The engineering and construction industry is facing a dramatic threat to its ongoing existence; finding sufficient talent to meet the staffing needs of an industry suddenly resurgent due to America’s energy renaissance. In this interview, FMI’s Mike Clancy speaks with Col. Miguel Howe, USA, Ret., Director of the Military Service Initiative for the George W. Bush Institute. Col. Howe shared some of the many benefits military veterans can provide to the construction industry, as well as his thoughts on how industry firms can capitalize on the upcoming drawdown in the military services to fill their talent pipelines.
Clancy: Col. Howe, thank you for making time to speak with me. What is the Bush Institute all about, and what are some of the things you are doing on behalf of former President Bush?
Col. Howe: The Military Service Initiative is just one of seven policy areas at the George W. Bush Institute. We are located here in Dallas alongside the Bush Library and Museum. We are a 501(c)(3) policy institute, which is designed to pursue the values, policies and principles that drove the Bush family’s decision-making and public life now that they are private citizens. Our overarching themes here are leadership and service in the pursuit of freedom, and so there are six areas that come from that:
- The global health initiative, which among other efforts is the primary program combating women’s cervical cancer in Africa.
- The education reform initiative, which focuses on accountability, improving middle schools and developing leadership among principals.
- The economic growth program, which pursues financial policy, immigration policy and North American Policy across the U.S., Canada and Mexico in order to advance our economy.
- The human freedom program, where we provide a platform for dissidents and freedom advocates around the world.
- The women’s initiative, which Mrs. Bush is particularly passionate about, whether it is an Afghan women’s program or empowering Middle Eastern women.
And the last program that I run is called the Military Service Initiative. We exist as a result of President and Mrs. Bush’s vision to honor the service and sacrifice of all post 9/11 veterans and military families by facilitating a successful transition and reintegration from military service to civilian life.
Clancy: Why is the Bush Institute so focused on placing military veterans in civilian jobs?
Col. Howe: There are three main reasons. First, the moral and social imperative, in that there are 2.6 million veterans and approximately 1million to 1.5 million currently serving military members who will separate from service over the next five years. Basically, we are looking at a population of about 4 million as well as about 6 million family members. These are the folks who will raise their hands as volunteers to serve our nation and also serve during times of great danger. They are the ones who have borne the sacrifice of that.
The second reason is that this is about our national security. We have had an all-volunteer force since 1973, not a draft, and while I have no doubt that young people will always raise their hand to the nation’s call, their preferences to do so will be impacted by their influencers: parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, bosses, community leaders and friends who are all watching to see what happens when you’re a two-time volunteer. Is your life better for your service and your sacrifice?
And then the third reason is the matter of global competitiveness. These men and women come home after taking off the uniform and leverage that experience, education, values, discipline, technical training, skills and education.
People are sometimes surprised to hear that over 99% of all post 9/11 graduates have a high school diploma or equivalent. Seventy-two percent have some college and a good chunk of those at least an associate’s degree; 32% of all vets have a four-year degree or higher. These folks come home and start new businesses at a higher rate than nonveterans (13.4% versus 9.2%, respectively) and they succeed at a higher rate than nonveterans. They come home and lead our existing businesses, whether those entities are Fortune 500 firms or small businesses, which in turn drive our economy. They are going to fill critical skilled labor positions, 600,000 of which are unfilled right now.
They are also going to be agents for change in our community; they will come home and run nonprofits, youth sports leagues and city and local government, and help with our health care and education problems. By empowering these veterans, we then empower resourceful, determined and experienced leaders who will serve our nation and serve our communities for decades to come.
Clancy: What specifically does the Bush Institute do to facilitate these efforts?
Col. Howe: Our specific work includes researching and developing resources that currently don’t exist and providing presidential recognition and a spotlight to showcase organizations and leaders that have developed successful models to do this right. We are looking to unite and empower communities, business and nonprofits, universities, colleges and technical schools and individual citizens so that they can effectively support these men and women in the areas of employment, education, health and wellness, housing, families, and women’s and veterans’ issues. So the first veteran transition area that we started working in is this one — employment — and a big reason for that is from the veterans themselves.
Our research tells us that employment and education are the most important issues for 2.6 million vets. For the vast majority of them, it’s about finding the right job, not just for financial reasons, but also as a way to redefine their purposes. One of the great things the military provides to the men and women who serve is a higher calling or a sense of purpose that comes from serving and defending your nation and all that that entails. Veterans are often looking for a similar sense of purpose from their post-military employment.
One of the friction points for employment of vets is the stigma and negative stereotypes that come with military service (including post-traumatic stress). A sense of purpose and meaning — and meaningful employment — is probably one of the most powerful things there is for those vets that do deal with issues like post-traumatic stress. The president was very clear in February and he was absolutely right in that post-traumatic stress is a barrier that hiring managers, personnel managers and some supervisors have when they think of veterans. Quite frankly, PTSD should not be any more of a barrier than, say, diabetes. Post-traumatic stress is a natural, normal human reaction to the horrors of war, but it occurs at a much lower rate than people think. That is one of the ironies; our service members are much more resilient than the public expects.
Clancy: What do you see as the key strengths that military veterans can add to the civilian workforce?
Col. Howe: Common to most service personnel are values like loyalty, duty, respect, honor, integrity, personal courage and commitment. These values translate into trust on the part of the supervisor, the employer, the company and that particular employee. That has a huge and obvious importance both financially and productivity-wise.
The second value is work ethic — that sense of mission our service members have, and the responsibility of accomplishing it. These are employees you can count on because of that work ethic.
Additionally, the overall level of health and fitness of the veteran is much higher than your average nonveteran. It’s ironic that given the focus of the media on things like injuries and post-traumatic stress, there is a requirement for a level of fitness just to get in and then it’s a lifestyle that fosters that. So that is clearly going to mean less time away from work and lower health insurance costs.
Technical skills and training. All of our service members, regardless of job (military occupational specialty), have demonstrated on a daily basis technical skills that come with the equipment that’s used, whether it be vehicles, optics, weapons, communication systems, computer systems or reporting systems, not to mention the advanced technical skills that come with a particular job set. Those technical skills and the basic training and education that come with military service produce a strong candidate for employment, possessing technical skills and training in followership — the ability to be a team player in order to meet the requirements.
Now as our vets become more senior, say maybe at the first-line manager level of the noncommissioned officers, we start adding to that leadership training, including the basic warrior leader course formerly known as the primary leader development course. This provides the purpose, motivation and direction to get the job done — basic leadership. Part of that leadership also includes situational awareness, judgment and decision-making. This results in vets not having to be told what to do but knowing what needs to get done, whether on the job site or on the assembly line or supervising the transportation section. Leadership first and foremost. The team-building that comes with our first line managers and leaders, our NCOs and even our junior enlisted provides great experience with diversity and interpersonal skills. Also, veterans learn the ability to communicate — whether it is in a time-compressed environment where direct communication is essential or in a situation with a bit more time available — the ability to help the team understand why we are doing what we are doing, and how important it is.
Then, as our vets gain seniority, we add to their skills set resource management, problem-solving, strategic planning, and other skills that position our NCOs and officers as entrepreneurs.
Those are some of the qualitative traits and values that the vets bring to the table, but there are also quantitative reasons to employ veterans. The Council for Executives in Business (CEB) did a study of 100 of the Fortune 500 companies and found that there is a much higher retention rate and performance for veterans than nonveterans.
Clancy: So how in particular is the Bush Institute helping to push this issue forward?
Col. Howe: When it comes to employment there are really three things that we are doing. President Bush and Mrs. Bush are both pushing this issue very hard whenever they are speaking to groups and conducting events. President Bush talks about it at all of his public and private speaking engagements. Mrs. Bush has talked about it as well, including recently at the Society for Human Resource Managers. President and Mrs. Bush are very consistently beating that drum.
We are also working with and convening employers and organizations that support employers to help standardize best practices across the field. In July we worked with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes to host a conference here in Dallas that included not only the members of that coalition of businesses looking to hire veterans, but also JPMorgan Chase’s 100,000 Jobs Coalition, the Blackstone Group’s 72-company coalition and major independent companies like GE, Toyota, General Motors, Bank of America and USAA. One of the challenges in this phase is there has been a great effort and a lot of work that’s taken place, but that work remains disconnected. Each organization has its own website, a number of training programs and a number of databases and resources. But if you’re the young man or young woman leaving the service or a small business owner, you’re wondering: Where do I go and where do I start?
To answer those questions, we are also working on a transition map right now from the perspective of both the military service member (vet and spouse) and then from the business perspective that captures the phases they go through. That way, at the end of the day, both businesses and veterans can meet their requirements. For the veteran, that is to find a meaningful career and then for those businesses and companies to be more productive. This transition map will not only lay out the phases and the processes but also for each of those phases, there will be links to some of the best-in-class tools, resources and practices that either the veteran or the employer can leverage.
Clancy: Are there things that employers can do to make sure they have a veteran friendly workplace?
Col. Howe: Yes. If it were easy, and if everyone understood what value veterans bring to the table, then every veteran could integrate and transition seamlessly, and we would not have these issues. I think there are really three critical points for businesses that not only want to do the right thing, but also, as the President says, the smart thing to enhance their businesses.
The first is to recognize that finding veterans can be hard. That is one of the biggest friction points — the supply and demand gap between great opportunities that are out there and these young men and women who separate from service. The average veteran is most likely going to return to his or her hometown or stay near the last duty station. If that’s not where the jobs are, there can be a disconnect. Secondly, for employers who don’t come from a military background, understanding veterans; translating the way they talk; and translating their résumés, their experiences and their training in an understanding and meaningful way can be challenging. Finally, once you find and hire the veterans, understanding them and retaining them is the third hurdle. If not handled properly, transition and integration can be hard for these men and women. As much as they look forward to the other side in transition, the process can be difficult for someone who has been recently immersed in a certain culture, language and well-defined career progression.
The good news is that businesses can take certain steps to ease these challenges. First, they have to make a plan. What does that mean? What are you looking for? What skills, trades and characteristics are you looking for? How much do you have to invest? Is it something you can nest in the existing corporate infrastructure? So having a plan, knowing and understanding veterans and what value they bring to a business is critical. Then training whoever is doing your recruiting and hiring as well as training early hire supervisors are keys to ensure that the plan gets executed as you expect. Finally, you need a post-hire strategy. Of course, that varies from business to business and career field to career field. But you know that some basic expectation management is going to be needed. If you have veterans already in your business, consider starting a veteran affinity group program as an employee resource group. While a service member is in the military, he or she can always go to the Army community services center on post to find out about the local community, education and training opportunities. It is one-stop shopping for information. So our colleges, universities and some of our larger businesses have found that if they set up a similar-type program structure, then uncertainty can be reduced for the veteran. This gives veterns more sense of belonging and grounding and a commitment to the businesses that they are part of. Assign an HR or management employee to keep tabs on and handle periodic check-ins with your veteran employees. There are tools and resources out there that can help businesses with this. The Society of Human Resources Managers has a tool kit, as do the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes and others.
Clancy: Well, it sounds then like the Bush Institute and the various nonprofits and businesses that are working with you have a really important role to play in doing what DoD isn’t, given the task that they have try to accomplish in five days of out-processing a service member.
Col. Howe: This really is a national effort. The government has a very important role in terms of responsibility and resourcing, but it cannot bridge all those gaps. If we get this right, eventually we will hit a tipping point. My vision is that people should be competing for these folks.
Clancy: That is exactly right. That is my hope as well.
Col. Howe: So as we sit here right now, I am looking at the August labor stats, and there are 131,000 unemployed veterans aged 25 to 34. Construction industry firms that are looking for bright, dependable, hardworking young people who have a demonstrated work ethic and ability to learn have a huge opportunity in front of them. It will take a willingness to train these individuals and an openness to new ideas, but this is a resource the construction industry should be working to figure out how to tap. Q
Colonel Miguel Howe, USA, Ret. is the Director of the Military Service Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. As the Director, Colonel Howe is responsible for leading the Bush Institute’s work to honor the service and sacrifice of post-9/11 veterans, service members and their families. The Military Service Initiative will work to unite the efforts of non-profits, businesses, universities, individual citizens and communities to empower all post-9/11 veterans to continue to serve as national assets after they take off the uniform.