Editor’s note: The following commentary was contributed by James Ferguson, CEO and founder of the Warrior Reunion Foundation. The content may be edited for clarity, style and length.
For the first time in over a decade the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans has fallen below the national average. This is an important milestone, reflecting the success of a collaboration between businesses, nonprofit organizations and government agencies who share the belief that employing veterans is not only a patriotic gesture of support; it is also sound business strategy. Businesses across America have recognized the unique value veterans bring to the workforce, embodying attributes that contribute to success in all professional endeavors. Veterans operate with integrity; we are committed to mission accomplishment; and we are willing to put the organization before self.
But throughout the transformational effort to support them in finding their next mission in life, there has been one group lagging behind the others when it comes to finding meaningful employment: junior noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Although NCOs are often referenced as “the backbone of the force,” serving as the front-line leaders who are tasked with thinking strategically while directing execution daily at the tactical level, unemployment compensation rates for this group continually outpace all other segments of the veteran population. With one of the highest transition rates in the force, and at a time when many have noted a dearth of leadership within our companies and institutions, businesses in need of talent must come to recognize the unique skillset of this key group.
At the time of transition NCOs are most often forced into one of two buckets: a trade job or utilization of the GI Bill to attend institutions of higher education. This is a great fit for some, but not the right or best fit for many, and these should not be viewed as the only options. Despite their wealth of experience leading small teams in high pressure situations of unparalleled importance, when they transition we treat NCOs as if they are not yet ready for leadership in the private sector. In effect, when it’s time to take off the uniform and enter the civilian workforce, we ask them to start over. This creates the conditions for chronic underemployment and workforce disengagement, not to mention the social isolation of feeling as though your experience is neither understood nor valued by those you sought to protect. In my view, it is not only the veterans who need support in translating their skills; leaders in search of talent must strive to understand this untapped resource.
Over the past 18 months my team at Wild Bill’s Soda has leveraged the unique capabilities of NCOs to lead a national expansion of our small business, growing over 200% during that period. Our company’s success has been made possible by unleashing the leadership skills and operational experience of NCOs. High growth requires front-line leaders who are comfortable being uncomfortable; leaders who have a bias for action and who seek responsibility for their mission and their people. At Wild Bill’s those leaders are our NCOs.
Here’s one snapshot that represents the broader picture: Courtney Brown served four years as a United States Marine, leaving active duty with the rank of Corporal after serving as a squad leader in some of the heaviest fighting of the Afghan war. Upon returning home he struggled to find a job that could adequately support his young family, and ended up working two part-time, entry level jobs to make ends meet. Since joining Wild Bill’s he has been twice promoted in under one year, now serving as the General Manager for our Southeast Territory while leading a team of 10 employees who execute over 100 event-service engagements nationwide, responsible for managing the P&L of a seven-figure business unit.
How did we find Courtney? Luckily, I had the privilege of serving with him. I watched him lead his team in combat and I knew the unbelievable talent he was. But you don’t have to have served with these amazing young men and women to quickly understand how special they are. All that is needed is to seek them out and give them a chance to share their experience and help them translate their leadership ability in your organization. Look past the piece of paper that can never do justice to their accomplishments, because while we have come a long way in translating military skills through automated resume generators, there are no words that adequately capture what we have asked of these young leaders during the longest war in our country’s history.
As a young officer I learned more from my squad leaders than I ever could have hoped to teach them. They are sound operators, routinely responsible for leading teams in overcoming complex problems, making sound decisions with limited information in dynamic environments. Those skills are exactly what is needed in businesses across our nation. It’s time to put our NCOs to work as we seek to remain competitive on a global scale. They answered the call before, and given the opportunity they will lead us to victory again.