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Want to hire veterans? Learn military culture, vet says

Justin Constantine, a retired Marine Corps officer, is on a new mission: to get more veterans hired.

Constantine works with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes campaign and serves on the board of directors of the Wounded Warrior Project.

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Constantine was on a routine combat patrol in 2006 when he was shot in the head by a sniper. He was ruled "killed in action" but survived.

A graduate of James Madison University with a law degree from Georgetown University, he has worked as an attorney on Capitol Hill and at the Justice Department.

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With Hiring Our Heroes, Constantine works to help businesses better understand what veterans have to offer and how to hire more of them. He spoke to The Baltimore Sun last week about what corporations and veterans need to do to fill jobs.

What companies are hiring veterans, and what are they doing right?

I see a lot of big companies that are hiring, including Lockheed Martin, Caterpillar, Verizon. Hotel chains like La Quinta and Hilton both do a lot with veterans, the craft store Michaels ... so does Home Depot. They spend a lot of time and effort in figuring out the best way to communicate with veterans. A lot of them have on their home page of their website that if you're a veteran click here and you go to a special section and it lets veterans know they're a priority. A lot of companies spend a lot of time like the [United Services Automobile Association] to welcome veterans. They have a wall of honor at their headquarters and any employee can walk by and see some of the great things their employees have done. TriWest [Healthcare Alliance] puts a little flag at the desk of veterans. ... They put together a care package for their deployed employees. A lot of these companies have ERGs, or employee resource groups. They have one just for veterans, and those veterans can be used as a resource for HR personnel. They can look at a military resume and explain what [something] means. These groups discuss issues important to veterans and they can help companies make veterans feel comfortable, which leads to retention. Many of the tactics they come up with can be used for all employees.

Why do employers need to take time to understand and learn about veterans before they try to hire them?

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If someone is a veteran who is coming to you, it's not necessarily that they're coming from somewhere like another job. When you come from the military, whether you want to or not, you're thoroughly indoctrinated in the ways of the military. When folks come, they're bringing so much more than a regular job [offers], and people need to know that the military was such a big part of their life. There might be some pushback from companies who ask, 'Why should we have to learn about them when they should be learning about us?' That's true, but I think if your company is committed to hiring veterans because of the skills they can bring to the workforce, then it behooves them to know where they're coming from just to break the ice [during interviews] and to understand where they're coming from.

You point out that veterans might not even know how to apply for a job because they have spent most of their working lives in the military. How should companies interview them?

The military culture is one where we're really discouraged from bragging about ourselves or spotlighting ourselves in any way, which is different from the private sector, where you're not bragging about yourself but you do highlight what you can bring to a team. ... It's not going to be natural to a service member to tell you all of the details of what they have done, and they also don't understand all the incredible things they've accomplished because it's not something they focus on — but was something that they accomplished as a team. They're going to minimize what they did because if they're ever called into an office to talk to somebody behind a desk, it's probably not a good thing [in the military] and they want to get out of there as quickly as possible so they'll answer something as quick as possible because they're used to efficiency. We teach veterans interview skills and we really hammer on this: You have to sell yourself.

What's special that veterans offer workplaces?

We're used to taking responsibility, and we're also used to taking initiative when it's necessary. We're used to working on small teams that have distinctive chains of command. ... If you're a manager, you have to figure out how to get your supplies on time and how to coordinate getting things done on time — something veterans know how to do well. When it comes to customer service, you don't think of the military, but so much of what we do has to do with customer service. "Yes, sir." "No, sir." Senior members are treated with respect — we stand up.

Why are you trying to teach businesses to hire veterans. Shouldn't you be teaching veterans to get jobs?

I do think the veterans have a burden to meet just like any other job-seeker. One problem we have in our community, our service members are waiting until the end of their service terms before they're thinking about employment. ... All that's on the Department of Defense and military [to help prepare vets for the civilian world]. But I think these companies or the vast majority of them are getting a great quality manager by hiring a veteran — and a lot of bang for their buck. I hear a lot of employers saying they want to hire managers but are having trouble finding them, and all this is true. ... You're probably going to get a great product by hiring a veteran. I'm not saying a company has to change its culture, but it's incumbent on them to understand that culture and see where veterans can fit in.

Veterans have many skills in the military that translate to civilian jobs, such as medics who might make good nurses. Are there efforts to help them get certified more easily in civilian jobs?

Even President Obama mentioned this because a corpsman has what it takes to be an EMT. A corpsman saved my life and helped me by not letting me drown in my own blood. There are some movements to help veterans get certifications, but it's unfortunate it's not across the board. But for instance, in the truck-driving industry, they're helping a lot of military truck drivers get their certification. But I'm not hearing it as much mentioned in the medical industry. ... There's a lot of unions, like in the pipe-fitting or welding arena, where they expedite memberships and bring [veterans] in and help them get certification. ... There's been a lot of interest in technology. Microsoft is providing computer classes and computer certification and coding and things of that nature. Veterans can get tech certification help from companies like [General Electric] and J.P. Morgan Chase where they can sign up for a wide variety of computer courses and can sign up for certification.

Do companies owe it to veterans to hire them because they have served in combat?

I don't think American corporations owe veterans anything. There's no draft going on. We chose to serve; we wanted to serve. A lot of us signed up after 9/11 and knew we were going to be deployed. I like to focus on what veterans provide. I would like HR folks to focus, not just on the fact that someone was a veteran, but to look at it holistically. If I can do XYZ [as a veteran] but a business says we're really looking for someone who can do 'D,' well, we can learn 'D,' and a lot of what we can offer is intangibles.

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