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10 Nov. 2016 | Comments (0)

Companies are hiring veterans in unprecedented numbers. But once inside organizations, veterans frequently stall and become disengaged, according to research from the Center for Talent Innovation. Among other things, veterans seek meaning and purpose at work. Employers looking to drive philanthropic missions can lean on their veterans to lead the way.

When Arthur “Chip” Cotton re-entered the civilian workforce after a 23-year naval career, he sought a position that would allow him to continue making the world a better place. His bar was high. Before working on military policy at the Pentagon, he had served on several humanitarian missions, such as evacuating US citizens out of Lebanon in 2006, and cleaning up Pensacola, Florida, in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Like many of us, Cotton sees his day-to-day work as more than a job. But this search for a meaningful civilian career is often magnified among veterans, who have spent their military careers protecting and serving the citizens of their country—and too many of them find themselves in positions that don’t bring a sense of meaning or purpose.

I don’t intend to undermine the great accomplishments we’ve made in the US when it comes to veterans’ employment prospects. When the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the veteran unemployment rate has dropped to 5.8 percent, it’s a victory. After all, the unemployment rate for veterans has been cut in half since 2011, largely due to government tax incentives to companies employing veterans and an overwhelming response from the private sector to hire them. We’ve made huge progress in this country, with rare political consensus to back it. We have something to celebrate this Veterans Day.

But it’s not enough. Cutting the veteran unemployment rate in half isn’t solving even half of the challenge. In civilian jobs, veterans frequently become disengaged and fail to advance in their careers. In a recent book I co-authored, Mission Critical: Unlocking the Value of Veterans in the Workplace, featuring fresh survey research from the Center for Talent Innovation, we find that 57 percent of veterans don’t aspire to more senior positions at their companies. Of the remaining 43 percent of veterans who do aspire to a more senior position, 39 percent feel stalled. That leaves only 27 percent who both want to advance and feel as though they are, indeed, moving up the ladder.

Several factors contribute to veterans’ reluctance to advance at their companies—from being slotted into jobs that don’t leverage their technical and leadership skills, to lack of understanding about pathways to promotion, to stereotypes and false assumptions from their colleagues. One key reason veterans disengage from civilian jobs is that 83 percent of them seek meaning and purpose at work, but 40 percent don’t have it. Nearly two-thirds of veterans report having greater meaning and purpose in the military than they have in their current jobs.

Understandable, you might say. After all, how can a corporate job live up to the meaning and purpose you’d get from defending your country? Vets I interviewed told me they miss knowing that they are helping protect and serve the citizens of their country, whether they are in the heat of battle, repaving roads on a military base, or keeping watch over a fleet of airplanes.

So, in our survey of 1,022 veterans working full-time in white-collar jobs, we asked: what would give your job meaning and purpose? Then, we gave them a really long list to choose from. Their choices, surprisingly, identify a kind of meaning that many white-collar jobs can provide. They cited things like “develop deep camaraderie,” “promote global health,” “protect the environment,” “save lives,” and “improve the lot of human kind.”

It’s a few of those elements that give Cotton meaning in the civilian job he ended up taking. As project manager of energy research and development at GE, he helps develop new, innovative technologies to ensure more people have access to efficient energy sources, aviation and transportation. “I work with a research team that has nearly 3,000 PhDs. We are walking in Edison’s footsteps, trying to do our best every day to make discoveries that will make the world a better place,” Cotton says. “I know I sound Pollyanna-ish, but it’s the truth. My job is to find ways to help them go faster by finding the right partners. That’s a really cool mission.”

Cotton is the exception, not the rule. Many veterans don’t find meaning and purpose baked into their core job functions every day. That’s a failure on the part of employers, not the veterans themselves. Here are just a few ways companies can give military veteran employees a connection to meaning and purpose at work:

  • Highlight a corporation’s core mission, vision and values when recruiting and onboarding veterans
  • Connect veterans to volunteer work that keeps them involved in military life, through organizations like Team Rubicon
  • Give veterans a platform to improve the company’s philanthropic efforts through a highly visible veterans’ employee resource group (ERG) that has connections to senior leaders and other ERG/affinity groups at the company
  • Connect veterans and others to speaking and role model opportunities thanks to their philanthropic efforts.

By understanding what veterans bring to their civilian careers, and how their need for meaning and purpose can be deeper than that of other employee groups, managers and corporate leaders can make a profound difference in engaging this valuable cohort. Employers armed with this awareness—along with better understanding about the other factors that disengage veterans—can help employers make workplaces a welcoming and meaningful place for veterans. 

  • About the Author:Julia Taylor Kennedy

    Julia Taylor Kennedy

    Julia Taylor Kennedy is executive vice president and director of publications at the Center for Talent Innovation. She coauthored Disabilities and Inclusion, Mission Critical: Unlocking the Value of V…

    Full Bio | More from Julia Taylor Kennedy


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