Military Hiring: One Company’s Insights from the Front Lines

Sept. 6, 2012
The task of attracting young workers into modern factory jobs is difficult. Military veterans not only are available to fill the gap, but also have the work ethic and real-world savvy to be productive much more quickly than civilians of the same age.

A lot of U.S. military personnel look forward to banners, hugs from family and friends, and home-cooked food when they retire from active duty. Shannon Bisping wanted something more: a good paying job.

Which is why Bisping, a Marine sergeant based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., signed on with Advanced Technology Services (ATS) months before his discharge last January. “I worked as an avionics calibrator, specializing in communications and radar systems,” Bisping noted. “ATS understood that I wanted to put all that experience to use. They offered me a solid plan, and I took it.”

ATS is a prime example of the creative ways in which American manufacturers are putting military experience to work in the civilian world. Based in Peoria, Illinois, ATS is a diversified provider of manufacturing and IT managed services. Its main line of business is as a contract provider of production equipment maintenance services for Eaton, Caterpillar, Honeywell, Georgia-Pacific, Motorola, USG and many other major manufacturers.

ATS is also fully committed to vets. Over the last five years, the company has hired over 1,200 former military personnel to fill its clients’ needs. Of its current workforce of roughly 3,000 people, 25% have some kind of military background. The typical industrial company boasts just 3-5%.

Military Skills Translate Well to Manufacturing

“We find that many of the skills learned in today’s armed forces translate well into the industrial environment,” stated Holly Mosack, director of Military Recruiting for ATS and herself an Army vet who served in Iraq. “The training that military personnel receive in electronics, calibration, mechanics, hydraulics, and computers, is very similar to what is found in private industry.”

As many  industrial employers well know, the task of attracting young workers into modern factory jobs is difficult. Military veterans not only are available to fill the gap, but also have the work ethic and real-world savvy to be productive much more quickly than civilians of the same age.

“After being in war zones, these soldiers are used to working 24/7. They are trained to ‘accomplish the mission’,” Mosack states. “Stressful situations are routine for them. If a machine goes down, if they’re short on supplies, if someone didn’t make a delivery, they have this unique out-of-the-box thinking that helps them get the job done.”

Because ATS considers military veterans to be such a valuable commodity, it has instituted a structured recruitment and training program specifically directed at vets. As it did with Bisping, the company makes contact with personnel approaching end-of-duty through military transition centers around the world. “Military personnel are required to go through their local transition center before discharge,” Mosack notes. “We work closely with transition counselors. In particular we send tips to counselors on what civilian employers are looking for. Those tips go to centers worldwide,” she said, noting that the company also works with the Veterans Administration (VA) in its outreach efforts.

The company has also recently expanded into broadcast and newspaper advertising, focusing its spending in military communities like Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia. Getting the word out that ATS is “military friendly,” as Mosack points out, helps pave the way for good rapport with potential employees. Finally, ATS has begun to forge relationships with community colleges that have facilities on major military bases, using academic settings to reach active-duty personnel who are brushing up their skills for post-military employment.

Matching Skills with Opportunities

Connecting with outbound personnel, however, is only the first step. To land the best candidates, companies must work hard to find opportunities that match up with each individual’s interests. Mosack says that some of the biggest challenges are geographic.

“The common misperception is that vets will move anywhere because they’ve done so throughout their military careers. Many times that’s not true,” she points out. “Once they leave active duty, they often want to go back to their hometown where friends and family live. Or they want to go wherever their spouses prefer. On the plus side, very few are homeowners, so they can pack up and move quickly.”

As soon-to-be-veterans weigh their options,  it’s important to educate candidates on the way private companies compensate their employees. “They’re often told by outplacement counselors to ‘not undersell yourself’—and that’s fine,” notes Mosack. “But the reality is that military pay includes housing allowances, tax-free combat pay and a host of other unique benefits. It’s hard for these folks to parse out the differences and make a true apples-to-apples evaluation of compensation in the private arena. We do our best to show them what honest compensation is in the industrial world and say, ‘You’re going to be paid what you’re worth, fair and square. But here is what the reality is.’”

Another concern for the “new recruits” coming from military life to an industrial setting is how they will fit in. ATS increases the comfort factor for these veterans by pairing them with a current ATS employee who has made the jump -- something it calls its “Battle Buddy” program.

“We team them up with another veteran. Not necessarily someone they will be working side-by-side with, but someone who will stay in touch and answer questions,” said Mosack. “People leaving military service have all sorts of new challenges. Military personnel can get embarrassed just by calling their new boss by his or her first name.” To help with the transition, ATS offers a webinar the first week of employment to discuss some of the more practical issues; it also provides a transition guide covering topics from healthcare to what to wear to work.

Training is Essential

Training is important for managers on the factory floor as well. “We tell managers what skills the person had during their service years, and how to transfer them,” said Mosack. “We make it clear to managers that after that initial transition period of 30 to 60 days, they’re likely to have one of their most loyal employees. All these folks want is for someone to take a chance on them.”

One person who doesn’t need convincing is Michael Hoffman, operations manager at J&L Fiber Services, a metal casting company in Waukesha, Wisc. For the past seven years, Hoffman has worked with ATS to maintain the performance of his factory equipment; eleven ATS workers are currently deployed at J&L, of which four are military veterans.

“It takes roughly six months to train a typical new employee as a machine mechanic. Military vets can reach that level of training in half the time,” states Hoffman, adding that such shortened training times can save J&L $20,000 per worker.

“The thing about manufacturing is, you have to be disciplined,” he continues. “You have to do the same thing every day in order to get process control. It’s key in a process like ours that’s highly technical—and that discipline to do the same logic steps every time, is what the military really brings.”

Mark Carle, a former Air Force mechanic and communications specialist now working for ATS, found the transition in his assignment at J&L to be largely problem-free. “What I had to do in the Air Force required being able to read diagrams and schematics,” he said. “My skills in figuring out how things work have been pretty handy so far.”

Mosack says that for veteran hiring programs to be successful, companies need to cast a wide net and not be focused on one branch of service or a short list of backgrounds.

“Many firms are too picky. They pursue only Navy nukes, for example, and miss out on other branches. Every branch provides skills—there are soldiers and Marines repairing weapon systems, for example, but some employers don’t see the connection to industrial equipment.”

Another essential is understanding the military mindset. If a company doesn’t have veterans on staff who “get” what it means for armed forces personnel to enter the civilian arena, they should hire a consultant, says Mosack, noting that there are many options to reach outbound personnel at little to no cost.

“It’s easy to waste money right off the bat because there are so many commercial military hiring firms, fee-for-service Web sites and the like. Instead, take the time to think about your facilities and what your organization’s needs are, make a plan, and then begin reaching out,” she said. “Vets bring a value to an organization that goes way beyond patriotism.” 

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