An Open Letter to President Obama regarding “Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government”

Dear President Obama –

I posted a link to Executive Order #13518 “Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government” as a discussion item in about two dozen different veteran groups on LinkedIn.  I was curious to see what kind of response news of this order and its “Veterans Employment Initiative” would generate.  Reaction fell into one of three categories:

  1. Roughly 10% of the respondents were very excited to hear this news.  I’ll call this group “The Inexperienced Innocents.”  This group was comprised primarily of service members who will be transitioning from the military in the next few months and looking for employment.  They have not yet tried to navigate the federal job world, but they trust that, somehow, this order will make the federal job hunt experience one that is simple, expedient, full of feedback, and generally not frustrating.
  2. Almost 80% of respondents fell into the category of “The Scorned Skeptics”.  These veterans have “been there – done that – couldn’t even get a d*mn t-shirt because I never heard back from anyone regarding any job I ever applied for on USAjobs.”  Phrases like “lip service”, “smoke and mirrors” and “just trying to look like they support veterans” were common.  The tales these veterans told of frustrated job searches were soul crushing.  Somewhat surprising was the number of former service members with easily transferrable experience (i.e., healthcare, transportation, and logistics) who were unable to find a job within the government.
  3. The final 10% I’ll call “The Reservedly Optimistic”.  That is the category into which I fall.  The folks in this category tended to be those who currently work or have experience with corporate recruiting practices.  We know the current system does not work well for veterans (or, arguably, anyone who doesn’t already have a federal job).  However, we also know that systems can be improved.

I know personally of the frustrations veterans experience with breaking into the federal job scene.  Back in 2005 my husband spent almost 9 months applying for government positions before he gave up.  If someone with solid technical/IT/telecommunications skills (both military and civilian), a current top secret clearance, and Washington DC area residence couldn’t find work anywhere in the federal government, what hope should anyone else have?

So, President Obama, the burning question all respondents want to ask is “What will be done differently this time?”

As evidenced by my depressing statistic of 80% Scorned Skeptics, simply coming up with a slick marketing campaign that tells the veteran community “the government wants to hire you!” is not going to persuade us that this is more than lip service.  Change does not come easily to those who are entrenched in a comfort zone. You will have to convince, nay, motivate, the Department of Labor, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Office of Personnel Management, and all 24+ members of the Council on Veterans Employment to think “outside the box”.  They must be willing to look for and try best practices from corporate recruiting and retention initiatives, in particular those veteran hiring initiatives that civilian companies have undertaken that have had much success.  If the companies listed on G.I. Jobs “Top 100 Military Friendly Employers” and’s Most Valuable Employers (MVE) for Military can figure out how be successful at hiring military veterans, I think the federal government can be open to learning something from them.

As I have spent the last two years educating civilian employers, federal hiring managers, and college/university human resource professionals on how to develop and implement a military hiring initiative, I feel uniquely qualified to offer you some of my personal suggestions:

  • Allow federal HR professionals to more aggressively search for the right candidates.  This is opposed to passively posting a job opening on USAjobs, waiting for 400 applications to come in, and then sifting through them to find the one diamond in a pile of coal.  Civilian recruiters actively seek out (though the use of social networking sites, Internet Boolean searches and data mining multiple resume databases) potential ideal candidates for their openings and “push” jobs to them rather than using the “pull” method described above.
  • Allow those companies with extensive experience in placing military veterans with civilian employers to assist you in this effort while you train your current HR practitioners/recruiters how to do that kind of work.  Corporations know that when they don’t have a particular knowledge area or ability it often makes good business sense to bring in outside experts (short or long term) in order to ramp up quickly and get the hiring machine moving.
  • Motivate federal recruiters and hiring managers to utilize the hiring tools they already have. The government has veteran hiring preferences, several special approval authorities just for veterans and special schedules that allow a tremendous amount of flexibility when traditional competitive hiring procedures are not feasible or practical.  Hiring managers can choose to use any or all of these to simplify and bypass the standard route to employment.  The number of veterans hired under these approving authorities is quite low.   Is that condition because hiring managers don’t know they have these tools, don’t know when to apply them, don’t know how to apply them, or is it because they choose, for whatever reason, not to use them?   Human beings are motivated by two things: fear and reward.  Civilian companies figured out a long time ago that incentivizing their employees to do things increases compliance and productivity.
  • Add creative training experiences, such as internships and on-the-job training programs, designed just for veterans as vehicles to bring them into the federal government.  Civilian employers have been using these kinds of programs for decades, with the shift in emphasis now going to “experienced” applicants vs. the more traditional college students.
  • Invest in creating better career websites for the agencies.  Include things like “chat with a recruiter”, informational web seminars on “working at Agency X”, videos on a “day in the life at Department Y”.  How about a skills cross walk – “if you did this in the military, you may want to consider these careers in Agency Z”.
  • Come up with a comprehensive campaign to market federal jobs to the military. Outreach takes on many forms.  Take a look at your own military service recruiting sites (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps) for great examples on how to go “above and beyond” the norm to recruit.  And, really work with the Veteran Service Organizations to get the word out and to develop a pipeline of referrals.  The VSO’s will either be your strongest allies or your worst detractors, depending on how you approach and integrate them into the initiative.  And, don’t forget to include the professional military associations such as the Military Officers Association of America and the National Guard Association of the United States.
  • Change the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) policy that places a time limit on how long a veteran can use the services of transition centers.  Currently, active duty service members (or reserve component members who are on active duty) have 180 days after separation to use the services of a transition center.  Given that it takes 6-12 months on average for veterans to find jobs, why is the service window so short?  Take a lesson learned from colleges and universities – generally their alumni can use their career service centers indefinitely after graduation.  And, why don’t we have career services support for reserve component members who have not recently served on active duty?  Lack of close access to a transition center can easily be mitigated.  Many civilian career counselors/coaches offer their services virtually (i.e., via web seminar, over the phone, via computer/chat/IM, etc.) so, inability to council Guard and Reserve members face-to-face should not be an excuse.
  • Provide more robust services in the area of military resume writing, especially federal resume writing.  Feedback I’ve received directly from transitioning military members is that they are not getting the guidance they need and the follow up they want so desperately from the transition centers.  And the “military friendly” recruiters I’ve spoken with say that the quality of the resumes is still very poor.  That those recruiters are still able to successfully find and hire great military candidates is due in large part to the effort they have made to educate themselves on the military and how to translate an un-translated resume.
  • Implement sponsorship and integration programs to help the service member adapt to and thrive in a civilian workplace.  Creating a federal “veteran networking group” (affinity group, affiliation group) would be a great start.  The precedent has already been set with Young Government Leaders.
  • Start tracking the retention statistics on the number of veterans hired.   Include that data on the annual “Employment of Veterans in the Federal Executive Branch” report.  Is anyone else besides me curious about the retention percentage of veterans hired under those above mentioned special authorities after the initial authorization period expires (generally 1-2 years)?

To those leaders from DOL, VA, and OPM charged with implementing the Executive Order – I have more ideas if you are interested in hearing them.  I’ll be attending The Advisory Committee on Veterans’ Employment, Training and Employer Outreach (ACVETEO) Open Meeting on December 2nd.  Let’s chat.