When the Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. interviews job candidates, its managers probe for people who can demonstrate loyalty, ability to work under pressure, problem solve, and multitask. That’s what led Melynda Guillet, a senior staffing consultant with The Hartford, to discover Hire Heroes USA, a three-year-old not-for-profit organization out of Alpharetta, Ga.
“We actually heard from word of mouth from candidates themselves, which is how we came across their name,” she says. “We were looking for companies that we could partner with. Hire Heroes is a wonderful organization. I can’t say enough good things about them – they were easy to work with, flexible, provided us with screened quality candidates, and worked with us every step of the way.”
In fact, the application-to-interview ratio is 1-to-1 among Hire Heroes applicants, a statistic Guillet says is uncommon in the job market.
A Helping Hand
The group is the brainchild of John A. Bardis, president and CEO of MedAssets, a health care consulting firm in the Atlanta, Ga., area. He was visiting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., when he struck up a conversation with a young man who lost his leg in combat. The topic – this vet’s future – brought home the fact that a job search is a difficult transition for military folks, particularly wounded servicemen and women.
Bardis’ answer was simple: He filed for a 501(c)(3) status and Hire Heroes USA was up and running. The job placement group charges companies a small fee to post multiple job openings at its Web site, and fills in the gaps with donated funds. Even that’s a recent change; according to Executive Director Brian Stann, when the listings were free, personnel reps treated the opportunity like another Craigslist and flooded the office with job descriptions. “The problem was I was having to pay a full-time staff member just to upload these every day, and yet many of the companies would never hire a veteran,” he says.
So now the list is much more targeted, which is great news for the typical Hire Heroes user: a 24-year-old veteran with four to six years’ experience in the military, a high school diploma, and a desire to work on his college degree by night while holding down employment during the day. Occasionally an officer or senior enlisted military member drifts into the system, “but it’s really the young men and women who were on the front lines that need the most help from us,” Stann reports.
And Hire Heroes takes that responsibility seriously by offering more than a niche job board to eyeball every few days. Stann and his small team offer a personal touch, starting with an intake with the veteran that includes using the JobBOSS software to help the job seeker get a feel for his personality and background experience strengths in the market. Not that the vet is locked into any particular path, Stann is quick to add. “This test shows where people with your personality usually succeed, but our matches are mostly based on what the individual would like to do and their résumé,” he says.
They’ll also provide input on applicants’ financial expectations, getting a feel for their budget in order to walk through what it takes to make ends meet and whether the chosen career is realistic. Again, it’s advice rather than a mandate. “We try to find jobs that pay the best we can, but some guys take offers sooner than others just to get the work, which is the case with most of our veterans in this economy. They need a job as fast as possible,” Stann admits.
Finally, Hire Heroes works with individuals to shape their résumés and interview answers into business speak. “The hardest part is that most Americans have not served in the military, so they’re not familiar with it,” he says. “It automatically puts the veteran at a disadvantage sometimes because they submit language that is unfamiliar to the people reading it, and human nature always tends to lean toward what we’re comfortable with.” Stann has scrubbed out countless acronyms from these backgrounders, for example, and practiced with veterans to present their military tasks as responsibilities as opposed to chores, or worse yet, reality.
“You can’t go into an interview and say, ‘Primarily what I did in Iraq was chase down and kill the enemy,’” he says dryly. Instead, the not-for-profit helps veterans give hard numbers, such as participating in a 30 percent drop in significant action in an area of operations, detained three insurgents, rebuilt two schools. “Things like this bring value on that résumé that an employer can see and translate to skills in strategic planning, logistics, leadership skills, mission planning, etc.”
Hire Heroes first and foremost exists to assist disabled veterans, but it will work with anyone with a military background. The goal in both cases is to find an appropriate job or career match, not a token placement. “There are some companies – and veterans are certainly aware of this – that like to hire a wounded vet and basically roll that guy out whenever the cameras are around,” Stann admits. “We want to find places where our job applicants have a future, a purpose – not just a cherry on the ice cream so someone can say, ‘Look how good we are.’”
At the same time, the organization doesn’t sugar-coat the job market situation: Hire Heroes is not a magic bullet to get around unemployment statistics. Like other recruitment-based firms, it’s seen a drop in available job positions to fill during the last two years.
“We tell them the truth. We don’t coddle them and tell them everything will be OK,” Stann warns. “We tell them how hard it is out there and the fact is, people value your service but you’re not going to get a job just based on the fact that you went to war for your country.
“The unemployment rate is so high for veterans in particular because they don’t have any formal training in writing a résumé or interviewing. Many of them walked down the street to the recruiter’s office after high school and they had a job,” he adds. Still, for all the words of caution, Hire Heroes has placed between 40 and 60 veterans in positions across the United States annually, and helped at least 150 more with interview preparation, paperwork, and goal-setting exercises.
It’s the placements that stand out in Stann’s mind. There was Michael, who found a career match in Texas and was just ecstatic when he reported the news. There was the gentleman who ran through all his savings during his unemployment period, and Hire Heroes loaned him money to avoid eviction from his apartment while waiting on the first paychecks to begin arriving. “That’s what makes it all worth it in the end, because this isn’t a 9-to-5 job,” says Stann. “We give our personal cell [phone numbers] to these veterans. Some of them are still in the service waiting to get out, so they can’t call us during the day. They phone at 10 p.m., and on weekends. We’re still working.”
Not all placements are perfect, of course. The owner of a Wisconsin printing company says the veteran he found through Hire Heroes appeared to be a hard worker and motivated, but never returned to his job after a round of hospitalization. That’s when the owner discovered his new hire was skipping off on his sales route to handle personal situations and lying about his hours. “I put him in outside sales too quickly,” the man admits. “He had too much freedom and because the military experience is more regimented and hands on, he didn’t have a foundation to know what to do.
“I have no problem with the program,” the business owner assures. “But sales and customer service may not be the right fit.”
On the other hand, Guillet at The Hartford says she has fielded excellent feedback from her customers on the Hire Heroes-referred employees. “We are thrilled with the quality, the enthusiasm, and eagerness from these candidates,” she says.
Stann is upfront in recognizing that heavily IT-based firms – companies that are highly technical or into software development – are difficult matches for recent military vets to succeed in. Hire Heroes prefers to work with companies that offer an initial training program for new hires, as this system is what most vets respond well to. By this token, franchise ownership is an excellent fit, in his opinion.
But no matter the industry, Hire Heroes candidates still compete with applicants from other avenues in the public. As much as Stann would like to find a company that guaranteed X number of hires a year, that would run afoul of the law in many places. In the end, he can only ask for a chance at companies that value the military skill set and work ethic. “We just ask for a commitment to give our program a look, consider the candidates we present, and hopefully find positions for them where it works out,” he notes.
“We tell these companies, ‘You’re not doing a charitable thing by hiring a veteran. You’re investing in an asset here. Look at the job they’ve done already at such an early age. There’s no way you will levy more responsibility on their shoulders than they’ve already handled in Iraq and Afghanistan.’”
The unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans was 10 percent in November 2010, compared with 9.1 percent for nonveterans, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.