February 26, 2013
special report | Logistics Talent

Hire our heroes ... the right way

Military veterans are highly qualified for jobs in logistics and warehousing, but the transition from the armed forces to private industry isn't always easy. Understanding the differences will help ensure a successful experience for everyone.

By Toby Gooley

With the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan on the wane and the war in Iraq over, thousands of troops from all branches of the armed forces have been coming home, and thousands more are expected to return over the next two years. Some choose to stay in the armed forces, while others seek jobs in the private sector.

According to government statistics, military vets—many of whom have experience in logistics, material handling, and warehousing—have a higher unemployment rate than the population at large. Meanwhile, employers are having a hard time finding qualified people to fill positions in those same areas. Clearly, this is a first-class opportunity to match talent supply with employer demand.

Yet a successful match is not guaranteed. There are enough differences between the armed forces and private industry that the transition isn't always easy. Understanding those differences can help both veterans and employers make that transition a successful one.

THEY HAVE THE RIGHT STUFF
Employers seeking to hire for warehousing and logistics jobs may be surprised at how many military veterans are knowledgeable about those activities. Overseas-deployed personnel, for instance, have extensive experience managing the accountability of equipment and assets across several locations, says Jason Dozier, veteran transition specialist at the nonprofit Hire Heroes USA and a former U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq.

"Even veterans who may not have an extensive background in logistics have broad experience with freight management and distribution while overseas," Dozier notes. For example, a typical experience for an infantryman in Iraq would include the inventorying, containerization, and loading of assets at a forward operating base, and then securing and escorting those assets to a distribution hub, he says. Other personnel would manage and supervise the distribution operations of unimproved airstrips, field logistics terminals, shipping docks, warehouses, and other facilities.

Similar processes apply at military installations here at home, so domestically deployed veterans also have an understanding of operations, logistics, and the allocation and maintenance of military assets, Dozier says. Vets often are certified as forklift operators, and many are trained in the maintenance and operation of rough-terrain forklifts that can handle loads weighing up to 10,000 pounds. Furthermore, some military personnel know how to use tools like the Army's Logistics Support Activity (LOGSA) system, which analyzes logistics data and information, and are schooled in Lean Six Sigma. (Click here to read Dozier's commentary on why military veterans make great warehouse employees.)

But military veterans have a lot more to offer than hands-on experience. "They have skills we're all interested in: good team leadership, a strong work ethic, adaptability, and the ability to solve a problem on the spot, often under time pressure or duress," says Jeff Rufener, president of Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. Inc. (TMHU). TMHU offers veterans a discount on its forklift operator safety training, and through its "Giving Veterans a Lift" program is working with its dealers and Hire Heroes USA to train ex-military personnel as lift truck service technicians. After three months on the job, the dealer and TMHU make matching donations in the vet's honor to the nonprofit.

The military develops officers' skills in planning, setting objectives, evaluating results, and training subordinates. Every member is trained in leadership, and many veterans have been put in leadership positions early in their careers, says Aaron Bowman, a senior vice president at the economic development agency JAXUSA Partnership of Northeast Florida. "Veterans know how to give and how to receive orders," says Bowman, a retired Navy officer who began his career as an aircraft carrier pilot and capped it with a stint as commanding officer of a naval station.

Personnel who stayed in the military beyond their initial contract probably have led a team, a platoon, or a functional group—something outside of an individual-contribution role, says Ed Tobon, director of staffing for Ryder System Inc. As a result, "compared with their civilian counterparts of a similar age, they bring a lot more 'soft' skills," says Tobon, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve who served for more than 20 years in the Navy, including active duty as a pilot and a recruiter. Since 2010, Ryder has participated in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "Hire Our Heroes" initiative and has pledged to hire 1,000 military veterans by the end of 2013.

Here's another reason why vets are a good fit for logistics and warehousing: Because military operations focus on achieving specific, definable objectives, military personnel will look for resources to accomplish a logistics mission and are driven by outcomes. "The team-based, mission-driven logistics operations in our civilian society, with their focus on specific deliverables, are as closely aligned with military activity as any in private industry," says Mike Echols, Ph.D., executive vice president of strategic initiatives and of the Human Capital Lab at Bellevue University in Omaha, Neb. The nonprofit Bellevue offers a special academic program to prepare military veterans to transition to the private sector and partners with the Defense Acquisition University to offer degree and training programs.

Dick Lucas
Dick Lucas (left, as a new recruit in 1978) was able to apply the skills he learned as an Air Force aircraft hydraulics and electronics technician to his new job working on high-tech forklifts at PennWest Toyota Lift.

ADVICE FROM THE FRONT LINES
For many veterans, the transition to the private sector environment goes smoothly. Dick Lucas, a service technician with the lift truck dealer PennWest Toyota Lift and the first "graduate" of Toyota's hiring program, found that the adaptability and the skills he acquired in the Air Force as an aircraft hydraulics and electronics technician were invaluable when he began learning how to service today's high-tech forklifts. His experience with parts ordering and documentation also helped him adjust to the system at Toyota, he says. Now, Lucas is paying it forward: He's taken under his wing a recent hire, who was injured in Iraq, and has retrained him as a lift truck technician.

But there are some differences between the military's approach to employment and the private sector's expectations that can affect vets' ability to succeed in private sector jobs. For example, veterans are used to a dynamic and challenging environment. "Many veterans do not know the meaning of a traditional 40-hour week, so having them involved in an organization that offers a challenge and seeks constant improvement is a requirement," says JAXUSA's Bowman.

Military and civilian vocabulary differ significantly, says Tom Stephanic, PennWest's fleet facilities and inventory manager, who served as a track and wheel repairer in the Army. "I didn't understand some of the terminology the civilian workforce used. For example, they called it a 'purchase order,' but I was used to a 'document number.' It's the same thing, just a different name ... but it can affect the way people transfer knowledge. People assumed I knew what they were talking about." Unfortunately, he says, an employer might see this as a weakness or a lack of understanding instead of the bridgeable communication gap that it is.

The way military personnel communicate with superiors can be very different from the approach favored by the private sector. "If the hiring manager is perceived to be higher ranking, then you are likely to get 'yes, sir, no sir' responses rather than the open dialogue you want," Tobon says.

Their experience and training discourages military personnel from questioning superiors. "They know their unit is one part of an overall mission plan and that they need to carry out their assignment within that mission," Echols observes. "They're good problem solvers, but they don't challenge authority. You won't hear a veteran ask, 'Why do we do it this way?' Over time, yes, but not at first."

It may also be more difficult to get a clear idea of a vet's accomplishments and skills than it is with civilians. "The military in general tends to speak about 'We did this' or 'We accomplished that' and not focus on individual achievements," Tobon notes. For that reason, a military résumé might mention a specific experience or event but not provide details on what the veteran personally did. For example, a vet might say that he led a mission that brought 2,000 soldiers to a new base in Afghanistan, but he might not say that he supervised and assigned 50 mechanics and drivers, and was responsible for fleet maintenance and supplies.

How to overcome veterans' reluctance to blow their own horns or to engage in an open dialogue with the boss? Echols says they may need to be taught what the private sector wants. That's why Bellevue University has developed its three-semester "Cornerstone" curriculum to help veterans learn how to manage that transition. The curriculum includes courses on managing change, technology and modern society, well-being and personal finance, and personal communication skills. "Cornerstone is designed to help them learn the language of decision making in a civilian setting," Echols explains.

Ryder's Tobon suggests helping military personnel prepare for the interview, as well as training hiring managers and human resources professionals in how to break the ice and handle the nuances they might encounter when talking to a vet, especially one who is transitioning from active duty. It's also important to "onboard" properly, helping new hires assimilate into the corporate culture. That includes making hiring, training, and promotion policies clear—it can be discouraging for someone who's already been in a leadership position to have to work their way up through the ranks again. "For recently separated vets, it's their first exposure to corporate America, so you need to make sure your onboarding program is solid," he says.

That can include being flexible about medical appointments for an injured vet, and recognizing that veterans, especially those who have been in combat, may find it hard to adjust to business routines after months or years of dangerous duty. Similarly, it's important to recognize that they may be dealing with different stresses and medical issues than other employees. (See the sidebar "PTSD: The elephant in the room.") Pairing up a new hire with another vet who's been through the same experience can be helpful, too.

Echols says employers who are considering hiring veterans should not be put off by the extra effort it may take to help them succeed in the private sector. Instead, think of it as a worthwhile investment in the future. "When the baby boomers are gone, we will need new leaders," he says. "Military veterans have all the attributes and character of people who can be leaders. That's why hiring companies should be interested in the development of these individuals. They should be thinking not just about what they can do today but about what they can be tomorrow."

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Senior Editor
Before joining DC VELOCITY and its sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly, where she serves as Editor, Toby Gooley spent 20 years at Logistics Management covering international trade and transportation as Senior Editor and Managing Editor. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

More articles by Toby Gooley

Defense Logistics Videos


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you're not already logged in, you will be asked to log in or register.

Subscribe to DC Velocity


Feedback: What did you think of this article? We'd like to hear from you. DC VELOCITY is committed to accuracy and clarity in the delivery of important and useful logistics and supply chain news and information. If you find anything in DC VELOCITY you feel is inaccurate or warrants further explanation, please ?Subject=Feedback - : Hire our heroes ... the right way">contact Chief Editor David Maloney. All comments are eligible for publication in the letters section of DC VELOCITY magazine. Please include you name and the name of the company or organization your work for.