Salute to Talent
At the end of three decades in military service, one thing that Jud Cook knew he wanted was to stay put.
He figures that he lived in around 20 different homes over those 30 years. He travelled a lot for work, too, and Cook says he’d sometimes look at fellow travelers in transit and wonder about their civilian lives. What did they do for a living? In 2012, he had to consider that question for himself.
Cook ended his military career on Jan. 1, 2013, leaving as a colonel Army engineer at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.
Considering his options, Cook says he wanted to explore a franchise in the auto repair field.
“Based on that being something that would always be interesting,” he says. “It would always present me with a new challenge and can just be a new thing that’s fun to work in.”
He opened a nine-bay Christian Brothers in Brandon, a nearby suburb in the greater Tampa area. He had successful gross sales figures and has since opened two more shops in 2019 and 2020.
Cook gained a lot of knowledge during his military career. He was a West Point cadet and went on to earn two master’s degrees as part of the officer corps. There are also the intangible skills that he learned in the military culture that helped him thrive in his new role.
Around 200,000 service members discharge from the military each year, according to a LinkedIn study of veterans entering the civilian workforce. Not all of them will start a business, as Cook did. But his example shows how much the military system instills the instincts to adapt and work with a team—things that shops want in any employee.
“Even if they're the most junior position in the military, they are going to have experience being led in an organization where they can feel what the influence of leaders are who care about them,” Cook says. “And that's a lesson that they probably bring with them. And I found that they can apply that easily in a shop.”
The challenge for managers looking to hire is to tap into that valuable talent pool and bridge the gap between the military skillset and culture and that of your organization.
More Than Combat
There’s an organization whose goal is to build that bridge. Hire Heroes USA is a nonprofit that specializes in career assistance for people transitioning out of service. The organization works directly with veterans, and they also help businesses get resources on locating and hiring.
Jamie Rimphanli is the organization’s employer relations specialist, focusing on employment partnerships and opportunities. She says that for many small employers, a basic roadblock might be that owners and managers have a limited view of the potential labor pool.
Many think of combat veterans first, who have all the skills that enlisted people get in military culture. But military positions could be in music or in human resources or transportation logistics. There’s a lot of diversity in the armed forces, and Rimphanli’s point is that the military system is so much larger than infantry.
“(The perception) could be just combat veterans, which may dissuade folks from pursuing them because it’s not related to that job function or roles,” she says.
The majority of veterans do not experience combat. According to Rimphanli, it’s just 11 to 20 percent of people enlisted during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Around 10 percent of Gulf War veterans experienced combat.
As a shop owner or manager, it helps to understand the breadth of that system. And it isn’t just that there are myriad roles within the armed forces. Each job has its own variety. Cook was an engineer officer, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
“There are many jobs that you do,” Cook says. “You’re a glorified infantryman who has special equipment on the battlefield. There’s other ones, where you're managing civil works projects. Other times, you’re on staff and you’re leading theaters of war engineering efforts. It’s a wide range of things that you do as an engineer.”
He was even an assistant professor in environmental engineering during one tour.
The amount of hard skills that any veteran might have—no matter the primary military job—might surprise potential employers. Rimphanli says that it’s important to know that it might take some effort to get to those details.
More Than a Job Title
Rimphanli says that the variety of training offered to service members could make it difficult to fit all on a resume or into an interview. Employers should try to suss out all of those skills during an interview, and it might even take a little “translating.”
“They might be very broad with what their experiences are, but you may not see it on their transcripts,” she says. “Because their DD214 only acknowledges what their main role is, but they might have multiple jobs.”
The DD214 is the Defense Department’s official (and abbreviated) summary of a veteran’s discharge, rank and other basic information.
As it was in Cook’s career as an engineer, that job title alone really doesn’t cover everything that might be valuable to a shop. Rimphanli says that, for example, a meteorologist in the armed forces might have secondary specialty as a combat medic.
While a veteran might take their secondary training as a given, that might be unknown information to a potential employer. The military and civilian worlds have some different terms, job classifications and practices. A sort of mistranslation between the two worlds can certainly affect job interviews.
“We’re trying to get two groups of people to understand each other,” Rimphanli says.
More Than a Job Posting
Henley Enterprises is the country’s largest franchisee of Valvoline Instant Oil Change shops. Company COO Todd Nelson says that they knew they wanted employees with traits that many veterans learn during service. When the recruitment numbers weren’t what the company wanted, Nelson says they felt some of that miscommunication between the two groups.
“And at the same time we’re saying, ‘Why can't we get some more responsible people in here to work?’” Nelson says. “So you've got these two entities who are looking for each other.”
Henley decided to reach out directly to the Army and form a partnership in hopes of making more direct contact with service members looking for work in the private sector. In 2019, the company announced that it could guarantee a job interview to any former or current service member who applies.
They wanted more candidates. And as a bigger company, Henley has needs for techs and shop managers, but also for departments like human resources, accounting, information technology and a number of other roles.
“We believe strongly in it,” Nelson says. “We’ve had fantastic luck with the military personnel, period. We’re always looking for military personnel to come in and move into leadership positions. Because they have those skills. They’ve been trained with those skills before they even get to Valvoline.”
The data back up that belief. That study of the veteran labor pool by LinkedIn found that veterans remain with their initial company 8.3 percent longer than nonveterans. They’re 160 percent more likely to have a graduate degree or higher, and they’re more likely to earn a promotion earlier.
Henley’s relationship with the Army has taken time to grow, but Nelson says that they hope their proactivity will put more qualified veterans in touch with the company for interviews. Like many operations hiring for shop positions, the process is something that can be trained. Employers are more often looking for the intangibles that are tougher to get through training.
“You’re coming through that program and you’re going to learn discipline,” Nelson says. “You're going to learn timeliness. You’re going to learn leadership skills.”
More Than the Resume
Most employers will probably have a list of soft skills when thinking about valuable traits in an employee who has served in the armed forces.
Cook says that he could summarize it by thinking of the traits he’d want the on-site manager to have.
“The things that a shop foreman is stereotypically in most people’s mind,” he says. “The extra things that they take care of in the shop, these people have done that during their years in military service.”
Leadership, purpose and teamwork are part of that package.
Rimphanli says that the no. 1 skill trait is entrepreneurship, because the building blocks are all there during service.
“They do have integrity with entrepreneurial spirit,” she says. “They seek to problem-solve. They’re resilient, so they can acclimate to different cultures and different tasks that need to be done.”
That describes Cook well. He says that it was his ability to adapt that served him well in military and civilian life. He moved from job to job for years, analyzing his new surroundings and learning quickly. A year later, he’d do it all again.
Another result of that lifestyle is critical thinking skills.
“Over and over again in deployments or exercises or whatever, in the military you’re analyzing information objectively and then coming up and making a reason to judge them,” he says. “That's what you do all day in the shop. And if you’ve got guys who have practiced that for part of their career beforehand and it’s rote to them, it’s very helpful.”
What Can Shops Do?
Rimphanli says that operators should understand the breadth of the veteran labor pool and understand why they might not be lining up for a particular job. The necessary skills might be just beneath the surface.
“A lot of the challenges that we see are that veterans may not translate their resumes very well and they may not look for those synonyms that make it easier for a reviewer or recruiter,” she says.
Small businesses should foster what Rimphanli calls an ecosystem of partners. While Henley’s approach was directly with the U.S. Army, smaller operators can make local connections. It might start with local veteran employment agencies, which can be provided by a different government agency or outside organization, depending on the location.
The federal government has a veteran employment and training service through the Bureau of Labor. It has toolkits for employers and assistance in finding job candidates.
In places like California or Texas, more resources might exist nearby larger military installations. But almost every region should have some kind of program. Sometimes they’re less formal, like a veteran networking event.
Keep up with those relationships once they’re formed, too. Even if a prospect takes up with another employer.
“Sustaining those relationships could be very challenging,” Rimphanli says. “What (shops) could do is make sure they go to one of two networking events where they get to meet people.”
Cook says that his management style comes from the values he learned during military service. It’s based on setting clear expectations and pushing toward goals—objectives, if you will. One of those objectives involves comradery and culture.
“They’re not just all about sales,” he says. “They’re about bettering our people.”