I know what it’s like to be homeless. Years ago, I lived on the streets for nearly 18 months, until a chance encounter with a Marine recruiter. Three months later, I shipped off to boot camp, and my life forever changed.
I served two tours in Iraq, became a combat systems SME (subject matter expert) and a systems administrator, and I graduated from an online university with an IT degree. Today, I’ve been able to turn my life around and enjoy a fulfilling career as a technology executive.
While my life story certainly isn’t unique, I hope it serves to shine a light on this Memorial Day on the plight of struggling veterans. We observe this day not only to honor the sacrifices of those who lost their lives in uniform, but also to remember our obligation to support military veterans in need.
That’s why as America marks this holiday and celebrates National Military Appreciation Month, my message to Maryland recruiters is to take a second look at hiring military veterans.
Veterans today face many challenges. While the number of veterans experiencing homelessness has declined in recent years, approximately 33,000 veterans throughout the U.S. still don’t have permanent housing. And, while veteran suicides are down, the suicide rate among veterans still remains nearly double the rest of the American public.
One key to empowering transitioning veterans and accelerating their smooth return to civilian life is offering them meaningful work. While overall veteran unemployment has recently decreased, finding jobs that match their skills remains a stubborn problem. Nearly two-thirds of veterans who enlisted report that underemployment is a challenge in transitioning to civilian life, according to The Veterans Metrics Initiative.
To their credit, numerous private-sector companies and business coalitions have expanded their efforts to hire veterans. But far too many men and women who have served are still falling through the cracks. It is particularly frustrating to see so many skilled veterans struggling to find meaningful careers at the same time companies are struggling to find talent. More than two-thirds of business leaders report that the quantity and quality of candidates is less, or much less, than what they need for their business to be successful.
So, why can’t employers find these veterans? One reason is that many companies’ screening and hiring systems are designed to exclude, rather than include, qualified workers from consideration. Even employers who pride themselves on a culture of inclusiveness repeatedly find themselves attracting and hiring the same types of candidates from their “go-to” talent pools.
These systems typically weed out applicants with “undesirable” attributes, such as a criminal conviction, employment gaps of more than a few months, or a lack of a traditional four-year college degree. But these kinds of criteria are likely to exclude some veterans. Viable candidates whose resumes don’t match these criteria, but who could perform at a high level with the proper training, often can’t seem to get their foot in the door. These so-called “hidden workers” often include the unemployed and underemployed with a history of substance abuse or physical or mental health challenges, disadvantaged backgrounds, no higher education and family care responsibilities.
I certainly checked most of those boxes. Alcoholism contributed to my parents getting divorced when I was still a child. I basically lived on my own during my last two years of high school while my mother was treated for depression. I dropped out of college shortly after enrolling, got entangled with the wrong crowd, and engaged in some illicit activities, all of which cost me my part-time job and apartment. During my transition out of active-duty service, I was diagnosed with PTSD from my time overseas in Iraq, which has since been treated.
Companies must evolve their hiring practices to attract hidden workers, including veterans. Job descriptions should be streamlined to focus on critical skills that correlate to performance, rather than a myriad of skills possessed by the “ideal” candidate. And they should drop filters that exclude non-traditional candidates.
Discipline, problem-solving, leadership and dedication to mission are qualities I gained through my years of military service. But these qualities don’t necessarily translate on resumes. This Memorial Day I call on recruiters everywhere to empower military veterans with what they want and deserve the most- an opportunity to land their dream job like I’ve been able to achieve.
Emilio Fernandez (email@example.com) is a Maryland resident and a Veterans Affairs Value Architect with Accenture Federal Services.