July | August 2017

Hiring Veterans, One at a Time

It was raining in Washington as the young Walmart store manager-in-training and I jumped into a cab. We were headed to meet a group of senior company executives for dinner to talk about a veterans event the next day at the White House. The trainee was nervous about sitting on stage at the White House and a little worried about feeling comfortable at the upcoming dinner.
To relax him, I made small talk and asked questions about his life. He quietly said, “After I finished high school, I worked for a few years to help put my sister through college, then I joined the Marines and went to Iraq. After about six years in the service, I got out and started job hunting. I sent more than 50 resumes out and wasn’t hearing from anyone. I was pretty discouraged. Finally, Walmart called and asked me to interview.”
Sitting in traffic, I was struck by what a tremendously decent person this is. How many times have you heard anyone say he worked to put a sibling through college? People work to put their children through college, not siblings. Then, after doing that, this quiet young man went to Iraq to defend his country. Following his time in the desert, he came back home with the modest assumption that a company would at least take a serious look at his resume.
That moment was when I understood that all most veterans want is a simple opportunity to work to build a new life when they take off the uniform. It isn’t really a complex concept. It’s now up to companies like Walmart to not only hire veterans but also drive national awareness that veterans make great employees and deserve the chance to transition back into civilian life with dignity and a paycheck.
Walmart announced in 2013 that it would hire 100,000 veterans over five years. The company also committed to guaranteeing a job offer to any veteran who had been honorably discharged from active duty in the past 12 months. Walmart is likely to hit that 100,000 mark in two years, rather than five. More than 8,000 of the nearly 100,000 men and women veterans the company has hired through this program already have been promoted.
With more than 1 million associates working in its U.S. stores, Walmart understands that not everyone leaving the service wants a career in retail, but everyone leaving the service deserves a job while they figure out what they want to do next.
With thousands of stores, logistics facilities and Sam’s Club locations spreading from Maine to California, Walmart’s primary need is for talent. A typical Walmart Supercenter manager oversees an operation with more than 300 associates and $80 million in annual sales. Feeding the talent pipeline is always a challenge.
The business case for hiring veterans is that veterans make great associates. At Walmart, we recognize veterans as high performing associates who understand how to manage large numbers of people and a complex supply chain. They also understand leadership and how to perform well under pressure.
As it undertook its commitment to hiring veterans, Walmart leaders learned a lot along the way. They worked to continue a program started several years earlier that guarantees a job in a new location to a
Walmart associate whose active duty spouse is transferred. Walmart put systems in place to have veteran associates hired through the program to mentor newly hired veterans. And Walmart hired Gary Profit, a dynamic, retired Army brigadier general who has been the company’s voice on the issue. Among other things, Gary has helped Walmart translate how specific military skills listed on a resume may convert to private sector employment.
Walmart also learned over time that employers can move the needle by keeping the issue visible both internally and externally. Walmart executives constantly talk about veteran hiring in speeches, at stakeholder events, on digital properties and at events across the country. The fact that Walmart hosts a large Veterans Day event is another reminder that the issue always has been a company priority.
While the hiring continues in stores, the Walmart Foundation announced in 2011 that it would grant $20 million to veterans’ causes by 2015. In 2014, the foundation committed another $20 million to be spent by 2019. This $40 million in much-needed funding goes to nonprofit organizations across the United States that are helping veterans with education, housing, employment and the transition back to civilian life.
Walmart approaches its foundation work differently than some companies. The company has a team of foundation experts who find programs that can make a difference, and they stay involved by tracking the outcomes of the work against larger goals defined by the foundation. Organizations like Goodwill and Swords to Plowshares are on the front line each day in dozens of cities using this money to help veterans find work. These organizations are helping brave men and women who, like the young man in the cab, merely want an opportunity to show what they can do.
When we finally made it through rush hour traffic and arrived at dinner that night in Washington, D.C., the young store manager trainee and the CEO of Walmart U.S. were making Marine vs. Navy jokes within five minutes of our arrival. Both the dinner and the event at the White House the next day went very well.
Veterans’ employment in the United States is certainly about large Walmart numbers like 100,000 hires or $40 million in foundation grants, but it’s also very much about a smaller number. It’s about one company giving an opportunity—and a chance to work—to one American veteran at a time.
Joe Quinn is senior director of public affairs and government relations for Walmart.