Over the next several years, thousands of veterans will return home from Afghanistan and start to search for jobs. Physical disability, emotional trauma, and a lack of civilian work experience have made it difficult for them to find employment. For returning service members under age 25, unemployment in 2012 was 20.4 percent—more than five percentage points higher than for their civilian counterparts. The overall rate of unemployment for vets is two percentage points higher than the national average.
Today private equity giant Blackstone Group (BX) said that, in cooperation with Michelle Obama’s ongoing effort to get companies to hire veterans, it would hire 50,000 returning service members over the next five years. The jobs will be spread across Blackstone’s vast portfolio of companies, which include Hilton hotels, the Weather Channel, and the SeaWorld (SEAS) theme park. In January, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) said it would hire any honorably discharged veteran who applies for a job.
Announcements like these generate good press for companies and the first lady, but they also highlight the problematic skills mismatch between veterans and the civilian job market. Many vets possess hard-to-find skills that should make them attractive hires. Some are medics trained to save lives; others are expert at repairing planes, helicopters, and trucks, or have advanced technology or communications training. They are accustomed to stress and working under pressure. And they follow orders.
Yet these skills don’t often translate well on résumés. Veterans’ job descriptions are categorized in nine-digit MOCs, or military occupation codes. The Army has more than 9,000 such codes. John Chambers, chief executive officer of Cisco Systems (CSCO), says when he first looked at the codes on a job application it was like “reading a foreign language.”
Chambers hasn’t committed to hiring a set number of vets, but under a pilot program that’s part of Michelle Obama’s veterans initiative, Cisco and other Silicon Valley firms, including Oracle (ORCL), Microsoft (MSFT), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), will test software that matches MOC codes to civilian job descriptions a human resources department can comprehend. The initiative will also help companies identify veterans whose military experience should count toward industry credentials and certifications—allowing, for example, Army programmers to qualify for programmer jobs at tech firms.
The software, called the US IT Pipeline, was designed by Cisco and Futures Inc., a recruiting software firm that bills itself as “the first cloud-based talent exchange.” Candidates will be able to interview for jobs via video and Web conference from overseas bases where they’re deployed. Ten tech companies are participating in the pilot program. “We have to put their skills in a format that business leaders understand,” Chambers says.
Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, says she’s having conversations with health-care, higher education, and transportation executives about starting similar programs. “We’re coming up with ways to fast-track a welder in the military to get that credential as soon as they can—to translate that into the civilian world,” she says.
Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman says the company is using matching programs to screen applicants at Hilton hotels, and the company intends to get it up and running at SeaWorld. “It’s smart for us to be doing this,” Schwarzman says. “The only downside is that people might not work out, and that’s a risk you have when you hire anyone.”