Creative Ways to Recruit Veterans to Your Workforce Part 1: Internships

I hear it time and again – the number one reason employers cite for not actively recruiting military veterans to their workforce: “I’m not sure they have the skills we need.” The reality is that most employers and recruiters don’t have familiarity with the breadth and depth of jobs we have in the military. What these folks “know” about the military is what they’ve seen on television on the nightly news or in Hollywood movies about the military.

Employers I’ve spoken with who want to recruit veterans are often surprised to discover that more than 80% of the jobs we have in the military have a civilian equivalent. And even the direct combat jobs have transferable skills. For example, many service members have extensive real world experience in various aspects of emergency management operations (e.g. global and national natural disaster response, riot control, etc.). But, typically, the veteran won’t describe his/her knowledge and skills as “emergency management” on a resume, and therefore may not think to seek out companies with emergency management positions. Countless transitioning veterans have lamented to me that “if they’d just give me a chance, I could show them how much I do know and how quickly I could pick up the rest.”

So, how can we help both employers and veterans bridge this gap? In my next few blogs I am going to explore some creative ways that employers can “test drive” veterans and veterans can explore civilian careers. This first blog is about internships.

Although most people associate internships with 20-something college juniors, the demographics of the “typical intern” has changed over the last two decades. Beginning in the early 1990’s, through the Dot Com implosion, the tragedy of 9/11, and well into this current recession, more and more people in their late 20’s to 50’s (and even 60’s) have been turning to internships as a way to explore new careers. Whether these career switches came about as a result of career field downsizing (due to technology advances) or in response to general dissatisfaction with a chosen career path, experienced workers are increasingly seeking low-risk opportunities to use their knowledge and skills in a new way or to try out a new industry. As the transition from a military job to a civilian job is the very definition of a career switch, an internship could be an employer’s low-cost option for finding under-utilized talent and for veterans to explore options to find the best post-military fit. And yes, of course, these types of internships need not be exclusively for veterans, but since my company specializes in helping employers develop strategies for hiring veterans, that is the population on which I am going to focus.

Planning considerations for developing internships for experienced professionals are not dramatically different from those used to develop ones for college juniors. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Determine whether this is a paid or unpaid internship. While college students have different options (such as earning college credit) that would justify the use of an unpaid internship, employers should check with their human resources department regarding compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). There are six criteria employers should use to determine whether an employer-employee relationship exists within the nature of the work being done during the internship. All six criteria would need to be met in order for there to not be a presumed employer-employee relationship. If an employer-employee relationship does exist then the internship should be a paid position. Essentially, if the employer is benefiting from the work done by the intern, it is obligated to pay at least minimum wage. The federal minimum wage rate just increased to $7.25/hr (as of July 24th). Some states also have minimum wage laws. The intern would be entitled to the higher of the two (federal or state) wage rates. You can also choose to pay more than minimum wage.
  2. Incorporate a veteran-employee as a mentor/evaluator. If you already employ veterans, solicit some volunteers to serve as mentors and/or intern evaluators. This tactic will give the veteran a peer that he/she can confide in and who can offer the kind of personal advice that is beyond the scope of a non-veteran’s job search experience. It will also offer the company a level of insight into the service member’s potential to be successful in the job that might otherwise be overlooked if assessed by a non-veteran.
  3. Increase the internship’s level of complexity. As would be expected of any experienced professional, the service member will bring more skills, knowledge, and managerial experience to the internship than the typical 20-something college student. Therefore, the internship should be structured such that the veteran is challenged in the role. And, don’t forget to get the service member’s feedback on the organization and structure of the internship. Ask him/her what should be incorporated to make the program better and to make it easier for them to really get a feel for the job.
  4. Spend some time explaining your company’s culture and exposing them to examples of it. The military has a very strong culture, and if it is the only culture a veteran has experienced in his working career, it will help greatly if you explicitly let them know that on the whole, they should expect a different style of work environment and culture with civilian companies. This is not to say that veterans will have difficulty adapting; in fact, most will be excited to experience a different style. The point is that you need to give them a heads-up that it is different, and to illuminate some specific examples of culture fit in your company. A person’s ability to embrace a company’s culture is directly related to job satisfaction and employee engagement. So, introduce culture early and often during the internship and specifically assess both the veteran’s perception and demonstration of his/her “fit” in this new environment.
  5. Use a different marketing strategy to advertise these internships to veterans. It’s a fairly straightforward process to alert students to internships – simply notify the university career center. But where should you broadcast your experienced professional internships to get the attention of the military member? There are at least a half dozen avenues you can use to get the word out to the veteran community, from military transition centers to social networking sites. If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to register for my web seminar entitled “Military Applicant Sourcing Options” (now available on demand).

If your recruiters have begun to recruit veterans, have been screening veteran resumes and have been setting them aside because they are not finding the “square peg to fit in the square hole”, ask them to call up those resumes again. Contact those veterans and let them know you have these new internships for which they can choose to apply. And, if you are approached by a veteran who asks if you have or would consider developing internships for experienced professionals (sometimes called “adult” or “senior” internships), now you have some information you can use to make the internship a great experience for transitioning veterans.

Coming up in Part 2: Develop G.I. Bill eligible on-the-job training programs.