, it’s kind of gibberish to the hiring managers,” said Nathan Smith, chief operating officer of Hire Heroes. “If we’ve done that translation piece, it’s empowered the participant.”

Companies have also put in place programs to help veterans once they’re hired. Northrop, for instance, has relied on employee resource groups, or informal, volunteer groups to provide mentors and support for their veteran employees.

The veteran groups are known as VERITAS — short for Veterans, Employees, Reservists Inspired to Act and Support — and offer a range of events, from volunteering opportunities like stuffing care packages for soldiers to speeches.

For Chiaravalle, who runs one of the groups, VERITAS was an opportunity to meet others in the company with similar interests.

“When service has been a huge part of your life until you retire, it was also sort of a way of continuing that thread,” she said.

Rethinking veteran transition

Northrop is continually refining its approach. The company now has a staff member assigned to weighing how the company should formalize and institutionalize its employee resource groups into talent retention efforts, said Kia Silver Hodge, Northrop Grumman’s manager for diversity recruiting programs and talent acquisition.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, too, is rethinking its more informal transition and retention programs. Like Northrop, the contractor has relied on voluntary employee resource groups to provide mentoring for all of its employees.

But last year, Lockheed, which has close to 26,000 employees who are veterans, formed a military veterans’ leadership forum of about 250 high-ranking veteran employees. The group is meant to provide something of an advisory board for the company’s hiring, retention, transition and philanthropy efforts related to veterans, said Teri Matzkin, a talent acquisition manager at Lockheed.

The company has also signed a deal with American Corporate Partners — a nonprofit that pairs transitioning veterans with mentors in the civilian world — to create a more formal mentorship program.

At Lockheed, veteran employees can volunteer to serve as mentors and then be trained by American Corporate Partners. Once ready, they will be made available to new veteran employees who want mentoring, Matzkin said. The program started late last year.

CACI International, which has nearly 2,800 veteran employees, last year opened a two-employee office specifically focused on veteran transition and retention.

Gordon, who helped start the office, said the company also created a mentoring program last year and is trying to start an employee resource group for veterans.

Air Force veteran Craig Wetmore signed up for the mentoring program — called Vet Connect — almost immediately after taking a job in information security at CACI. He paged through profiles of potential mentors before choosing an executive vice president at CACI who is also a Navy veteran.

“I wanted to talk to somebody who’s been in the military,” he said. “I wanted somebody who understood where I came from to help me ... [get] where I should be.”

300K

Service members leaving the military each year for the next five years, according to November congressional testimony by John K. Moran, Labor Department deputy assistant secretary.

4.4%

Jobless rate for D.C.-area veterans in 2011, the last year for which data was available, according to the American Community Survey. At the time, the non-veteran unemployment rate was 7.5 percent.

 
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