Updated: Apr 28
Not too long ago, I was contacted by a rather large corporation seeking advice on how to engage and retain veteran talent. After introductory formalities concluded, they provided me with a brief overview of their current structure and what they were hoping to accomplish. At that time, they did not have a veteran hiring, outreach, marketing, or retention strategy and had no idea where to start. My first question was, “Do you have a millennial hiring strategy?”
“Yes, we do. Why?”
“Start there. Use that.”
They looked somewhat confused. I’m sure they were picturing a stereotypical millennial -- skinny jeans, piercings, non-traditional haircut, full sleeve tattoos, carrying a chai latte in one hand and a piece of avocado toast in the other -- juxtaposed against their idea of the “average” military member. How could you possibly compare the two? Wouldn’t it be a mistake to approach veteran and millennial talent in a similar fashion? The simple answer is no.
Post-service employment for veterans has become an increasingly hot topic in the last few years, with large employers like Amazon and Microsoft launching full-scale veteran hiring initiatives. Many companies want to hire veteran talent but aren’t quite sure where to start. How does an organization acquire and retain a veteran workforce? The solution is simple: They should borrow heavily from their millennial hiring and retention strategies. Believe it or not, veterans of all ages and the millennial generation have a lot in common, generally speaking of course. In fact, their most notable similarities are how they respond to surveys on employment and work conditions.
In fact, their most notable similarities are how they respond to surveys on employment and work conditions.
Veterans bring a wide array of technical and soft skills to the table. Most carry traits that any employer would value: They are punctual, honorable, hardworking, disciplined, and trainable. It is advantageous for companies to fill their ranks up and down the ladder with veteran talent, but doing so without a strategy is ill-advised.
The millennial, the veteran, and the millennial veteran
Millennials get shade thrown at them from all angles, some warranted, some ridiculous. Millennials have been talked about, stereotyped, derided, and studied more than any other generation in American history. And yet, it seems like most employers are having a hard time figuring them out.
In 2016, millennials overtook generation Xers as the largest generational demographic in the American labor force. Businesses that have only recently begun to discuss how to reach millennials are severely behind the times. They should’ve had that conversation two decades ago. Medium to large-sized businesses should already have a millennial hiring and retention strategy in place. In fact, they ought to get right to developing generation Z strategies, because that demographic has already started to enter the workforce.
So what do millennials and veteran employees have in common?
My intent is not to pigeonhole anyone; please know that I understand everyone is different, and I am definitely speaking in generalities. Not all veterans are the same, and not all millennials are the same. If you are a millennial (as I technically am) and already found yourself becoming defensive about being stereotyped, ironically, a defining characteristic of the generation is that they don’t like being typecast. Also, I fully realize that a large percentage of veteran employees fit into both categories. But generally speaking, they do seem to have some shared qualities:
Making a difference
Millennials need to feel connected with the larger impact of their work. They are not fans of punching a clock, spending 8 hours doing something they feel has no value, clocking out, and repeating. Many companies say they make an impact, but if you want to engage the millennial generation, you need to be able to show that you actually do. If your business doesn’t make the world a better place directly, you should celebrate the organization’s charitable contributions and involve as many employees in the process as possible.
Veterans need the same. In fact, losing that feeling of making a greater impact is common in service members as they transition from military to civilian life. If your business makes automobile windshields, don’t tell your potential employees that they, too, could join the exciting world of warehouse-based glass manufacturing. Tell them that your company creates life-saving products that help families travel to school or work safely and comfortably.
Ian Abston, millennial workforce expert and founder of Millenian, a company which provides millennial workforce consulting services to corporations, explains, “We need to be connected to something larger than ourselves. The millennial workforce feels like the ethos of our generation is good at heart, and we want to do good in the world. And even though you might be manufacturing widgets, you have to tell the millennial worker what your company does with the profits of those widgets. So you’re here making widgets, but we take some of the funds and provide funding for amazing organizations, or we clean the river, or as an employee, we also do a volunteer day with the workforce to further connect you to the mission. The why becomes not the widgets but what the widgets allow me to do for the world. Sure, kind of a hippie vibe, but that’s the world we live in.”
Find legitimate ways to connect everyday processes with a broader impact. You can’t fake it, and you can’t oversell it if you aren’t actually doing anything of substance. Try telling a combat veteran who has saved lives and defended freedom that your cotton candy factory is really making a difference. I dare you.
Transparency and honesty
The easiest way to make a millennial employee disappear is to promise them one thing in their interview and then change it/fail to follow through. I know from personal experience. If you want to hear the whole story, check out my article “Veterans, Loyalty, and ‘Promotion From Within."
The same is true for veterans. Nearly every aspect of their military career was unbelievably transparent. Think about how military members are paid. Anyone can look up the pay chart and figure out what he/she (or anyone else) would be making based on rank and time in service.
For example, if you have 8 years in service and carry a pay grade E-6, in 2020 you’d make $3553 a month in base pay. Additionally, you know that you can rely on a slight pay bump to adjust for inflation at the end of each calendar year, a significant raise after every two years in service, and an even bigger increase with each promotion to the next rank. To promote, you know that you’ll have to check certain boxes, do quality work, and study for/do well on a test or two. There are literally no surprises.
Having (and sticking to) a formal written professional progression and advancement process is pivotal for retaining both millennials and vets. Simply put: show them the money, don’t dangle a carrot to acquire talent, and follow through every time.
Feeling valued by leadership
Many say millennials need to be coddled and told how special and valued they are. I personally don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with telling and showing your employees that they are valued. I have never had a quality employee become lazy after hearing an attaboy.
I have never had a quality employee become lazy after hearing an attaboy.
Most veteran employees have had some incredible leaders and mentors during their time in the service. These supervisors regularly held them accountable, gave advice, and supported them in all aspects of their lives. Long story short, civilian direct-line supervisors and bosses have big shoes to fill.
It is imperative that you treat your veteran employees like you value their military work experience and what they bring to the table as a professional. Military experience is work experience. “Thanks for your service” won’t cut it, especially if you are treating your veteran employee like this is his first job. It isn’t.
Put yourself in the vet's shoes. Imagine going from a high pressure situation where you excel while directly supervising a team elite professionals, to being treated like you don’t know anything. It’s tough to feel like you are paying your dues or starting over again, especially after the sacrifices you’ve made in the military.
When changing career paths, “military members’ and teachers’ [experience is] undervalued,” says Abston. “A lot of teachers go into teaching because they want to change the world, find out 5 years later they’re basically a glorified babysitter who is underpaid, and now they want to jump into a different world. They’ve got 4-10 years of amazing teaching experience, and they look at the next job and say, ‘I used to be a teacher; I’m not sure how my skills apply.’ Well, it doesn’t matter. You can clearly be taught. You have the self-discipline to learn a new discipline in a short amount of time and be held responsible for it. Exact same with the military.”
Culture, Resources, and Support
I don’t know how any large company survives without an Employee Resource Group (ERG) -- a concept that has proliferated due to the millennial influence in the workplace. Developing a veteran ERG needs to be the first step in your veteran hiring strategy process. Find a veteran employee who wants to take the lead or hire an outside consultant. DO NOT leave your veteran ERG in the hands of someone who has never served, either as a military member or spouse. You’d be better off not having a veteran ERG at all if that is your intent.
Abston points out, “On the back end [is] where employers need to do a better job; they spend all of their money on attraction and not enough money on retention. Everybody spends a bunch of money to get the new guy into the workforce. On day one, you take him out to lunch at the local restaurant and introduce him to the team and maybe do a meeting or two with them, but then after a week, it’s like, ‘Okay ... Now we’ve got 4 more jobs to fill.’ They don’t spend any time getting the new guy or girl acclimated to the company culture or community.”
Your new veteran hires have come from an all-encompassing way of life with a rich support network. Much of their identity was associated with their work. If you don’t have a landing pad for them where they can garner encouragement and learn about resources from folks who have had similar experiences, you won’t be able to retain them. Company culture is at the center of this issue.
A company is no longer responsible for the worker from 9 to 5. They are now responsible for the worker’s well-rounded way of life and well-being.
“A company is no longer responsible for the worker from 9 to 5,” suggests Abston. “They are now responsible for the worker’s well-rounded way of life and well-being. If you’re hiring someone coming to Milwaukee, let’s say, from San Francisco, it’s not just your job to merely provide them a great work structure. You have to make sure they are integrated into the community, volunteering for organizations that they care about, surrounding themselves with a social dynamic that meets their needs. Otherwise that new employee you hired, interviewed, and trained is going to leave after a year because they don’t feel connected.”
From the moment you start onboarding your new millennial or veteran employee, your company’s “family-like” culture needs to be evident in everything that is done. Getting to know your employee and utilizing that information to envelop him or her in a positive work atmosphere will go a long way to inspire unity, satisfaction, and retention across the board.
To sum it up
If you want to hire and retain veterans, you should employ the same strategies that would apply to working with millennials. Connect their work to a greater global impact, be transparent and honest (especially when it comes to career advancement), show them that you value what they bring to the table, and develop a culture of unity, support, and teamwork. Also, don’t forget to have a veteran ERG in place.
Do you have thoughts or personal experiences you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments section below.