Hiring and Retaining Veterans & Reservists as Employees

by Kristen L. Rouse

On January 12, 2017, Kristen Rouse, Founding Director of the NYC Veterans Alliance, was invited to give keynote remarks at a business breakfast hosted by Community Training & Employment Resources (CTER) and NYC-Society for Human Resources Management (NYC-SHRM) at the TD Bank at 2 Wall Street in Manhattan. Below is a written adaptation of Kristen's spoken remarks.


I joined the Army Reserve back in 1994, as a 21-year old who wanted to serve my country, make a better life for myself, and have an experience—wherever that might take me—that I could be truly proud of. I feel very fortunate to be able to report that these almost 23 years later, this has definitely come true. My military service has become an important part of who I am, as well as providing me with essential leadership, team-building skills, and job training that have served me well in my civilian career path.

But I am here to also tell you that it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve faced some truly difficult challenges during the course of my military service, but some of my hardest times over the years haven’t come directly from my military experience—some of my toughest challenges have been as a citizen-soldier trying to navigate civilian housing and employment when they seemed at odds with my service as a military reservist. 

When I enlisted in the 1990s, reservists were rotating through missions in the Balkans and other global hotspots, and the nation seemed to remember the mass-mobilization of National Guard and Reserve troops for Desert Storm, although it wasn't nearly the pace that reservists have faced since 2001. In the 1990s, I remember distinctly being asked on many of my job interviews when they saw my military service on my resume—“You’re not going to have to go anywhere, will you?”

I mention this not to make you feel bad about my experience—I’ve had difficulties with employers related to my military service over the years and have managed to do well in spite of them. Why I mention this is because the struggles I'm describing to you are what veterans and members of the Guard and Reserve are still experiencing right now, every day. All of you are here today because you want to recruit and retain those who have served and continue to serve in our nation’s military. I want you to know that your role is huge and important. I therefore offer you a few challenges:

1. I challenge you to see yourself and your organization as critical to our nation’s defense.

About 40% of our nation’s Armed Forces are either Reserve or Guard, and we need your help to keep that 40% of us strong and ready. Gone are the days where a farmer grabs his musket and leaves his family to tend the fields while he fights for freedom. We need managers and HR professionals across all sectors of employment to help create a culture that values employers’ role in supporting our citizen-soldiers as they fight today’s wars and continue to train and advance in their military careers to be ready to defend our nation well into the future. Please ensure that your organization is well versed in the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) provisions that protect reservists and veterans, and let your reservists know that you and managers at all levels in your organization will support their service.

2. I challenge you to see yourself and your organization as critical to our nation’s obligation to bring veterans home and, as President Lincoln phrased it, “care for those who have borne the battle.”

Veterans who have returned home—and who will soon return home—are highly motivated and ready to do great work for your organization. Our nation’s military cannot succeed without the support of our fellow citizens, and we need your support in making sure veterans can succeed here at home. Most of us are able-bodied and ready, but we also have returning veterans who may have wounds of war—both visible and invisible. I can’t tell you how many veterans have told me that they believe prospective employers view them as damaged goods—which is the exact opposite of the energy, talent, and discipline we’ll bring to your organization. A veteran's injury or disability merely needs to be provided with reasonable accommodation like any other condition protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Be part of educating your organization on how to welcome and protect veterans, and we’ll do great things as part of your team.

3. I challenge you to look beyond the resume of any veteran—or spouse of a veteran—to see the training, skills, and dedication we bring to you.

The military hasn’t done a very good job yet (although our institutions have started to do much better) of helping military members translate their job skills to the civilian world, or to write a resume.

- Responsibility is Our Lifestyle. Many of us have been immersed in the 24/7 duties of taking care of every aspect of troops and missions in environments where it’s hard to differentiate between what was our job and what was simply our lifestyle. It's tough to know what exactly a prospective employer wants to see on a resume, let alone how to simplify the immense, expansive responsibilities we've had on our shoulders. 

- Enlisted Experience is Management, Too. It’s often easier for commissioned officers to have resumes that civilian managers can understand as ready for management positions. But I encourage you to especially consider enlisted resumes, and realize that many of these veterans are ready for management positions, too, even if they may not be adept at getting all of this on their resume. Enlisted troops often have to step into leadership roles that go well above their rank and assigned position, where they’ve been responsible for the lives of others, thousands or millions of dollars’ worth of government equipment, and tasks that have been critical to making or breaking their unit’s mission.

- Implied Skills. We may not know how, or even think to list many aspects of what we learn on our resumes. All veterans have to learn to navigate complex systems, rules, and procedures, and they learn to work as a team with colleagues who are vastly different from them. Many also work across different organizational cultures with the other military branches, and with partners from other nations, or with building the skillsets of host nation forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere. We also often have to do more with less--and many of us have known that the innovation new tools, methods, workarounds, and creative solutions has been simply an implied part of our job when working in places where we don't have the staffing or supplies or leadership structure to do what needs to be done.

- Spouses Serve, Too. Our spouses often have dislocated careers when they move from base to base with their military partner, or with their responsibilities while their spouse is deployed, or needs care when they return home. Please make an extra effort to support the spouses of military members and veterans because they serve, too.

4. I challenge you to find ways to keep us and maximize what we offer to your organization.

Veterans look for meaning and purpose in organizations where we feel like we’re valued and that we “fit.” We’ll do outstanding work for you. We’re loyal members of a team who know how to put our teammates and mission first. We want to do big things and truly have an impact for good in what we do. We respond well to mentors who show us “what right looks like” and help us develop the right vocabulary and cultural skills to become the best fit in your organization. And we also want to mentor others, share our experiences, and make your team the best it can be. Help us find ways to do all of these things, and you’ll hopefully have us for the long term.

In short—be part of our team. Have our backs. You’ll see amazing results in your organization, and our community as a whole. Thank you.