When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, visited the university where I work in human resources, he called us "veteran friendly.” How did West Virginia University get that reputation? And why might other colleges want to get the same reputation not only with regard to students, but employees?
Today, higher education, like most employers, is concerned about the mass exodus of the Baby Boomers from the workplace through retirement. At the same time, we are called on to make our workforces increasingly diverse, all the while seeking talented applicants and facing limited recruitment budgets.
Enter the U.S. military.
More than 200,000 veterans are expected to transition into the American workforce annually as the military begins a systematic draw-down of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When their service is completed, or as they continue as reservists stateside, they will have proven experience, desirable skills and an educational foundation to offer colleges and universities who take the initiative to meet with veterans as they plan their future. Veterans are highly suited to work in a university setting because about 81 percent of jobs performed in the military have an equivalent position at a university, according to Lisa Rosser, consultant with The Value of a Veteran,  a consulting firm. Through Lisa, we recognized quickly that because we need talent in finance, accounting, IT, human resources, transportation, security, engineering, operations, facilities and medical specialties, the military was a logical and cost-effective recruiting venue.
In the military as in the university, workers handle accounting, communications, food services, computer tech support and physical plant maintenance while also working with budget constraints of public agencies. So a veteran is someone who brings valuable skills to whatever employment he or she seeks.
Veterans already have a firm educational footing with 90 percent of enlisted members holding a high school diploma or GED, and more than 85 percent of officers holding at least a bachelor’s degree. They have already undergone a vetting process through background checks and drug testing to enter and remain in the military and some have undergone security clearance screening.
The military is an ideal place to find diverse employees. Women make up 15 to 25 percent of the membership of each service, and more than 41 percent of the military overall are minorities.
Veterans are in an applicant pool that comes with a built-in support system, as the G.I. Bill provides for their education and relocation following deployments. The more than 200 Veteran Transition Centers in the country provide job fairs without charging employers to attend. The U.S. Department of Labor offers 10 persuasive reasons for employers to hire veterans. Here are some of the qualities they believe make veterans good hires: leadership skills, teamwork, integrity, respect for procedures, a global perspective on technical trends, health and safety standards, efficient performance under pressure, an accelerated learning curve, the endurance to triumph over adversity, and ability to work in a diverse environment.
In return, universities offer veterans inclusive communities that provide them with services much like those they received in the military. Institutions of higher learning often have sports and fitness centers, childcare centers and dining services. And they have a common sense of identity. For example at WVU, although a minority of students wear military garb, all share the university’s common colors of gold and blue; and an esprit de corps, important to many veterans, is evident whatever we wear.
We know we are a good match with military personnel. However, this partnership can be complex and requires teamwork between many university departments. At my university, we made outreach to our veterans a priority, hired a consultant whose expertise was recruiting military personnel, and launched a veterans summit in the spring of 2009. The summit brought together key university groups such as academic affairs, student affairs, WVU hospitals, the WVU Division of Human Resources and the Office of Social Justice.
WVU now has more than 425 veteran employees and more than 500 student veterans among its population of more than 8,000 faculty and staff and nearly 29,000 students. And we want more. To get there, we are continuing to take an active approach in attending recruitment events, visiting experts on veteran transitioning, keeping an active cooperation between administration and veterans groups on campus and monitoring our progress.
Here are some of the ways we’ve worked to recruit and retain veterans:
- We participated in veteran job fairs in Virginia and Pittsburgh, met with transition staff from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State and increased partnerships with veteran organizations in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs as we seek to build relationships that we hope will result in more veteran hires.
- WVU employment recruiters have been trained to interpret the military résumé to be able to more readily recognize needed skills in veterans. Financial aid representatives, student recruiters and admissions counselors will also receive training on working with veterans. The training enables these university personnel to understand how military jobs match with our hiring needs and classifications as well as what military certifications and credentials mean. It helps key university employees understand the differences between officer and enlisted grades and what levels of responsibility and salary expectations correspond to each.
- The student employment office offers job search assistance to veterans and disabled student veterans to help them find part-time or summer jobs while enrolled as students at WVU.
- WVU’s employee relations unit is welcoming home deployed university staff by presenting them with certificates of appreciation on their return to West Virginia.
- We created one of the first human resources military transitioning websites in higher education. 
While recruiting veterans to join our staff, we concurrently work to attract veteran students. The university welcomes veteran students through a website  and a university-employed veterans' advocate who addresses their particular needs as students. He informs them of how to join the student veterans group and about veterans classes that provide an easier transition from the battlefield to the classroom. These efforts have attracted attention on a national level. “G.I. Jobs” magazine named WVU a 2010 Military Friendly School in the fall of 2009, and Admiral Mullen chose Morgantown and WVU as a site for one of his select visits on a “Conversation with the Country” tour to promote veteran integration.
Another important step in our efforts is to share with other universities ways in which they can benefit from hiring veterans. As a part of that, Lisa Rosser and I presented a segment on hiring veterans at the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources’ Midwest and Western conferences entitled “From Camouflage to Campus: The hidden benefits of adding military veterans to your workforce.” Our goal was to challenge our colleagues’ perceptions about the skills and talents of today’s military and why we believe it is a best practice for HR professionals to build the veteran recruiting pipeline for their college recruitment campaign.
The first step a university should take in this effort is to create internal strategies that promote the hiring of veterans and then form networks with external veteran organizations, including state agencies, the U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard Employee Partnership Initiative, vocational rehabilitation and employment offices, groups such as Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Wounded Warrior Project, Student Veterans of America, and ROTCs. Employers can also advertise on military job bulletins, direct prospective veteran employees to internal success stories posted online and attend job fairs to cover several points of entry where veterans would be seeking jobs.
It’s a different way of viewing the employment market than is the norm for higher education, but due to the country’s needs and our own, making active efforts to include veterans shouldn’t be optional.
When we look at former and active members of the military, we see leaders, problem solvers, decision makers, and managers. And we see them working and studying at our university.
April Warner, 32, operated a telephone relay station in Iraq for the U.S. Army earlier in the decade. She’s now an accounting assistant for WVU Extension’s 4-H. She says she applies everything she learned in the Army to her civilian life. “I live my life by making sure that I’m on time and early and doing things that need to be done,” Warner said. “The Army taught me basically that anything worth doing is worth doing well."
William Conner, 26, uses the alertness he learned in Iraq as a U.S. Army sergeant to patrol WVU as a campus police officer. Both jobs have rank structures and promote leadership skills and discipline. “What I do now is so close to what I did in the Army,” he said. “I already knew what to expect and what was going on.”
Conner continues as a reservist and appreciates that WVU offers 30 paid days of military leave so he doesn’t have to use personal days to train for protecting his country. “I plan on making my career here,” he said.
In the months and years ahead, WVU looks forward to working with its community – Morgantown – and surrounding communities to build a holistic model that focuses on education, employment and healthcare needs of returning veterans.
Trisha Gyurke is director of employment services in the Division of Human Resources at West Virginia University.