Corporate America loves hiring veterans. Part good strategy (think valuable technical and leadership skills), part good finance (think tax incentives) and part good P.R. (no explanation needed), companies have increasingly been promoting their pledges to bring thousands of employees with military experience onboard. Some companies or employer coalitions like Starbucks, Walmart and the newly renamed Veteran Jobs Mission are reaching or blowing past milestones toward the goals they've set.
But what happens once those sought after workers are in the door?
That track record, particularly among veterans in professional careers, is not very well understood, says Julia Taylor Kennedy, a senior fellow at the research think tank Center for Talent Innovation. So Kennedy and her team set out to survey 1,022 veterans working in full-time, white-collar professions as well as to conduct in-depth interviews with some 40 more.
"Companies are investing enormous resources into recruiting veterans," said Kennedy, a co-author of the report, released Tuesday, which cites data that veteran hiring efforts can consume as much as 20 or 30 percent of recruiting budgets at some large corporations. "But companies are failing to make good on that investment. What we find is veterans get in the doors of corporations and they're either not looking to rise—what we call 'tuned out'—or another big portion is 'stalled out,' "— that is, they're eager to advance but have trouble getting promoted.
The study, which was co-authored by Michael Abrams, who founded the veteran support organization Four Block, found that many veterans feel under-utilized, alienated and uninspired in corporate workplaces. Fully two-thirds of the respondents said they weren't using three or more of the skills they have that could be applicable to their employers.
Meanwhile, only 2 percent said they have an executive who really champions and advocates on their behalf. That compares with 19 percent of men and 13 percent of women in CTI's surveys of the general professional population, Kennedy said.
"That was really stunning for us, because we feel sponsorships are the real key to getting up the corporate ladder," she said, noting the gap may be due to the more hierarchical leadership style many military veterans bring to their jobs, which could make them less attractive candidates for such an advocate, even if unintentionally. "They’re used to taking and giving orders. They're not used to getting buy-in first," Kennedy said.
Also in the survey, roughly half of respondents said their colleagues had made false assumptions about them (such as that they're politically conservative or have post-traumatic stress disorder); more than a quarter tried to downplay their military experience with colleagues; and nearly a third of those with a service-related injury or disability hid it from their colleagues.
Many said they didn't want to get into awkward or tough conversations with their colleagues. For example, one former sniper said, "you would not believe the number of times I've been asked how many kills I had," Kennedy recalls. Some also didn't want to be seen as having special advantages, an issue that could be particularly delicate as companies go out of their way to hire veterans.
That was especially true for veterans who are also racial minorities, the report says. Nearly 40 percent of Hispanic veterans, 25 percent of black veterans and 21 percent of Asian veterans—compared with 14 percent of their white peers—avoided sharing their military experience with colleagues, the study found.
Less surprising, however, is CTI's finding that nearly two-thirds of veterans said they felt more purpose in the military than in their corporate jobs. Many cited far less camaraderie with their teams at work, and those who were no longer leading other people as they had in the military missed doing so. This was particularly true for women: 56 percent of female veterans said their corporate careers weren't meeting their goal of meaningful work, compared to 47 percent of male veterans.
While such numbers may be not be encouraging, companies are starting to pay more attention to the sort of issues raised in CTI's report, said Nicholas Armstrong, the senior director of research and policy at Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families. That may be partly because just over half of veterans leave their first post-military job within a year, Armstrong said, leading to costly and time-consuming amounts of turnover for companies. "The conversation is shifting now," Armstrong said. It's moving from a focus on just hiring vets to asking, "What are we doing to find better matches for their careers?"