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The Challenges and Opportunities of Helping Returning Veterans Transition into the Workforce

Disciplined, Highly-Trained … Jumpy, Abrasive … What’s Truth and What’s Fiction?The Iraq War is officially over. Globally, other major conflict zones are in a drawdown phase, returning thousands of active soldiers to the civilian workforce. These soldiers are highly trained and often extremely capable performers, yet some employers are reluctant to hire them due to a perception that veterans are unstable or difficult to manage.

This could be a key missed opportunity. Veterans don’t thrive in every work culture, but if you have a fit in your organization, you have the chance to employ a worker with a proven performance ethic and cutting-edge technical skills. Those who are up to the challenges of employing veterans have a chance to leverage the opportunity to build a real competitive advantage for their business.

Tapping the Veteran Workforce

Returning veterans seek the opportunity to rejoin civilian life. Some of them have never known anything but the service, enlisting straight out of high school. Others have college degrees, but skipped “Animal House” antics in favor of early morning ROTC programs followed by serving overseas. The work world they seek to join is often quite a bit softer in discipline and structure than the world they leave behind.

For recruiters and hiring managers, it helps to meet veterans halfway. Learning a bit of the relevant lingo for the field where you are recruiting (technical, mechanical, administrative) will help your business connect with qualified veterans and open up communication channels with prospective hires. As candidates, veterans who feel your business understands them will be more open in sharing their experiences, helping you find a fit for those experiences within your organization.

It can mean extra work to build those bridges. However, in America’s ongoing skills gap, former military personnel already have many of the key proficiencies needed. At a fall hiring fair for telecommunications and energy in Denver, CO, the most highly sought after workers were returning veterans with fresh experience working with diesel engines, high-end telecommunications equipment, and large commercial vehicles. Companies that had made an effort to reach out to military personnel in the orientation, language, and style of their recruiting had the best luck converting prospects to hires. This provided them with a team of workers ready to go, a significant cost and competitive advantage over their peers, notes the Wall Street Journal.

Managing Invisible Injuries

The largest ongoing challenge for both veterans and employers in integrating back to civilian work culture is the management of invisible injuries. This includes post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the lingering effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI). The conditions are often confused, but neither is a reason to turn your back on a potential veteran hire.

PTSD is primarily an anxiety-based disorder. In the workplace, PTSD symptoms most likely to have an impact on performance include sensitivity to light and noise (especially sudden noises), hypervigilant behaviors, and a difficulty expressing emotions. These can be managed by keeping workplace noise distractions to a minimum, allowing veteran employees space to recover if startled, and making a point to ask open-ended questions to engage veteran employees fully in work-related conversations.

In contrast to PTSD, TBI represents a brain injury. Most are received as a result of blasts, crashes, or blows resulting in severe headache, dizziness, or a temporary loss of consciousness. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs notes that 80 percent of all TBI’s in the civilian population are mild, with the most common work-related symptoms of headache, trouble concentrating or performing complex judgment tasks, and a shift in social behavior that may be interpreted as irritability or short-temperedness as the injured brain must work harder to process incoming social data streams. These can be managed in the work environment by simplifying directions, encouraging a one-at-a-time process structure, keeping distractions to a minimum, and promoting cooperative work cultures.

TBI and PTSD can occur independently or be a conjoined part of a veteran’s life experience. Neither diminishes the technical skills training or commitment to doing a good job of a veteran hire, though they may lead to occasional bad performance days. Employers who are willing to be patient through the recovery process and patient with ongoing symptoms reap the benefits of a loyal, dedicated workforce whose unique background makes them unafraid of stepping up to a challenge.

Additional Resources

The tools for keeping quality veteran workers in your employee pool are not rocket science. Additional sensitivity around communication styles, volumes and distractions in the work environment, and data overload situations can keep veterans consistently productive and engaged. Training and advice for veteran managers is widely available online and in special sessions from veterans’ affairs and medical groups.

In fact, many of the best practices for working with veteran populations who may have TBI or PTSD overlap with recommendations for working with aging and stressed employee groups. According to the American Speech Language Hearing Association, setting clear work outcomes, creating focused work environments free of distractions, and developing supportive team environments help multiple populations deliver strong job performance. Along with other workers, veterans who feel they are being successfully accommodated on the job will turn in better performance and stay on the job for years.

To learn more about successfully recruiting and engaging veteran workers, visit the US Department of Veteran Affairs. The site includes mobile applications for coaching veterans with TBI and PTSD as well as overviews of opportunities for veteran-owned and staffed businesses. Along with the official government site, websites such as BrainInjuryRx and Michigan’s Veterans of Foreign Wars website have job matching and management advice for business owners. Together, these sites can help businesses like yours overcome myths and stereotypes about employing veterans to zero in on the opportunities this highly trained workforce can provide.


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