When Johnny or Janey Comes Marching Home

Veterans find it's a tough terrain in getting from the battlefield to their chosen field.

November 28, 2011

After enduring the dangers of Iraq and Afghanistan and the painful separation from family and friends, some returning veterans face another sobering reality: the challenge of finding and retaining a good job.

Despite strong support among some employers for hiring veterans and protections offered by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA, the current labor environment is difficult for both employers and veterans. In addition to approximately 220,000 enlisted military personnel returning home annually, more than 830,000 National Guard troops and reservists shuttle in and out of their civilian positions.

"Everyone supports the troops, but hiring them and assimilating them into the workforce is a whole different animal--especially during an economic downturn," says Charles Leo, principal at L&S Human Resource and Employment Law Consultancy Group and a business professor at Pepperdine University. "It's important for employers to recognize that this is an issue they must address."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports higher unemployment rates among Gulf War-era II veterans than for the general population. In April, for example, the overall unemployment rate was 9 percent but 10.9 percent for those veterans. Hoping to increase job opportunities for returning veterans, the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs published proposed rules in April that would strengthen the affirmative action requirements of the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974.

"It's a challenging environment," says David Dahler, director of human resources for insurance and consulting giant Aon Corp. Although many troops return ready to tackle a job in the corporate world, "a lot of individuals come back and spend months re-acclimating to private life. Some of them aren't entirely ready for a formal job and all that comes with it."

Aon is among the employers that have developed policies and programs to help handle the influx of returning enlistees. At the same time, companies with reservists and National Guard troops who have had repeated deployments are adapting to the permanent return of these troops.

"The practicalities of making things work are difficult," says George Wood, a managing shareholder at the Minneapolis law firm of Littler Mendelson. "The vast majority of employers understand that it's important to support and hire veterans. The part that many don't fully understand is the depth and breadth of the commitment."

Challenges range from creating programs to train and assimilate veterans to figuring out what to do with an employee who has filled in for a reservist returning from deployment. Many returning enlistees are young and lack experience in the workplace. Some also face psychological and physical challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Nowadays, thanks to advances in medicine, many troops who would have died on the battlefield in the past are likelier to survive--albeit with serious disabilities.

But such issues haven't stopped BNSF Railway Co., the largest intermodal freight transporter in the U.S., from hiring veterans. The company employs about 6,000 veterans who represent about 15 percent of its workforce. More than 1,000 BNSF employees have been called to active duty since 2001.

The firm offers these employees "whole pay" and sustained benefits while they are away. BNSF must "make adjustments and plan ahead when service members are called to active duty," says John Wesley III, manager of military staffing. The adjustments include transferring employees and changing workforce schedules.

Other companies also are trying to help returning veterans find jobs and adapt to civilian life. The not-for-profit DirectEmployers Association, for instance, has created an employment website for returning veterans (veterans. jobs), which uses military codes to help veterans identify jobs in their fields.

Deutsche Bank actively recruits employees through virtual job fairs with Milicruit and Veterans on Wall Street, an organization that promotes career development, support, outreach and mentoring. To ease the transition to regular work hours, defense contractor R4 Inc. in Eatontown, New Jersey, gives employees returning from National Guard or Reserve duty a 30-day period of rest and relaxation.

At Booz Allen Hamilton, about 28 percent of its workforce has a military background. The company, which primarily provides management and technology consulting services to the U.S. government, offers an assortment of programs.

It recruits veterans, works with organizations that assist them in the transition between military and civilian life, and offers them a weeklong onboarding program and mentoring. The company also makes accommodations based on physical needs.

"Veterans are a natural fit for our workforce. We actively seek them out and accommodating them makes good business sense," says Mark McLane, director of diversity and inclusion at Booz Allen. They're a good fit, he says, because of their technical and leadership skills, and ability to work well with others.

Aon has taken direct aim at veterans attempting to adjust to civilian life and find work. It offers a peer mentoring program that matches veterans with managers and senior executives who can address their specific needs in terms of knowledge and job skills. It also participates in a program called American Corporate Partners, which taps Aon employees--including veterans--to mentor returning veterans and their spouses. In addition, Aon's employee assistance program provides counseling and other aid to veterans.

Aon has adopted an "accommodation" policy that allows a hiring manager to authorize the purchase of a piece of equipment or software to give a disabled worker the tools necessary to do the job. "The company covers the cost if it's something a person requires to do the job. It doesn't come out of their departmental budget," Dahler says.

Through the Wounded Warrior Project, a group of organizations that work with the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs and the city of Chicago, Aon has identified disabled veterans in need of assistance. The group has provided training for job interviews, networking and résumé development. Participants who are hired undergo formal classroom training and about a month of "real world" learning to become acclimated to the position.

"It is clear that some of these people are fighting through the psychological effects of war and trying to get back to a point where they are ready to enter the job market," Dahler says. "They're able to function at a high level with a minimal amount of training and support."

For instance, Chad Watson, a former Marine who lost a leg in a roadside bomb explosion while deployed in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, recently joined Aon as assistant director of the Worldwide Operations Center. "The company understands that it can attract a great deal of talent--people who are every bit as capable as fully able-bodied persons--by focusing on veterans," he says. "Many veterans are very good at staying calm under pressure and working in a group environment."

National Guard troops and reservists present an additional challenge. USERRA specifically forbids employers from terminating an employee called to active duty who is not a full-time member of the armed services. It sets a five-year cumulative time span for the right to re-employment and requires that employers make a reasonable effort to accommodate a disability. It also provides an "escalator" clause that sometimes provides returning reservists with a more senior position if the job has been upgraded or a promotion would have occurred had the employee not been called to duty.

Yet, some National Guard reservists say they've been turned down for a job because an employer fears they will be redeployed. "Unfortunately, many employers view active civilian military employees as too costly and too difficult to manage," says Ted Daywalt, president and CEO of VetJobs, an online job site for veterans.

He notes that as many as 70 percent of employers, when he surveyed them anonymously, indicated that they won't hire someone from the Guard or Reserves.

Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer based in West Linn, Oregon. To comment, email