Veterans Can Bridge the Manufacturing Skills Gap

Picture over one and a quarter million people — roughly the population of Dallas or the entire state of Maine. Over the next five years, 1.25 million service members will leave military service and return to civilian life. 

Five short years ago, I was one of those veterans, and I still have the “scars.” My challenges with coming home and transitioning to the next stage of my life are all too recent and painful to remember. After serving my country in the Army for more than 30 years across Europe and Asia, I found my most significant obstacle back at home in Kansas — finding work that allowed me to use my skills and to make positive contributions to my employer and to society. 

Today, as the outreach strategies manager for Koch Industries — one of the country’s largest manufacturers and an employer of more than 67,000 in the United States alone — I know how important it is to recruit and retain employees who have served, among others whose experiences and skill sets enrich and improve our work every day. Besides, I have seen them in action, moving critical infrastructure needed to operate a city the size of Dallas to an austere and far off land, and put it back into operation within days. 

The skills gap only seems to be growing. More than 3 in 4 HR professionals who reported difficulty recruiting noticed skills gaps in job candidates, according to a February 2019 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. The gap is especially glaring in trades, middle-skilled positions and highly skilled STEM positions. Carpentry, plumbing, welding and machining, as well as data, science, engineering and medicine, are the abilities most lacking in the workforce. Two notable recommendations made by SHRM to address the skills gap: hire nontraditional sources such as military veterans and start training programs to help improve skills of new hires. 

Not only do veterans have the skills and abilities we are looking for in manufacturing, they also have the creativity and critical thinking necessary to adapt to new technology or to drive new innovations. They know the value of teamwork and focusing on maximizing individual contribution for the group’s success. Naturally, they perform well under pressure, and many have an unparalleled portfolio of world-class training, education, skills and experience that make them a perfect fit for many roles. Moreover, with the tremendous growth of career skills programs available to them before they transition, they are creating value immediately upon transition.

It’s not always easy to tailor retention efforts for veterans, many of whom have reported feeling disconnected from American society. Less than half of 1 percent of the U.S. population actively serves in the armed forces, and only about 6 percent of all living Americans have ever served. That disconnect can mean employers don’t understand how to leverage veterans’ skills. Veterans coming home face a rhythmic shift as well. Life gets less urgent, the pace more uneven, the hierarchy less regimented than the military for training, development, personal growth and promotion.

While these issues can lead to higher turnover rates among veteran populations, companies like Koch Industries are focused on mutually beneficial outcomes. The transition doesn’t stop with the hiring and onboarding process; it continues in the workplace. We work carefully to bridge the gap between employees of different experiences and skill sets, with an online guide, and by partnering with programs such as Hiring Our Heroes and Heroes MAKE America. We add in mentoring that first focuses on acclimation into the workforce, then shifts to growth and development opportunities for veterans to manage their transition. 

Every day, I’m proud to see veterans’ successes across our businesses, like Dominique Mitchell, who graduated from the 12-week Hiring Our Heroes Corporate Fellowship Program after spending 22 years in the U.S. Army. Through training and mentorship, Dominique was hired to work as a Human Resources Administrator for Georgia-Pacific and is one of the thousands of veterans who work at Koch companies. These are encouraging outcomes, and I am confident that there are even more men and women just like Dominique. 

These veterans are some of our best employees — adaptable, accountable, diligent and dedicated to creating value for their teams and the company. Their work benefits not only our companies, but also our customers, our communities and our country.


John C. Buckley, II is outreach strategies manager for Koch Industries. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel, serving as a Battalion Commander, Special Assistant to the Commander-in-Chief and a Combat Training Site Leader.

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