Veterans are the backbone of this nation, yet too frequently they are overlooked in the workforce. So this Veterans Day, get practical and effective tips to see how your staffing firm can maximize its relationship with this demographic looking to enter or re-enter the workforce.
But first, here’s the inspiring story of Ben Keen, a real-life veteran, and his journey to becoming a successful IT professional who was named American Staffing Association’s 2016 National Staffing Employee of the Year.
The Personal Struggles and Triumphs of A Veteran
After receiving his honorable discharge in January 2008, Keen relocated to the Pittsburgh area and started his transition to the corporate IT environment and would go on to gain much success in his field — but none of it would come easy.
After being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, Keen went down a path where heavy drinking at the time seemed to be the quick cure to his problems.
“Combat changes you — whether it’s combat or any traumatic event in your life, you always come out somewhat different,” he said. My marriage was already going downhill and I ended up drinking a lot — more than any person should ever drink in their life.”
It was in October 2010 around his 30th birthday when Keen found himself drunk and on the brink of blackout on his couch, when his then-4-year-old daughter asked him to play, to which he found himself responding, “Daddy’s too drunk to play.”
“She just got this look of devastation across her face and I [heard] those words come out of my mouth and did a 180 — it was like a slap across the face, and that’s when I realized that what I was doing wasn’t the way to go.”
With a tremendous amount of effort, Keen not only pulled himself up professionally, but he went on to found Steel City Vets, a veteran support group designed and run by veterans. Steel City Vets works with various locally- and nationally-based groups to help provide returning veterans with the support they need.
We talked to Keen, who offered up some simple yet powerful suggestions for how staffing firms can interact with veterans and empower them to enter and succeed in the workplace.
Tips to Partner With Veterans
1. Don’t just find ANY fit; find the right fit. Take the time to actually read the resume. Some won’t even take the time to properly read a veteran’s resume and offer him or her a job commensurate with their level of expertise.
Describing an example of what not to do, Keen recalls a staffing professional calling to ask if Keen would be interested in a job as a call center representative for $12 an hour.
“I was thinking if [she] actually read my resume, [she’d] know I’m not a call center representative,” Keen said. “I wrote back to her: Ma’am with all due respect, I highly recommend you go back and re-read my resume and email me again to [let me know] if you still think I’m qualified.”
That’s a good lesson to learn: Don’t pigeonhole veterans — take a good look at their skill sets. Every veteran has a story, so take the time and effort to find out why they were successful in the military and then connect that back to their skill sets.
Staffing firms working with veterans to identify what they’re best at and then finding them jobs that suit those qualifications is a recipe for success.
2. Take the time to talk to veterans and really get to know them. Go beyond what may be the scope of your job if that’s what is required. They will go the extra mile for you, so return the favor.
Keen said his first experience working with a staffing agency was when he was looking for a job during the week of Christmas in 2007, and it was the staffing professional, a retired marine, who casually reached out to him who ended up making an indelible impact on his life with a simple act. But he went out of his way to spend some quality time with Keen — something that impacted his life on a deep level.
“He sat down with me for a couple hours one-on-one the week of Christmas while everyone else was enjoying their dinners,” Keen recalls. “That single gesture was amazing, and that’s why I am where I am today. I feel compelled to give back. It’s one thing to take that assistance and bask in my successes; it’s another to take that success and be an example to others and try to help them.”
And that’s precisely what Keen has set out to do.
Referring to program that he has set up, he says: “We leverage things like that to get the veteran up and off the couch because once we do that and get the veteran engaged, we can start talking to him or her like, ‘Where are you at? Where’s your transition at? Where’s your head at? What do you need? What questions do you have?’”
3. Know that veterans are a resilient group looking for a chance. BE that chance. Veterans are actually one of the most dependable groups in the workforce, Keen explains. After all, consider their background in the military. If given a chance, they will show up ready and willing to do the work.
“Veterans aren’t looking for handouts — they’re a very resilient group of people and they’re not going to fail you,” he says. “Veterans aren’t looking for handouts. While we have our shortcomings, the one thing a veteran never does is fail. … All we’re looking for is that one chance to succeed. What we need — and what the staffing industry can do — is be that chance.”
By working with veterans to give them a shot at success in the workforce and then showcasing their successes, the staffing industry can set an example for other industries by dispelling the false notions and stigmas surrounding veterans in the workforce.
4. Be an example and fight the good fight against veteran joblessness. The staffing industry is at the forefront on the war on joblessness, and can do even more to set an example to show the success of veterans in their fields.
“A lot of veterans get out but they don’t understand resume writing; they don’t understand interview prepping; they don’t understand how to dress for success; they don’t understand how to present themselves,” Keen says.
While Keen has made it his mission to help bridge that gap, it’s an opportunity for the staffing industry to step in and step up their game to another level.
5. Teach veterans to speak the language of the business when applying. There needs to be a synergy between veterans and the staffing industry.
“As a veteran, I come and say, ‘Here are my skills; I can talk about these skills.’ The staffing industry [should] come back and say, ‘We understand the line of business and how to speak to the business, so let’s look at your skills and translate these into terms that businesses will understand,’” Keen explained.
For example, Keen said, if he walks into a job interview and states that he has experience as a multi-channel transmission operator maintainer for 8 and a half years, he might be met with blank stares. That’s why it’s important to translate what that would mean to the employer in tangible terms — and that’s where staffing professionals can help.
“If [instead] I said, ‘I set the voice and data communications that led to the successful operation of forward combat operations, now we’re talking business. We’re talking switches, routers, [etc.] — now we’re talking apples to apples,” he said.
Another example Keen cites is when veterans list medals they may have received while on active duty — not that employers aren’t appreciative of it, but there isn’t a direct relation to their business.
“Quite frankly, you don’t care about the what; you care about the why. Why did you get that award? Did you figure out some type of process that saved the unit x amount of man hours or x amount of dollars? Because now we’re talking business.”
Once again, that’s where the expertise of the staffing firm comes in in terms of coaching them on how to translate their awards into the language an employer would understand.
For more tips and strategies to take your staffing firm to the top, don’t miss out on the 2015 Opportunities in Staffing study, which will help you move the needle with your clients, candidates and internal staff.