To serve and to manufacture

Veterans are trained, disciplined, and task-oriented. They sound like just what manufacturing needs today. How do we get them into our ranks?

By Bob Vavra February 12, 2014

When Darren Wikoff left the U.S. Navy after nine years as a machinist’s mate on a submarine, no job he’d find as a civilian worker was going to be nearly as exciting or challenging. And that was among many problems he faced.

“The way the Navy trained you was top-notch, and thinking back on that, probably more than I might have received at a four-year college education,” said Wikoff. “But there was no way to relate that to potential employers who didn’t understand that.”

As military personnel are leaving service to their country, they often face similar concerns. There are vast differences between military protocols and those found in a manufacturing plant. The military requires rigid adherence to rules and orders. The private sector is driven by profit and production.

Alan Knight served in the first Gulf War and was in a cavalry squadron in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division. He left military service with skills but no clear direction of what to do with them. “I was a tank mechanic, going into a mechanical field,” Knight said. “Problem is, there weren’t too many careers in the civilian world for a tank mechanic. If I’d done a little better research, I might have understood the civilian world a little better. I would have faced it more realistically.”

But military personnel also re-enter the most sophisticated equipment in the world. They understand the need to meet and exceed goals, and they have worked under some of the world’s most extreme situations—physical, emotional, and environmental.the private workforce with training on some of 

A new surge of military personnel transitioning out of service and into the workforce comes at the time when manufacturers are again clamoring for trained workers who can operate sophisticated equipment. Connecting these two groups who need each other should be simple. But one thing business and war have taught us is that nothing is ever that simple.

Numbers and people

The math, however, is simple: About 300,000 military personnel leave the service each year. They leave because their tour of duty is over, because they are looking for opportunities in the private sector, or because they choose not to make the military a career. At the same time, the most conservative estimates place the number of available manufacturing jobs at about 600,000.

That Skills Gap has slowed what has otherwise been a robust rebound in the U.S. manufacturing economy, which led the economic recovery in the U.S. as a whole. What kept the math from adding up over the last few years has been a number of conflicting factors. Issues with government bureaucracy get some of the blame, but so does a lack of general awareness of how to both recruit and retain military workers. A third, less visible factor is a difference in the way the military and the manufacturing sector approach solving problems.

Mike Aroney served for 20 years in the U.S. Navy. He was at Top Gun school in San Diego five years before Tom Cruise made the world aware of its existence. When he left the U.S. Navy, he had a world of experiences and no easy way to explain them in a resume. Now a principle consultant for Allied Reliability Group in Charleston, S.C., Aroney hires military veterans because he knows how those skills transition to the work he needs done. “They’ve got the skills. They know how to fix stuff,” Aroney said. “They have problem-solving skills. They innovate. They improvise. They keep machines running to achieve mission objectives.

“In manufacturing today, the cost of labor no longer is a differentiator. What matters is the way we take care of our assets in the plant,” said Aroney. “I’d say about 80% to 90% of clients we work with are terrible with how they abuse their equipment.”

The military personnel Aroney sees in the workplace have a deeply ingrained sense of how to work. Machines must run at all times when needed, and they must be serviced with that attitude in mind.

“You get a great work ethic. You know what to expect in terms of reliability, that they’ll pass the drug and background check and be a contributor,” said Aroney. “But for these workers, the biggest frustration is what they perceive as the laziness of their work-mates. In training, they are broken down to be a good battle buddy. They have that same expectation when they join the civilian work environment.”

Those expectations are hard to meet. “There needs to be a more transparent way to relate those skills to industry,” said Wikoff, an organization change specialist for GP Allied in Charleston, S.C. “There’s nothing industry is doing to help transition to civilian life. When I got out, I wasn’t used to working with women. I wasn’t used to people not following the rules. There’s nothing out there about how to survive in the civilian work environment.”He added, “The skill set is there; we just have to figure out how to apply the skill set in a new environment.”

Meeting the challenges

While there is recognition of the Skills Gap and the opportunity to match retiring military workers with these open jobs, making the connection proves elusive. Most manufacturing associations have action items dedicated to attracting veterans to the workplace. Some major corporations have formed public-private partnerships with local schools to speed training of military personnel.

The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) has also ramped up its efforts to help veterans transition from military service to the private sector. That transition will require a fresh look at how manufacturing hires and trains its personnel, said one VA administrator.

“In a military environment we have a hire, then train model,” said Curtis L. Coy, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity in the Department of Veterans Affairs. “We have recruiters who interview candidates and find those young people who have the attributes to be a soldier. We send them through boot camp, and 18 months later, that kid is a fire control technician on a destroyer in the Atlantic. In the private sector, employment practices are generally that I hope a fully trained individual shows up, and then I hire them.

“What I suggest is hire, then train mode,” Coy said. “Companies can and should interview veterans, interview as many as you like, pick ones you like to hire them.” Coy said benefits contained in the Post-9/11 GI Bill will cover post-military training and provide a living stipend for veterans looking to gain the manufacturing skills needed. An offer letter from an employer would open those doors and give the veteran both the funds to pay for skills training and a job at the end of that training.

The VA has been criticized in the past for not offering sufficient post-military job assistance for veterans, which has contributed to a higher unemployment rate among veterans. The report from the Council of Economic Advisers notes that unemployment among post-9/11 veterans tops 10%, which is higher than unemployment for veterans as a group, and three percentage points higher than the national figure of 7.1% in January 2014.

Coy said the VA has made a number of changes to address these issues. “A number of years ago, transition assistance was voluntary; now it’s mandatory.” The week-long training includes three days with the U.S. Dept. of Labor officials working on such things as resume writing, interviewing, and how to access the 2,800 job centers across the country. The VA spends a day going through the extensive benefits available to veterans.

“What this does is help veterans get access to the benefits they so richly earned and deserve,” said Coy. “They served America in some pretty tough times.”

Coy was a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and understands that military culture and business culture are two different worlds. The transition requires more than skills training. “If you stand back and think about veterans, they’re mission-oriented, they’re job-focused. They’re able to work under pressure. But they like to have clear goals and objectives.

“In most cases, their contemporaries have been doing those jobs and working their way up, and they’ve also been able to network with other contemporaries,” Coy said. “One thing companies need to recognize is if they have a 27-year-old veteran, he has not been in the workforce building those relationships. They can feel like they’re behind the power curve, that they don’t know the culture of companies.”

Coy suggests recognizing veterans in simple ways, such as putting the word “Veteran” on their company ID badge, and helping veterans reach out to their fellow veterans within an organization. But with their work ethic and discipline, veterans bring some ready-made assets to the workforce. “We need to get better at helping employers understand that hiring veterans makes good business sense,” Coy said.

Recruiting the veteran

Peoria, Ill.-based Advanced Technology Services (ATS) goes beyond the idea of welcoming veterans into its global workforce of 3,000 people. The company actively recruits veterans to come into the organization, with about 25% of the current workforce having served in the military.

On a page of the company’s website devoted to veterans, there is this note of welcome: “In the military, you contributed to a disciplined, motivated, and successful team. You’ll be right at home with ATS. As one of the nation’s top mid-size military-friendly employers, ATS is the perfect fit for men and women looking for a rewarding career after having served their country… That’s because qualities like safety, leadership, and development are the cornerstone of our cultural commitment.”

Tim Morgan is one of those veterans who answered the call to join ATS. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1987 to 1994. He spent most of his career on the USS Arkansas, including two tours of duty in the Persian Gulf. Today, he is a maintenance planner for ATS.

“We do target veterans as a company,” Morgan said. “They understand the value of discipline coming out of the service. They understand what they need to do to keep production running. They are willing to do whatever the customer needs, and they understand the value of that.”

ATS understands that veterans come out with specific soft skills, like discipline, but also practical training on high-tech equipment. “If we get the right individual, we can improve their skills and get them up to speed.”A fundamental tenet of the military mindset is “work until the job gets done.”

That’s the same experience at ATS from veterans such as Ron Gaurerke, a senior technician with ATS, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1978 to 1992. “They’re willing to work until the machine is running again,” Gaurerke said. "In the service, you don’t get to go home at the end of the day." 

Then there is the need to occasionally improvise solutions in the military. When you’re in the middle of the Persian Gulf, if spare parts aren’t close at hand, you still have to find solutions. “When you’re deployed,” Gaurerke said, “you can’t just run down to Radio Shack.”

One thing that helps ATS recruit and retain veterans is that it provides a military-like culture in the workforce. “We’re fairly rigid,” Morgan said. “We do everything we can to provide a command structure. Everyone has a direct report, everybody’s got a boss. It’s not quite as structured as the military, but we definitely appreciate having structure. I’ve worked at other facilities that don’t have that.”

ATS also has an uncommon commitment to veterans as a group. The company has been recognized for that effort by groups such as the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, and it supports programs such as Tee It Up for the Troops, a national golf outing that has raised more than $5 million for veterans assistance in the last decade.

ATS also offers visible recognition for its employees. There is a wall of stars in the lobby for all of its employees who are currently deployed. “The star is a daily reminder to all of us about the service of the young men and women who stand in harm’s way every day,” ATS president Jeff Owens said on the company’s website.

Get Skills to Work

Among the programs set up through associations to create a better connection between veterans and manufacturing is The Manufacturing Institute’s Get Skills to Work (GSTW) program. Now in its second year, Get Skills to Work has two primary goals: matching veterans’ skills to civilian jobs in manufacturing, and accelerated training so veterans can quickly prepare for the technology in modern manufacturing.

“Often it’s just a matter of translating those military skills into civilian work,” said Rafael Vargas, associate vice president for education and workforce at The Manufacturing Institute. “This first year of GSTW has been a period of trial and growth. We are now seeing the fruits of our training pilots as more schools join the coalition.

“We are looking forward to expanding the opportunities for training across the country and making manufacturing a career of choice for more veterans.” Vargas said there are opportunities on both sides of the process to make the transition easier for veterans and employers. “Additional opportunities for certifications inside the military would help many with special skills find work right away, but this will take a coalition effort of military, government, and private-sector players to ensure the most is done for our former military,” Vargas said.

“More and more manufacturers recognize the unique skills and talent that military veterans bring to an organization. It will take a concerted effort by employers, education institutions, and others to fill the many positions available in the industry with those that have served.

Ready to hire a vet? Here are some resources to make the transition easy.

Author Bio: Bob is the Content Manager for Plant Engineering.