Helping Veterans Find Meaning and Purpose in a Civilian Workplace

Ask veterans what they miss most about their military service and the answer may surprise you. Most will say they found meaning and purpose in their roles, whether that involved protecting their comrades in battle, helping people on humanitarian missions, or repairing damaged communities as part of disaster relief work.

Meaning and purpose are still paramount as veterans transition into civilian careers, but it’s not easy to replicate in the workplace. Recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation finds that 83 percent of the 1,022 veterans interviewed for Mission Critical: Unlocking the Value of Veterans in the Workforce affirm that having meaning and purpose in their careers is very important, but 40 percent lack it. And although both men and women share this sentiment, women are more affected: 56 percent of female veterans confessed that their desire for meaning and purpose remains unmet in their corporate careers, compared to 47 percent of men.

It’s a sad thing when a talented former officer, whose skills, commitment and ambition could contribute so much to an organization says, as one female veteran we interviewed told us, “In the civilian world, I’ve learned, it’s just about making money.”

It’s sad for their employers, too. Instead of being engaged at work, many veterans feel like a square peg in a round hole. Many interviewees and focus group participants report that instead of focusing on career mobility, they keep their heads down and look elsewhere for fulfillment and a sense of accomplishment. Or they change the direction of their careers, moving into non-profit work or going into business for themselves.

We asked veterans what kind of meaning and purpose they seek from their careers but don’t have. Their answers: deep camaraderie, saving lives, improving the lot of humankind, protecting the environment, providing social services, promoting global health, and providing spiritual growth.

It’s true, of course, that few corporate missions are as lofty as protecting the lives and security of their fellow citizens and other people in need. But corporations can help veterans find fulfillment in a variety of ways.

Sometimes it’s as simple as aligning an organization’s core values with veterans’ desire to find meaning and purpose. Many veterans satisfy their yearning for purpose through volunteer work -- often alongside other veterans -- for organizations like Team Rubicon, the disaster clean-up first-responders, or volunteer outlets at their firms.

In addition to providing opportunities for veterans to fulfill their need for meaning and purpose, connections to philanthropic initiatives also offer veterans leadership roles that help them gain invaluable visibility across the company and a platform from which to push for more ways to engage veterans in the workplace.

All of these elements act as a “force multiplier” for meaning and purpose. Implementing them in an organization is a significant way to honor and thank our veterans for their service to our country.

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