Between 240,000 and 360,000 military members transition to civilian life each year. The shift isn’t always easy, leaving many veterans unemployed. To help put them to work, more than 100 construction industry organizations—including Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and many of its members—pledged in 2014 to employ 100,000 veterans by 2019.
“When it comes to industries in which veterans are uniquely qualified, construction is fantastic because it really brings out a lot of veterans’ skills,” says Lida Citroen, founder of LIDA360 and author of “Your Next Mission: A Personal Branding Guide for the Military-to-Civilian Transition.” Despite being a great fit, connecting veterans with construction jobs proves to be challenging.
Many veterans entered the military shortly after graduating from high school. While their civilian peers entered the job market and began developing skills, veterans were busy with intensive military training. As a result, many lack the knowledge and tools needed to transfer their military training to an applicable civilian career.
Citroen has spent more than 30 years helping companies and individuals enhance their personal branding and differentiate themselves from the competition. Over time, she began specializing in helping veterans.
Sometimes, veterans gain skills in the military that directly relate to construction, such as handling logistics in the Army or being a mechanic in the Navy. More often, their skills sets don’t match up to construction quite as well. Citroen helps those veterans determine the soft skills that indirectly relate to construction, as well as demonstrate their work ethic and trainability, such as dependability, communication and leadership abilities.
“When you hire people off the street, there are a lot of things you don’t know about them that you know about a veteran. They follow orders well, work as a team, communicate well, have tremendous leadership skills and know how to work toward a mission,” says Jamie Van Voorhis, senior manager of workforce development for Jacobs, an international construction firm.
Amber Peebles, president of Athena Construction Group, understands the value of hiring a veteran firsthand. Peebles and her businesses partner are former Marines. Athena Construction Group, based in Dumfries, Va., is the only HUBZone-certified and service disabled-, veteran- and woman-owned construction company in the country, which sets it apart from the competition.
“Construction is a tough industry, and clients want to be able to partner with companies that can work through the tough times,” Peebles says. “Our qualities are an unconscious recognition of what our company is about.” In addition to strengthening the company’s reputation, Peebles’ military experience often helps her career.
“The Marine Corps is a very strong community,” she says. “If I need help with an issue I’m working through, I can reach out to my network. That’s just standard practice for any veteran.”
Understanding the value of military experience, Peebles has veterans on staff from the Marine Corps, Army and Navy. “While having a military background doesn’t get you the job, it does put you at the front of the line for consideration.”
Cultivate Relatable Company Values
Providing a work environment in which veterans thrive can be difficult for a company that lacks leaders with military experience. Veterans can see right through companies that state they want to start programs to support the military, but fail to produce results, Citroen says.
“If a company promotes leadership, integrity and community service—and lives those values—then it probably would be a good fit for a veteran,” Citroen says. “It’s when companies promote values that aren’t authentic that there’s a challenge.”
To create an environment that will attract and retain veterans, Citroen suggests the following steps.
- Start off small. Companies with a huge goal for a huge initiative often haven’t set realistic expectations. If the bold objective isn’t met, the company feels as though it has failed and moves on to the next initiative.
- Allocate the right resources. Come up with a five-year plan with realistic financial and staff commitments. Don’t jump right into an 18-month plan.
- Gain support from the top. Without a champion in the C-suite, the initiative probably won’t be successful.
Veterans who apply to work at Athena Construction Group generally trust the company because it is veteran owned. Veterans also tend to relate to what is expected of them when working for the 100 percent Marine Corps-owned company. “We demand integrity, accountability and a high level of dedication and professionalism. It’s not a culture for everybody,” Peebles says.
“I don’t tolerate much, especially not giving 110 percent. While I’m compassionate if someone is going through a hard time in their life, I don’t enable. I don’t let life’s daily distractions keep people from performing. I have an obligation to the entity, and I have to make sure my decisions and approach to things are consistent so everybody has a future with the company,” she says.