In Veteran Hiring, It's Culture -- Not Numbers -- That Makes the Difference

In the wake of Veterans Day, we can take inventory of the pledges made by companies to hire more veterans. Typically, these programs receive two responses from the veteran advocacy community. Many advocates deride the announcements as publicity stunts that take advantage of veterans. Others claim the awe-inspiring numbers of veterans to-be-hired will be a game changer for veteran employment.

A quick glance at the data leads to two conclusions: the advocates don't know what they are talking about, and the companies may have taken awhile but they are finally on the right track.

It's old news that veterans are more employed (3.6-percent unemployment in October) than the average American (5.0-percent) and pretty much always have been. A periodic headline may claim that young veterans are more likely to be unemployed than the general population. But these claims are full of statistical inaccuracies with no account for the volatility of a small sample size and no controls for age, education, or career transitioning. Unfortunately some journalists don't compare apples to apples.

Corporations weren't much different four or five years ago when they started making pledges to hire veterans through programs like the JPMorgan Chase-led 100,000 Jobs Mission and the White Houses' Joining Forces Initiative. The former was a coalition of major companies with a goal to hire 100,000 veterans over a 10-year period. At a rate of 10,000 per year, they would cover a paltry 4-percent of the quarter million or more service members who depart the military each year.

Walmart made a pledge in 2013 to hire 100,000 veterans (all by themselves) in five years. Seems laudable, until you consider that Walmart employs 0.89-percent of the American labor force and their median job tenure is 3.3 years. With 10.7 million veterans in the labor force, Walmart's "natural veteran hiring rate" should be just over 29,000 per year. Without even trying, Walmart could achieve 150-percent of their goal.

The natural veteran hiring rate is a company's pace of annual veteran hiring reflective of US labor force demographics. It is calculated by multiplying the company's total US work force by the percentage of veterans in the US labor force and then dividing by the company's median job tenure in years. It basically illustrates whether a company's veteran hiring pledge means they are hiring more veterans or just counting the ones that they would hire anyway.

Starbucks made a pledge in 2013 to hire 10,000 veterans over five years--69-percent of their natural hiring rate of 2,900 veterans per year. In 2012, Comcast-NBCUniversal boasted about a plan to hire 1,000 veterans over three years, a mere 10-percent of their natural veteran hiring rate. Essentially, Comcast would probably hire that many veterans if they were actively discriminating against them.

But there in lies the catch. It was never about the raw numbers. Corporations were making safe bets to make sure they didn't underperform--especially given that under federal discrimination law veteran employees are a protected class and veteran status must be self-disclosed. Nonetheless, reasonably cautious corporations were about to make a real impact through the publicity surrounding their announcements.

Imagine a young veteran preparing his resume, wondering how he should describe his time in the Marine Corps. Think of a female veteran afraid that using the words "Apache pilot" in an interview might intimidate the hiring manager. These veterans are left wondering whether or not their prospective employer will value their military experience. Unless, however, they are interviewing at Walmart, Comcast, Starbucks, or another company that has clearly publicized a desire to hire veterans.

So, while veteran advocates cheered the big hiring goals and criticized the publicity stunts, confident veterans were standing in line for jobs at companies, which had stated loud and clear that they valued veterans' skills. Moreover, each of these companies was also making a statement to their current employees. The statement was designed to gradually shift corporate culture to ensure that veterans are seen as a desired commodity across the company.

So, what happened next? In 2015, Walmart expanded its pledge to 250,000 by 2020 (107-percent of its natural rate), and they launched a national advertising campaign asking Americans to "green light a vet." Comcast created a vice president-level position to handle veterans and military affairs, while increasing their goal to 98-percent of their natural rate (10,000 veterans in the next three years). Starbucks--fresh off a huge Veterans Day 2014 concert on the National Mall with HBO--is attracting more veterans with increased education benefits that can even be extended to spouses. And the 100,000 Jobs Mission had to change their name to the Veteran Jobs Mission when they upped their pledge ten-fold to one million--which seems more like it.

The companies are evolving in their tactics, from hiring pledges and publicity to internal corporate communications and strategy. These companies--not the advocacy programs some of which are still screaming about high veteran unemployment--are the driving force for the future of veteran hiring. And they are hiring veterans because they have seen how much it benefits their bottom line. It's a win for the private sector and a win for veterans, and it deserves a publicity stunt.