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Top Three Myths Some Employers Believe about Veterans

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
Wes O’Donnell, Contributor AMU Edge, Veteran U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force

Hiring managers and HR professionals often have misconceptions about the value veterans and military servicemembers can bring to an organization. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to veteran and speaker, Wes O’Donnell, about the three most common myths about veterans. Learn about the benefits of military service, how to translate military skills to the civilian workforce, and much more.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Wes O’Donnell, Director of Social Communities at American Public Education, Inc., and a veteran of the US Army and the US Air Force. And today our conversation is about the top three myths some employers believe about veterans. Welcome, Wes.

Wes O’Donnell: Yeah, thanks for having me, Bjorn.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Love having these conversations, love talking about the military. And so, let’s talk about the first myth, veterans initially joined the military because they couldn’t get into college.

Wes O’Donnell: You know, I hear this a lot. I often go and speak to companies about why hiring veterans makes sense from a business perspective. And I sometimes hear people join the military because they couldn’t get into college, they’re uneducated, this is their only option.

So, when you go join the military, you take a test called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or the ASVAB, and your score on that exam largely dictates what jobs are available to you in the military.

For instance, it takes a pretty high score to be a nuclear electronics technician in the Navy, but it doesn’t take a very high score to qualify for the infantry, or as I like to call us, high velocity projectile interceptors.

When I was in infantry basic training at Fort Benning, one of my fellow recruits had just graduated with a four-year degree from Harvard University in international relations. But I think this is the coup de grâce: According to federal data collected in the 2017 current population survey, 35% of post-9/11 veterans have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 32% of the general U.S. population. So, if anything, military and veterans are slightly more educated than their civilian counterparts.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is a great stat. I’ve heard this all my life too, that veterans initially joined the military because they couldn’t get into college. And it’s almost as if people are viewing them as a monolith. And it never helps when anybody views any group of people as a monolith because any group of people is extraordinarily diverse.

Besides the different armed forces, everybody goes into the military for different reasons. My dad went into the military for a different reason and people today go into the military, and this really shows that the reasons people go into the military, of course, which is an all-volunteer force, vary from person to person.

Wes O’Donnell: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I think it’s probably linked also to pop culture. We’ve seen the old from the Vietnam era, somebody who gets in trouble and the judge gives them the option go to prison or join the military. And so, I think the military just collectively has become sort of a, maybe it’s just a safety net for people that that’s the backup option for people that don’t have any other options. As you said, that’s definitely not the case.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s not. And, as a comparison, I can only describe it as there’s the old adage, “If you can’t do, you teach.” So, it really makes the teaching profession as if it’s a monolith of people who can’t do whatever they originally wanted to do and well now they’re just teaching. But much like the military, teaching is it really services the community and it’s one of those things that’s so important. And there’s nothing more important to a country than defending the country from a variety of different threats that exist out there.

Much like the military, teaching is a service in which you are literally helping educate everyone that future generation, including future people who are going to be in the military. And so, that myth is one of those that are out there. I think it’ll still be there because all myths do exist. I like that you included that stat, which shows that the people in the military actually have a higher preponderance of bachelor’s degrees or higher than the general public, which is absolutely wonderful. And so, the next myth we’re going to talk about is the military doesn’t teach transferable skills.

Wes O’Donnell: Another misconception that has kind of worked its way in and it assumes that somehow operating in a military environment is vastly different than operating in a business setting or in the civilian world, in a nonprofit. A number of organizations have developed a military skills translator that allows employers to understand veterans, really helps dial in and helps veterans find positions that are similar to what they did when they were on active duty.

So, just before our talk today, I visited’s translator, which asks what branch of the service, I put in Air Force and it asked my military job title. So, I put in surveillance radar journeyman. Immediately the system matches what I did in the Air Force to a number of similar civilian-equivalent jobs, quality control at Amazon, facilities manager at Aramark, maintenance supervisor Randstad Engineering just to name the top three. And there are over 50 on this list.

So, when I was serving in the Air Force, I worked on the radar system of the E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft. And it was those crucial electronic skills I attained there that landed me a job at Siemens Medical working on MRI machines and CT machines right out of the military. And, not to brag, but there were several companies that were knocking on my door that wanted those electronic skills at their company.

So, I think these forward-thinking companies and I can name a few: Intel’s a really good one, Home Depot, Amazon, dozens of others recognize the value that a veteran provides and really kind of dispel this myth that the military doesn’t teach transferable skills.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And again, it goes back to how it seems like some people view the military as a monolith. And there’s so many skills. I mean, just the sheer number of jobs that are in the military, from the Army to the Navy, to the Marines, to Coast Guard, to the Space Force, there is so many different jobs that exist that each of those jobs has a transferable skill.

Now, like we’ve talked Wes, knowing how to then talk to future employers say in the civilian market about what that skill means or how to describe it is difficult, but it’s something that with some reading and some training could easily happen.

What I’m looking right now is the AAC&U, the Association of American Colleges and University, a big organization, and it’s their value rubrics. And the value rubrics they have include critical thinking, ethical reasoning, lifelong learning, global learning, information literacy, inquiry and analysis, intercultural knowledge and competence, oral communication, problem solving, reading, teamwork, written communications. And I just listed three quarters of all their rubrics and all of those easily apply to every person who was in the military.

For example, intercultural knowledge, if you’re in the military, and if you are deployed somewhere besides the U.S., you have to know what the local population, what those people, what they care about, what they think. And then, even if you are in the military and say you were born in Utah and then you’re stationed in Georgia, it’s a different culture within the U.S., you have to know that. So, there’s so many different skills.

Ethical reasoning, the military doesn’t choose the conflicts they fight, but they have to then go through the critical thinking, the problem solving and the ethical reasoning to wage these conflicts in the best possible way that, obviously, hurts the fewest people while still accomplishing the goal. What do you think about all the skills at AAC&U and how they instantly apply to really every military, active military, and veteran?

Wes O’Donnell: Yeah, so you know, I think that list and those rubrics are extremely telling in that you have sort of identified a lot of the skills that are instantly applicable to pretty much anybody who serves in any role in any branch of the military.

My challenge really is hiring managers will typically hire what they know and they know the college experience. So, when faced with the choice between the fresh young grad out of college or the veteran who has just spent 10 years defending the country, they’ll choose the college graduate almost every time. I would love to incorporate that list that you just said when I speak to these organizations, just to show that all of these skills are coming into your organization when you hire veterans.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. I completely agree. And Wes, this brings me to our last myth, which is all veterans serve in combat.

Wes O’Donnell: Yeah. This one actually kind of took me by surprise here. As a veteran, it seems absurd, but there really is a misunderstanding of what role service members play in their jobs when they’re active duty or when they’re deployed, when they’re in the military.

So, by the numbers, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center, there are close to 1.4 million people serving right now in the U.S. Armed Forces. That means that only 0.4% of the U.S. population is active-duty military. And of that percentage, a staggeringly small percentage actually see combat.

And the reason is because the military isn’t just made up of frontline combat troops. There’s this massive support structure in place, the so-called tail-to-tooth ratio. And I think it was military historian, Joseph Bond that says that this tail-to-tooth ratio incorporates communications people to allow for a coordination and combined arms on the battlefield; there’s medical that provides a level of assurance to soldiers and returns experienced fighters back to the battlefield after they’ve been injured; logistics to keep a steady supply of fuel, ammo, food, water to frontline troops.
Take any of these things away, and the point of the spear becomes much less effective, maybe even inoperable. So, the sheer amount of people it takes to support one combat soldier means that the probability of you bumping into a combat veteran in a room full of veterans is surprisingly low.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, that’s completely true. It reminds me of some of the commentary that I’ve been listening to about the Ukraine-Russian war. And if you know the exact quote, please correct me where they’ve said “logistics win wars.” And totally makes sense because as we see the Russian ineffectiveness, I guess I could say in Ukraine, is them rushing with a point of their spear with no support and they’re constantly getting bogged down and the Ukrainian defense, which of course has been absolutely amazing, seems to be supported by a lot of logistics.

And so, without those logistics, without good rations, without water, how effective can any combat troop be? They’re there trying to do their job, very difficult, obviously life threatening job. And if you don’t have the ammo, if you don’t have, even especially the intelligence, potentially lives are lost for no reason, an ineffective loss of lives.

Wes O’Donnell: Yeah. We could talk for six hours about Ukraine and Russia. I’ve written pretty critically of the dumpster fire that is the modern Russian military right now. And I think the irony is that had Putin stopped short of invasion, his military would still be considered a threat, and we would still be worried about the Red Army and what he’s shown by his war of choice and Ukraine is that his military is a paper tiger because they just don’t have the logistics capability like you said, they don’t value non-commissioned officers in their ranks the way the West does.

That’s why so many Russian Generals are getting killed, is because they have to lead so much farther out front because they don’t give their NCOs, their mid-level enlisted folks, the authority to make decisions on their own and to manage the troops’ combat effectiveness. So, there’s a number of reasons why, but that logistics piece is so huge and you have tanks completely running out of fuel, you have troops not getting fed. And then when you leave the troops up to their own devices, they start committing more crimes, which is exactly, tragically, what’s happening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And just like you were saying, I mean, just the amount of equipment that goes into a military. I was watching a video about, I believe Lithuania, and right there on the border with Russia, the part of NATO Lithuania used to be part of, the USSR used to be part of the old Russian empire. After the fall of the old USSR, they became independent as any country, I think would want to that had been part of a larger country that, I’ll just say, didn’t respect the wishes of a minority population.

And looking at how they invest their money and a good percentage, about 25% or more goes into literally just logistics and equipment. And that’s the kind of investments you need to ensure that your military is going to be effective because it’s not always about the biggest gun, the newest gun, and things like that, it’s about ensuring that those guns have ammo, or like you said, in Ukraine, those trucks have tires that aren’t falling apart.

Wes O’Donnell: Yeah, absolutely. And just to put the icing on the cake, I think it’s worth noting that even if you weren’t a frontline combat soldier, even if you weren’t somebody who has the coveted, what we used to call the CIB, the combat infantryman’s badge, every job is just as important in the military. If you’re driving a truck, that is just a crucial piece of the machinery that’s needed for the U.S. to continue its foreign policy.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, I completely agree. And you know, it just really lends to the fact that there’s so many jobs out there in the military. And again, it’s not about pointing a gun down range to try to take out your enemy. Designing an intelligence, there’s so many skills and so many jobs that are extraordinarily complex besides going into cyber warfare and drones, jobs that are so highly technical. Or even just the basic upkeep of every piece of equipment out there from tanks to the fighter jets to the missiles that can fly halfway across the world and actually hit the target they intend to. There are some examples of them trying to hit in their aid of Syria in the Syrian civil war. But some of those missiles falling into Iran, I believe, that is a huge logistical and technological failure, which could have inadvertently started a separate war.

Wes O’Donnell: Yeah, I completely agree. And just to bring it back to those hiring managers who are looking at veterans and who are thinking that every veteran might have served in combat, maybe we don’t want a combat veteran at our company. We’re concerned about PTSD, we’re concerned about things like this. The combat veteran, as Americans, we’ve had great success at reintegrating these troops back into society. I just think that if you confront your own biases and you bring in a veteran into your organization and just have a chat with him or her, then I think you’ll find that it’s somebody who can definitely be a valuable addition to the team.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And. just like you said, typically people hire what they’re familiar with. And to create a diverse, interesting intellectually diverse team, it requires you to go beyond yourself. And so, yeah, I completely agree to really consider everybody in front of you, consider veterans who have served their country in a variety of different roles, including combat roles because what they can bring to a team is potentially invaluable. And absolutely wonderful conversation today, Wes. Any final words?

Wes O’Donnell: I would say that if you are interested in hiring veterans or bringing a veteran onto your organization, just be cognizant of some of the myths that are floating around out there and make sure you’re asking the right questions. And I think what you’ll find is that that veteran candidate will be a super valuable addition to any organization.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And today we were speaking with Wes O’Donnell about the top three myths some employers believe about veterans. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and thank you for listening

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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