I just had the opportunity to interview some recently returned veterans for a hardware engineering job at our company. I had never interviewed a veteran before, so I called a former colleague, Tim Franey.
Tim was the vice president of operations for laser manufacturer Lightwave Electronics. A veteran himself, Tim used to staff our manufacturing line with vets. He would say that vets have a lot of discipline about following processes, and if you’re about to run out of parts, they’ll tell you. Most engineers, on the other hand, like to fiddle and change things. Tim used to joke he had to throw the engineers off the assembly line to make it run properly. Tim was known for going down to San Diego and recruiting right on the base, so I knew he’d be able to prep me, a civilian, to make the most of this opportunity.
Here is what I learned from Tim. It was incredibly helpful.
You need to translate a vet’s military experience into civilian vocabulary.
It’s easy to get lost in the acronyms and jargon that are unique to the military. Even beyond language, it may take a bit of work to draw parallels between military experience and the skills needed in the civilian world. Engineers in the military get excellent training and experience, but may not know how to explain that to civilians like me. Tim’s advice was to try to help the candidates bridge that gap through discussion.
One approach is to ask the job candidate what they did on a daily basis while they were in the military. What was an ‘average’ day like? If he or she was an engineer, what were they fixing or building? If they were working in supply chain management, what were they purchasing, and what challenges were they facing? Once you get into the nuts and bolts of what their day was like, it’s easier to see how their skills could transfer to your business.
A lot of people don’t make this effort. I think that’s why we hear so much about vets having trouble finding jobs when they come home from the service.
If you did training, what kind? Hands-on? Classroom? Out-of-manual?
Teaching requires so many useful skills: a thorough understanding of the material being taught, the ability to communicate effectively, and a sense of whether students are truly absorbing the material or merely nodding their heads. Digging into a candidate’s teaching experience can reveal a lot about their personality.
How many times did you say “but, Sir”?
Ask this question. This is my all-time favorite piece of advice from Tim. You will have all kinds of interesting conversations if you ask about times when a candidate had to question orders, especially in a war zone. Navigating normal office politics is child’s play compared to what a commander in the field faces when he or she knows an order isn’t right.
One candidate told me he realized the convoy routes being chosen for civilian contract truckers went through some very dangerous areas. He took the initiative to re-route those convoys, undoubtedly saving lives.
You start learning about someone’s character really fast when you start talking about this stuff.
Why did you join the military? Why do you want to leave the military?
These are also good questions to ask, especially if someone has had a long military career and is transitioning to civilian life. I also like to know what a candidate most loved about being in the military. That gives me some insight into whether a radical change in his or her work environment will be a good thing, a shock, a relief, or something altogether different.
I did have to be a bit open-minded. Perhaps not surprisingly, I couldn’t find squat on some of my candidates on social media sites. After all, when you work for the military on issues of a sensitive nature, a social media presence isn’t encouraged. I had to look beyond the usual approaches to vetting and get back to basics-;solid interviews.
We are a small company, and there isn’t anywhere to hide when things don’t go as planned. We value accountability and discipline. I’m thinking the rest of us could learn a thing or two from our colleagues in the service.