One answer to the worker shortage: help veterans adjust to civilian workplace

Tammy Garner had spent 26 years as a U.S. Marine, stationed in Iraq for two tours and during Desert Storm.

But her greatest battle came after she left the military, in trying to find a job.

“There was a lot of crying on my end, a lot of second-guessing myself,” the 47-year-old Oklahoma native said. “What do I do now that the military is not an option for me anymore? It was all I knew.”

Early in her transition from military to civilian life, Garner reached out to John Buckley, a retired U.S. Army colonel who now serves as the military relations manager for Koch Industries. She finished degrees and accounting from Kansas Wesleyan University, and began at Koch last June as an accounting assistant with the Wichita-based company’s minerals division.

Garner had studied the company and knew it would be a good fit.

“I knew people who worked for them, and the Koch values line up with my own and with what I was taught in the military too,” she said. “I just felt like it would be a great place to work.”

Garner is not alone. Buckley estimates that 10 percent of Koch’s employees in the United States are veterans.

Buckley, a veteran stationed in Iraq, Bosnia, Germany, Spain and “all over” Europe and Asia, believes Koch’s program – which also encompasses military spouses and those in the National Guard and Reserves – is one of the best transition programs in the country.

It’s based on four pillars: Transition, broadening experiences, assimilation and retention, and educating the nonveteran work force.

“We find the military values are the perfect match for Koch and its market-based management,” Buckley said.

Nationally, half of all veterans hired leave their job in the first year, and 80 percent in the first 18 months, he said.

Buckley said the emphasis on hiring and keeping veterans employed helps fill a skills gap that he says is broadening in the U.S. workforce.

About 10,000 baby boomers a day reach retirement age, he said, and their successors have inadequate training to take over.

“We see 3 million or so openings coming up in the next couple of years,” he said. “And with the manpower that we have in the U.S. workforce, we believe about 2 million of those will be unfilled.”

The answer, he says, is in training and hiring veterans.

“Most veterans are very agile and adaptive,” Buckley said. “They’ve had to be, to succeed in their military careers. A lot of nonveterans and those who aren’t in the military don’t appreciate that.”

It’s a challenge for Koch and other private-sector companies face, where the civilian employer and the veteran don’t always see eye-to-eye.

“Most people in the military come from what I define as a tribal society, where the success and survival of the team is more important than the individual,” he said. “In the private sector, it’s a little more individual and independent. The perceptions from either side of each other is not as transparent, because of the cultural biases they each bring to the table.”

Buckley said about 70 percent of the veterans hired by Koch work in manufacturing and manufacturing operations. The rest are represented in engineering, information technology, supply chain and environmental health and safety, which initially surprised Buckley.

“Their focus on compliance and safety,” he said. “That comes as second nature to most veterans.”

Among those finding success working with Koch is Bryon Mace, whose nearly 20-year military career was split between the U.S. Army and the Coast Guard. Mace works as a supply and demand planner for Koch’s INVISTA division, hired in October 2016.

Mace said Buckley and his transition program helped smooth the journey from civilian life to everyday work.

“The military system is designed to, when necessary, become a 24/7 operation that deploys to different parts of the world. No matter who you are and what you’re doing, that could be short notice,” the Minnesota native said. “You’re concerned about the welfare of your team at all times, not just at work but what’s going on at home with the family. Are they doing all right with other areas of their lives?

“It is not a 24/7 commitment or requirement in the same way,” he added. “You look after your team in a different manner now. You’re not as concerned about some of those things outside of that work environment.”

Mace said an advantage in hiring veterans is their calm thinking under pressure.

“One of the things the military does very well is they cause you to mature pretty quickly because of the responsibilities you’re given very early in your career – it doesn’t matter if you’re in enlisted or officer ranks,” he said. “The organization entrusts you and expects you to manage people and equipment. They expect you to do that responsibly early on, compared to your peer group from the outside sector. It pays big dividends, from what I can see. It’s very valued.”

Buckley, Garner and Mace all said that one of the biggest transitions from military to civilian life is in the language – where different words and phrases have different meanings in the workday world.

“It’s a language that civilians don’t necessarily understand,” Garner said, recalling her first job interview. “The lady on the other end was like, ‘I don’t understand anything you’re saying.’ I was using the military language. The language was the most difficult, trying to adjust from military terminology to civilian terminology.”

Kim Young, a 28-year Marine and Kansas Army National Guard veteran who has been working for Koch for more than 20 years, helped Garner with the transition to work life.

“Some of the biggest hurdles people have to get over is translating what they do in the military to the civilian world, and how that’s valuable,” said Young, who works for Koch Business Solutions. “They have experience they rely on that’s just as good, if not better in some cases, to what’s on the civilian side. The training they’ve had, the mentorship they’ve had, all carries over into the civilian world.”

Buckley is a one-man operation at Koch, but said he receives help from many of the veterans who work for the company in helping bring their own to the company’s workforce and help keep them there.

“Most veterans come out with this warrior ethos that you never leave behind a fallen comrade,” Buckley said. “So it translates to, after you’ve made your successful transition, you turn around and help the next veteran.”