Use Veterans to Win the Talent War

Take advantage of skilled young leaders returning to civilian life.

A curious thing is happening in our corporations. We hear a lot about the 10,000 baby boomers leaving the American workforce every day. The demographics show that this will go on for years.

At the same time, federal Defense Department budget cuts and the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are dumping hundreds of thousands of young men and women into the American civilian labor market. These veterans are among the most capable young men and women in our country, and they are ready to go to work. Yet in the face of these two trends, I see few companies connecting the two developments in a talent management strategy. The war for talent is real. Something is missing.

Let’s begin with the exiting baby boomers. The size of the segment of the workforce leaving is huge. U.S. Department of Labor research estimates that 70 percent of the knowledge acquired by an individual is the result of experience — what our profession gleefully calls informal learning. The prospect that such knowledge acquisition takes place at no cost to the company has fueled enthusiasm for this learning approach. However, this wonderful free benefit is now coming back to bite us as baby boomers leave the workforce.

Going with them is that huge human asset that has accumulated in the form of decades of informal learning — experience — that the next generation cannot make up quickly. The companies that will win the war for talent will be those that can target pools of talent and then aggressively invest in those individuals. It is the only way to grow the pipeline of future leaders, but few companies are doing it.

On the other side of the ledger is the supply of talent in which development investments should be made. Some use high potential pools. Let’s turn instead to a rich alternative supply of talent for development. The overlooked pool is the young men and women returning from active duty serving our country. They have what it takes to be outstanding future leaders in our organizations, but they are missing some important ingredients that your firm needs to be aware of and address.

In 2012 the unemployment rate for young veterans 18 to 24 years old was more than 20 percent. I find this a befuddling statistic when our national unemployment rate is considerably lower — 7.9 percent. The disconnect between these employment rates exists even in the face of intense efforts by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to find jobs under its Hire Our Heroes initiative, which promotes job fairs where employers and veterans come together to explore hiring opportunities.

Companies are not taking advantage of a high-potential talent pool to address the inevitable talent supply issues that are right in front of us. How can this be happening? The only conclusion I find plausible is that the company talent management strategy is totally disconnected from the veteran hiring activity.

Companies state a willingness to hire veterans, as witnessed by the recent Wal-Mart announcement of a plan to hire 100,000 veterans. This is a recruitment strategy. A comprehensive talent management strategy would include the three key verbs — recruit, develop and retain — not just hire. There is a near complete absence of a true integrated strategy designed to win in the looming global talent marketplace where the demographics make shortages nearly inevitable.

To powerfully take advantage of the potential of young returning veterans, organizations need to get key internal stakeholders together to form a recruit-develop-retain veteran strategy. Those stakeholders are talent management, diversity and inclusion, recruiting, and learning and development. Given the time criticality of the issues, this needs to be done sooner rather than later.