When Rockwell Automation Inc. and ManpowerGroup set out in 2017 to recruit and train veterans for careers in advanced manufacturing, they committed to building a program ultimately aimed at closing a growing skills gap in the industry.
Now in its second year, the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing has graduated 10 cohorts and a total of 170 veterans, with plans to train 115 veterans in 2020.
The Milwaukee-based companies aim to graduate 1,000 veterans per year and, although that figure is still an aspiration, their commitment includes plans to reach that goal.
They have seen initial success with the veterans who have participated so far. The Academy has reported a more than 90% placement rate and an 83% retention rate with Rockwell’s customers in Wisconsin and in other manufacturing-heavy regions of the country.
The program’s initial success has not been devoid of a learning curve and even some hurdles,that come with launching new initiatives. In this case, it was gaining a better understanding of veterans’ specific needs based on their military background.
“Veterans come with a great work ethic, veterans come highly skilled, but in many cases, you may need to put infrastructure in place or things in place to help them navigate a civilian workforce after being in the military,” said Mary Burgoon, business development manager at the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing.
That’s why it’s necessary that companies, whether they are training and placing or hiring veterans themselves, walk the walk and talk the talk, she said.
“It’s not a secret sauce,” she said.
Programs such as employee resource groups or one-on-one mentoring with other veterans at the organization can help new veteran hires navigate the civilian workforce by including them in company culture, she said.
The Academy’s trainees receive individual instruction from Manpower coaches, who help them “get ready to be successful” in a completely new work environment, said Rebekah Kowalski, vice president of Manpower Manufacturing. That includes everything from preparing for an annual review to drafting a resume to learning how to tell their story.
“Taking initiative, problem solving, grit, the dedication to a job well done—those are all things that are in common with what’s required of a modern manufacturing professional,” Kowalski said. “The coach helps them pull that thread of narrative across from what they did to what they’re going to be doing.”
In addition to their strong commitment, Kowalski said, today’s employers need to be increasingly creative and resourceful when attracting and retaining veteran employees.[caption id="attachment_491281" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Veterans participating in the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing working on control products in the lab at Rockwell Automation.[/caption]
She made the following suggestions for companies looking to tap into that population:
Seek to understand adjacent skill sets
Veterans are equipped with specific skills that can transfer to the civilian workforce, but it’s not always clear how their military experience could fit a specific role. Kowalski urges employers to keep an open mind when screening veteran candidates and not overlook someone just because their technical skills don’t perfectly fit the job description.
“Really look at what they did and invite them to tell their story even though it may not be from a frame of reference that you as a hiring manager may exactly understand,” she said.
Examine your culture
Leaders and hiring managers should be on the same page about company culture and creating an inclusive environment for new hires, one that recognizes the significance of hiring veterans and the wraparound services they may need.
“It’s really important to think about the people you’re bringing in and how your culture can support that,” Kowalski said.
Employers could consider the following questions: Is it a learning culture? Is it adaptive? Does it allow people the time to come up to speed? Is there a general sense of teamwork and collaboration, or are people isolated?
Plug opportunities for growth
“There is a war for talent going on and you catch people’s eyes when you talk about the opportunities for them to develop and make progress,” Kowalski said.
Educating employees on their potential career path is key to attraction and retention because it helps them see a future at the company.
“And it pays to make sure the messages you’re sending are really resonating because a lot of organizations think they are being very clear, but when you actually talk to the employee base, they actually don’t know what their effort is going to amount to,” Kowalski said.
Employers should consider how employees of diverse backgrounds will perceive company processes, procedures and culture. Kowalski also recommends involving current veteran employees in hiring decisions. They can provide a first-hand perspective on how veterans are supported at the company.
Consult outside resources
Local and statewide organizations and advocacy groups provide services for both veteran employees and employers.
“They can walk you through the types of situations you may run into and the wraparound services they offer so that you can really think about and be planful about how you engage proactively to go after an attractive population,” she said.
Companies can also reference military websites to learn more about veterans’ transferable skills.
In September, the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce rolled out a new program, called Invest in Vets, that is specifically designed to equip employers with necessary resources and information around hiring veterans.
“If businesses want to truly receive the benefits and contributions that come with employing smart, capable leaders with military experience, leaders in business need to truly invest in this talent group and match our stated commitment with our actions,” said Saul Newton, executive director at the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce.
When it comes to hiring veterans for the first time, companies often don’t know where to start, according to the chamber. Invest in Vets is meant to spark conversation around the issue and gives businesses a chance to “earn their stars” and complete a symbolic scorecard as they implement veteran-friendly changes.
To earn all five stars, companies are asked to take a veteran internship pledge, military spouse pledge and adopt several veteran-supporting policies and procedures.
But change isn’t likely to happen overnight, said Erin Zimdars-Gagnon, communications director at the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce.
“Our program is not an easy check-in-the-box and we understand that and we know that can be frustrating, but we are tired of people saying they are veteran-friendly when they don’t actually have anything in their handbook for veterans or take the time to care for their veterans and their families.”
She said Invest in Vets has so far attracted Wisconsin-based companies such as Kohler Co., WEC Energy Group and American Family Insurance, which have pledged to hire more than 100 veterans and military spouses as part of the program.