3 reasons why companies don’t hire veterans

November 11, 2013, 10:00 AM UTC

FORTUNE — First Lady Michelle Obama has made veterans employment a signature cause. The powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce is backing a Hiring Our Heroes initiative that holds job fairs and workshops for military veterans. J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM) is leading a veterans hiring effort with 10 other companies dubbed the 100,000 Jobs Mission.

Against this backdrop, why does the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans continue to outpace the general unemployment rate by several percentage points? Most recently, it hit 10%, as compared with 6.8% among non-veterans, for the month of October.

“This is a high-level, big challenge that affects a large number of men and women in uniform and their spouses,” says Eric Eversole, a retired Navy JAG reservist and executive director of the Chamber’s Hiring Our Heroes program. “There’s a multitude of factors that impact our military service members and the veteran community.”

Negative stereotypes

First are the assumptions and stereotypes about members of the military that make some employers reluctant to hire them. About one in three employers consider post-traumatic stress disorder to be an impediment to hiring a veteran, according to a survey report by the Society for Human Resource Management.

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“There’s stigma attached to PTSD and traumatic brain injury and other hidden disabilities that people may assume soldiers have when they’re leaving the military,” says Nancy B. Adams, branch chief at the U.S. Army Warrior Transition Command. “They may always have that at the back of their mind.”

In fact, 7% of post-9/11 veterans are estimated to be experiencing PTSD, according to the U.S. Army. Adams notes that such trauma may be addressed through simple steps such as rearranging a desk chair to face the door. The average cost of accommodating an injured veteran is only $500, she says.

Employers may also believe that veterans, used to following orders, can’t take initiative and are too rigid, the SHRM survey revealed. But companies that go out of their way to recruit and hire veterans actually value their creative thinking and ability to solve unusual problems.

“In the military, there’s a lot of things you have to adapt to and overcome,” says Joe McFarland, a former Marine and president for the Western division of Home Depot (HD), which targets veterans in a dedicated recruitment effort. “You’re put in a lot of different situations intentionally through different types of training that help you to think on your feet, that prepare you for the unexpected.”

Mismatched or misunderstood skills

Hiring managers can easily understand a resume that shows a college degree in a related field and one entry-level job. Not so clear: what an ordinance specialist or petty officer can bring to a civilian employer.

Take Patrick Knott, who separated from his position as Marine Corps sergeant after two tours of duty because his wife was expecting their first child. “I didn’t bank on my artillery experience, unless I’m going to get into a Civil War reenactment troupe,” Knott says. “Most companies and employers want someone that came out of the Marine Corps because they know what they’re getting: the honor, the discipline, the sense of duty.”

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In interviews, he focused on those character traits, as well as his combat lifesaving skills and paramedic certifications, landing a job as a paramedic at the Pro EMS Center for MEDICS in Cambridge, Mass.

Another Marine veteran, Ryan Enriquez, took the organizational skills he developed following orders and leading a team in the military, and used them to land a project manager position at J.P. Morgan.  “It’s translating those skills so that it’s understandable on a resume,” Enriquez says.

Veterans who succeed in making their military experience relevant to civilian employers quantify their accomplishments and eschew military jargon and acronyms in favor of lay terms, often with the help of resources provided by the 100,000 Jobs Mission (which just doubled its goal and aims to hire 200,000 veterans by 2020), Hiring Our Heroes program, and similar organizations.

Fear of future deployments

Last but not least, many employers worry that by hiring a veteran, they may end up being short-staffed if the military reverses course and calls up former service members.

“Is this veteran going to be yanked from under me and sent to deploy?” is the question heard by Dan Goldenberg, executive director of the Call of Duty Endowment, a nonprofit that recognizes and funds organizations that put veterans into great jobs. “Most veterans, when they get out, they’re out. If they are in active reserves, they’re supposed to tell you.”

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In fact, when most veterans leave the military, they leave for good because they’ve made a decision to separate. With the current downsizing in the military, employers have little to fear.

As more veterans return from overseas and seek to enter the civilian workforce, advocates like Goldenberg will continue to work against these three factors. “A lot needs to be done to dispel the stereotypes,” he says. “Most vets are not damaged; they’re not heroes; they’re just good people who bring a lot of assets to the job.”