Traci Earls had a problem. She had been promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Kansas National Guard and needed to participate in a war fighter exercise at the same time she was being groomed to be general manager of a Cargill protein processing plant near Milwaukee.
Earls went to her civilian boss. “I feel bad that I have to be gone,” she told him.
“Don’t,” he replied.
In a country where companies sometimes pay lip service to military service, Minnetonka-based Cargill has set a national example for recruiting employees with military experience and supporting them. The Department of Defense just recognized the company as one of the 15 best in the nation for supporting active reservists and National Guard members. The secretary of defense picked Cargill and 14 others from a pool of more than 3,000 employee-nominated businesses.
The company does far more than the law requires, said Earls, who filed the winning nomination.
Earls, 44, not only got time off for the war fighter exercise, her boss suggested that she shift some training for her new job to Cargill’s Wichita office so that Cargill could pick up the airfare for every other monthly Guard drill in Kansas.
“This is not what everyone gets,” said Earls, who went to work for Cargill in 2010. “My peers are in awe.”
Cargill is among many companies that have geared up efforts to attract employees with military experience, said Chip Altman, a Navy vet charged with drawing veterans, and Guard and reserve members, into the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business.
Minnesota’s Xcel Energy, Walmart and Starbucks are among those placing an emphasis on military hiring. But Cargill, an agricultural processing and shipping giant, is certainly among those on the cutting edge, Altman said.
Too many employers are reluctant to let workers with military obligations take leadership roles, Earls said. Some appear begrudging about time off for reserve or National Guard duty, even though they must provide it.
“I know a lot of people who just get what the law requires, and then it’s like, ‘Oh great, you’re going away again?’ ” Earls said.
Cargill, meanwhile, pays the difference between a reservist or Guard member’s military salary while on active duty and her or his company pay. It has its own support network for military employees. But the company’s commitment to time off is as important as pay or in-house programs.
Service to country in an era of a protracted war on terror has made some employers leery of hiring people with military obligations. Jobless rates for veterans after the Sept. 11 attacks has become an ongoing source of concern. Attention to the problem from private employers and public policymakers has driven the national unemployment rate for post-9/11 vets from 12.1 percent in 2011 to 5.1 percent in 2016.
In a statement after the Defense Department award, Cargill CEO David MacLennan called on corporate leaders across the country to “share best practices” for hiring veterans. “We can do more to support and help ease the transition to civilian life and the business world,” he said.
Cargill put a major emphasis on military hires in 2013, formalizing and structuring what had been a fragmented approach across the agrigiant’s operations. The company hired Sheila Jessen, 21 and a veteran of the Air Force, and Army and Air National Guards, as a personnel recruiter in 2014. Her only job was to establish relationships with military groups and to find qualified applicants with military experience.
Carlson’s Altman said Cargill and others are doing this because they recognize that “people leave the military with great skills.” He talked about loyalty, the ability to work in groups and being familiar with large, complex organizations.
Unfortunately, those skills are not always expressed in ways that translate to corporate hiring regimes. So Cargill places military job candidates into a special diversity status to make sure they get looked at carefully. When she is not recruiting, Jessen spends her time shepherding military applicants through the hiring process. Because they’re used to pushing selflessly toward a common goal, people in the military may not send enough “I” messages in interviews, she said. They may be “opportunity blind” or speak in acronyms and terms that civilian hiring managers don’t understand.
“Sometimes there is a disconnect between civilian recruiters and those serving in the military,” Jessen said
Something as simple as a job title on a résumé can be the difference between a military applicant finding a civilian job and staying unemployed, Jessen noted.
“I look for military jargon in résumés,” Jessen said. “I say, ‘Let’s translate the job title so civilians can understand.’”
Otherwise, hiring managers may not “get it.”
Altman, who had decades of training and command responsibility in the military, tells a story of losing a job as he tried to move from the Navy to a major Minnesota corporation.
“I went through three sets of interviews. The first had six people on the panel, two who understood the military. The second had three on the panel with one who understood the military. The third interview, with the hiring authority, had absolutely zero experience with the military. Someone with five years of experience at a local business got the job instead of me.”
Cargill’s participation in American Corporate Partners (ACP) is designed to help level the playing field. ACP matches mentors from civilian companies with people on the verge of leaving active military duty. The mentorship, which may include explanations of corporate culture and mock interviews, can last up to a year. Cargill’s participants do not necessarily advise people who have applied for jobs at the company. But the program does, says Jessen, “allow our civilian employees to understand veterans.”
Cargill also operates its own military support group.
“With the global war on terror, a lot of employees are deployed again and again, and we need to make sure companies are supporting families,” said Robert Frias, who was just elected vice president of Cargill’s veterans support network.
In the active Army and reserves for 34 years, Frias rose to lieutentant colonel. He had two deployments to Afghanistan and one to Iraq. Yet Frias needed a mulligan in the interview process to get his job at Cargill in August 2013.
“It was the hardest professional change I have ever made,” he said. Frias, like many vets, was attracted to Cargill’s list of core principles:
Obey the law. Conduct business with integrity. Keep accurate and honest records. Honor business obligations. Treat people with dignity and respect. Protect information, assets and interests. Commit to being a responsible global citizen.
Frias wanted to do all of those things, but his first interviews “did not go well.” In some ways he was still thinking — and talking — a little too much like a soldier. He was proud of the positions he had earned defending the country, even if they sounded off-point to civilians.
It took the intervention of a manager with prior military service to get him a second chance — or, as Frias put it, “an opportunity to reexplain.”
Now, everyone understands. Cargill knows what Frias brings to his job. And Frias knows the kind of commitment his employer has made.
As he spoke, the 52-year-old military officer and civilian employment relations specialist had just returned from 24 days training with the Army reserve.
“My boss and her boss said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you back up to speed,’ ” Frias explained. “My peers took on my workload. This is the first company where I have worked where I feel completely at ease with whatever the Army throws at me.”
Just don’t ask him if it feels good to work for a company that accommodates his obligation to his country. “Accommodate sounds wrong,” Frias said. “They appreciate the service.”