When David Widdifield got out of the Army in 1993, he had two job offers. One was from Pizza Hut. The other was as a truck dispatcher.
He took the latter. The former Army officer proceeded to forge a successful career as a supply-chain manager and educator. Today he directs the Masters in Business Logistics Engineering program at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. But Widdifield is hoping that the latest crop of veterans and retiring soldiers will have a much broader choice of supply-chain jobs in the private sector than he had.
Given the expected drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the issue is more pressing than it's been in years. Widdifield estimates the annual total of U.S. Army soldiers returning to the civilian workforce at 54,000. Now add in all those qualified logisticians leaving the Air Force, Navy and Marines. That's a substantial pool of experienced individuals, at a time when employers are complaining of a talent shortage in the supply-chain realm.
Up to now, the problem has been one of companies doing very little hiring of any kind. Finally, though, we're seeing a gradual easing of the national unemployment rate, as companies begin freeing up some of the cash they've been hoarding in the period following the Great Recession of 2008.
The question now is: Whom should they be hiring? For businesses still obsessed with keeping down costs, the tendency might be to go for youth and a relative lack of experience. That bodes well for recent graduates of supply-chain and logistics programs. But the crop of returning soldiers offers a tempting alternative - one that might not be as expensive as companies would assume.
While the education level of returning soldiers varies, "most are ready to be dropped into a job," says Widdifield. They are likely to have had at least two years of college, if not earned a full bachelor's degree. While in the service, many acquired deep experience in moving large numbers of people and materiel between continents and within chaotic theaters of conflict.
The military has approached Ohio State and other universities about setting up master's programs that are geared to the needs of returning veterans. Other schools to have responded include Central Michigan University, the University of Maryland, Baylor University and Penn State. Ohio State expects to have its first group of former soldiers ready for the civilian sector by 2013.
Obviously, a skilled candidate with an advanced degree will cost a company more than somebody fresh out of grad school. As Widdifield points out, however, military types aren't accustomed to getting paid that much in the first place. Depending on their level of education and job description, they might accept anywhere between $55,000 and $84,000. The first figure, he says, is "the going rate in Columbus [Ohio] for a DC supervisor." The second is the approximate starting salary for a graduating MBA.
On top of that, the typical veteran with supply-chain or logistics experience is likely to be able to show leadership, take orders, focus on a goal, work long hours, adapt to changing conditions and function in an environment of chaos. (Not to mention be able to cope with a complex and deeply irrational bureaucracy.)
There's plenty of management material in that pool. In addition to the winding down of hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan (one hopes), a new quality-control program by the Army is resulting in the release of many mid-level managers who are approaching retirement age. They include full colonels, lieutenant colonels and even some brigadier generals. Widdifield says those individuals should have a fairly easy time finding civilian jobs. More problematic are the prospects of soldiers from the enlisted ranks, along with junior and non-commissioned officers.
A number of companies are already showing interest. They include Exel, J.B. Hunt, CSX, Limited Brands, Crane Worldwide and Hellman Worldwide Logistics. But many more need to step up.
Efforts in most quarters are still in the early stages. A strong network between the military and private sector, matching job candidates with potential employers, has yet to be put into place. A big step in that direction was the creation in 2008 of the Employer Partnership of the Armed Forces, spearheaded by the Army Reserve and National Guard. It offers a web portal which guides job seekers in finding careers and companies within their areas of interest. The site includes a resume-building tool which helps to translate their experience into civilian terms.
That's no easy task. For all the lip service many businesses give to veterans, they often don't value - or can't quantify - the talents that they bring to the job. That's one reason why the unemployment rate among veterans leaving active service over the past decade stood at 11.5 percent in 2010, versus 9.4 percent for non-veterans. (The number is much higher for those aged 18 to 24 - 30.4 percent in October of last year.)
The responsibility falls on business, academia and the military to capitalize on the opportunity presented by all of those highly skilled men and women coming home from the battlefield. Granted, there are challenges to be addressed. Even the most capable military officer has to adjust to the business world, where the mere issuance of an order is no guarantee of results. "It's more of a collaborative environment," Widdifield says. "You have to learn how to motivate without authority sitting on your collar."
Anyone accustomed to a strict chain of command can learn a different way of managing people. But the logistics skills that a former soldier offers to an employer are invaluable. Business needs to step up and take advantage of this vast peacetime army of supply-chain professionals.
- Robert J. Bowman, SupplyChainBrain
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