On a rainy Friday morning in November, recruiters from about three dozen companies descended on a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City for Military MOJO, a job fair for commissioned officers looking to transition to civilian work.
Amid rows and rows of banner-bedecked booths, the goal was the same: To tap a talent pool that employers say often exhibits leadership, discipline, integrity and a team-centric attitude.
But many companies said they faced a common obstacle in trying to bring these workers on board. Veterans, they said, sometimes don’t realize how their skills might be relevant to companies outside the defense or government sectors, and as a result unemployment rates for veterans remain stubbornly high.
●“A lot of people see the Microsoft brand and they say, ‘I’m not a computer programmer,’” said Sean Kelley, the company’s senior director of military recruiting.
Philip Dana, who leads talent acquisition operations for Life Technologies, said he hears similar skepticism from service members.
The perception, he said, is: “That’s a bunch of PhDs. That’s not me.”
With this challenge in mind, companies across a broad cross-section of industries are trying to find creative ways to reach job-seeking veterans and help them navigate the transition into corporate America.
The efforts comes at a time when, particularly in the Washington region, federal budget cuts have led to fewer job opportunities in government and at many contracting companies.
Jeff Quesenberry, a principal at investment advisory firm Edward Jones, remembers well his own move to the financial sector from the military about 20 years ago.
“I think if I had to transition into electronics — I worked on jets — that would’ve been pretty easy,” said Quesenberry. “The language would’ve been the same. This is like learning a new language.”
Today, he oversees the Washington area component of Edward Jones’s Forces Program, an initiative designed to train those who have no prior experience in finance for careers in that industry. It is available to those who have left the military in the past 12 months or those who are active members of the National Guard or Army Reserve.
For the first eight weeks, participants are paid at an hourly rate as they study for regulatory exams and learn basics such as presentation skills. Then, for about 5 1/2 months, they do advanced training and shadow an existing financial adviser. During this time, they don’t work on the commission-based structure that is typical for other advisers; instead, they receive an income guarantee of $6,000 per month.
With that set-up, “They’ve got the stability of income, they’ve got the time to learn, and they’re learning it from a [long-time] adviser,” Quesenberry said.
To recruit for the program, Quesenberry and others are a regular presence at local military job fairs such as Military MOJO. They also frequently attend luncheons at the Marine Corps base at Quantico where they meet with service members who are considering a different career.
The company also makes an effort to be flexible with service members during the recruitment process, a strategy that former service member Paul Elliott said was essential in luring him into the Forces program.
“I was in Afghanistan while I was applying,” Elliott said. “I can’t even describe how accommodating they were” about the fact that his date of separation from the military wasn’t under his control.
Today, Elliott is working as an Edward Jones financial adviser in the Rockville office and he’s looking to open his own branch of the company in Bethesda.
Other firms are also moving to bring veterans into their workforce. Long & Foster began a scholarship program in June that allows veterans to attend for free a training curriculum that prepares them to obtain real estate licenses. Veterans’ spouses and children are also eligible for the scholarship.
Long & Foster hopes it will be able to hire many of these participants, but says it will consider the nascent program successful even if many choose to use the training as a foundation to do other things, such as invest in real estate.
“We’re providing opportunities to expand their thinking and expand their knowledge,” said Gary Scott, president of Long & Foster Real Estate.
Bethesda-based Marriott committed last year to hiring 1,500 veterans over three years. To get there, the company has been experimenting with new tactics to help veterans see how they might fit in at the company.
Marriott has added a widget to its careers site called the military occupational translator tool. Developed with assistance from Military.com, the tool allows a service member to put in his or her Military Occupational Specialty code and other key information about skills and specializations. Based on that information, the software suggests job openings at Marriott for which that person might be qualified.
In the past year, the company conducted an analysis of what military culture was like and how members of the military described it.
“We did this research and found out things like loyalty, respect, integrity, honor are all words that veterans would use when they talk about their military family,” said Karl Fischer, Marriott’s chief human resources officer.
Fischer said he and his team quickly noticed parallels: Many Marriott employees describe the company as a family, and use similar adjectives to describe it. Now, they’re playing up those similarities in culture and values as they reach out to veterans.
Marriott has brought on about 500 veterans since it announced its hiring pledge, and Fischer expects the company will meet — and perhaps exceed — its goal.
Sodexo, the Gaithersburg-based food and facilities management giant, has moved to grow its veterans workforce by opening its 10-week internship program — previously just for college students — to active or former members of the military.
Arie Ball, vice president for sourcing and talent acquisition, said some of Sodexo’s recruiters receive special training to be able to explain to veterans the path for advancement within the company. The recruiters use a familiar template — the ranks through which a military career progresses — and then show what the parallel would be at Sodexo.
These employers are hardly alone in their efforts to attract veterans. In 2011, major U.S. companies including JPMorgan Chase, Verizon and General Motors joined together for the 100,000 Jobs Mission, an effort to hire at least 100,000 veterans by 2020. Just two years later, they’ve nearly met the goal. In April, Wal-Mart announced plans to train and hire 100,000 veterans in the next five years.
But even as many companies tout their eagerness to extend opportunities to former service members, the unemployment rate remains relatively high for veterans of post-Sept. 11th conflicts. In September, the Labor Department reported that the jobless rate for this group was 10.1 percent, significantly higher than the nation’s 7.2 percent unemployment rate.
Experts and recruiters say one key to closing that gap will be for more employers to figure out how to parse a military résumé and to become more innovative about how to put those aptitudes to use.
“The unique challenge for the military is translating what they’ve been taught and having them apply those skills,” said Anthony Scarpino, senior director of talent acquisition at Sodexo. “It’s just a different language than we use in the civilian world.”