By Kyle Ellis

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Milken Institute Global Conference as part of the Military Leadership Circle.  Like many of my peers in the MLC, my experience was partially overwhelming, mostly exhilarating, and completely exhausting.  When I sat down this week to reflect on the conference, I thought about the multitude of personalities and ideas I encountered.  One theme encompassed in every military-focused panel or discussion was taking care of veterans, particularly helping them find meaningful employment after their service.  Speakers offered varying methods that they believed would encourage firms to hire more veterans.  One even went so far as to suggest human resource departments should learn how to read “military speak” to better understand the work experiences listed on many service members’ resumes. Audiences seemed generally accepting of the ideas, but I felt the assessments disregarded an important variable.

Please don’t take that to mean that I disagree with these initiatives—that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Over the last 11 years, I have seen firsthand the ingenuity, work ethic, and sheer determination our young sailors, airmen, soldiers and marines exhibit on a daily basis both at home and abroad.  I support any program which improves the lives of these fine young men and women while allowing firms to harness that kind of human capital.  In April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released data that showed the unemployment rate for male veterans is 3.9%, nearly identical to that of non-veterans, while female veterans experience a rate nearly half of their non-veteran counterparts at only 1.9%.  These positive statistics are due large part to veteran hiring initiatives and transition programs such as the Transition Assistance Management Program (TAMP).

However, I do not believe the responsibility for veteran employment begins 6 months prior to their end of active service (EAS), nor do I believe it is the sole responsibility of these organizations.  As military leaders, we must do a better job of preparing our troops for their inevitable transition.  After all, who is better equipped to help a transitioning service member translate her experiences into a resume than the division officer or staff NCO who supervised her during her last deployment? The Call of Duty Endowment, in partnership with ZipRecruiter.com, recently conducted a survey of 54,000 job seekers (5,410 of whom were veterans) and found that nearly one-third of veteran job seekers are underemployed, over 15% higher than the rate of non-veterans.  At the same time, a majority of employers (59.1%) reported that they feel veterans perform “better than” or “much better than” their non-veteran peers.  I think this disconnect is a general lack of understanding of the civilian sector throughout the junior to mid-grade ranks of the armed services.  In short, our junior service members don’t know how to interact with those in the business environment, and that is our fault as military leaders.

Cue the grumbling and eye-rolling, but trust me, I understand.  Leading in today’s military is not easy.  Ever-increasing requirements coupled with diminishing resources, leave many feeling trapped in a perpetual balancing act.  The responsibility of preparing subordinates for life outside the military is just one more item on our already full plates.  However, I’m not talking about another survey or repetitive training, but rather, small efforts that will make you a more complete mentor to the men and women in your unit, while also preparing you for life in the corporate world.

Organizations like the Military Leadership Circle are great vehicles for leaders to gain experiences with the civilian sector, and I highly recommend applying for next year’s cohort.  But there are many more opportunities to grow beyond this one conference each year in Beverly Hills, CA.  How many members in the Rotary Clubs of San Diego, Fayetteville, Norfolk, or Dayton, are also members of the military community based there?  Civic clubs, trade organizations, and chambers of commerce are all just a few examples of opportunities for military leaders to gain vital exposure to the private sector.  Not only do they serve to help bridge the widening military-civil divide on a local level, but it also allows service members to practice networking while maintaining professional relationships.  While these skills are second nature to those in the business sector, they are less of a priority early in a military career and should be purposefully cultivated.

My challenge to you is to start small and set a goal to make one meaningful business contact outside of the military each month.  That doesn’t mean to simply get someone’s business card to stuff in a wallet or purse for a few months only to be thrown away later (author’s note: you should have your own “business” cards too).  Practice follow-up communications, stay engaged, try to learn from their experiences and develop a mentor/mentee relationship.  Most importantly, pass your new-found knowledge to your sailors, marines, soldiers, or airmen so they can better leverage their skills and experiences once they leave the military.  You owe them that much.

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