Well, Ben Bernanke gave a speech on Monday stating, amongst many other things, that there does not seem to be a direct economic benefit to serving in the military. We, as veterans can take one of two approaches (I’m deliberately ignoring the approach of apathy, because, if that’s the route you’re taking, then you probably haven’t read this far): anger or contemplation. I’ll choose the second because I’m in a good mood. Bernanke’s statement makes for a good click-bait headline of “Bernanke Says There’s No Benefit to Military Service”, but that sells us all short. Bernanke was looking at data that compares economic outcomes and he was looking at it like an economist, which means there’s no emotion involved and it looks at things from a very high level. He misses some highly important points, but he also touches on, but fails to fully explore (because that wasn’t the point of what he was there to do and these are big subjects) on some failings of the military, civilian employers, and well, us veterans.
First off, I would say that many of the great men and women I served with did not have the option to go to college at 18. For these soldiers, especially those who made the most of their GI Bill benefits, I would venture that they are much better off than if they had incurred the debt associated with taking a chance at college. I’ve seen some of my soldiers use their GI Bill to start and truly grow their careers; I’m not sure if the people they were when they walked into the recruiting station at 18 years old could have done that. I know that I still look back at the person I was in high school and am thankful for the discipline and maturity that the Army taught me, knowing that, if I had joined my friends in civilian college, I very likely would have ended up falling in with the wrong crowd and suffered for it. In this regard, the military offers an unparalleled opportunity. For example, my father was a poor Panamanian kid with over a dozen brothers and sisters. He was adopted at 13 by a relative in New York and went on to attend NYU on an ROTC scholarship. He ended up serving 28 years in the Army, retiring as an infantry colonel. He then went on to build a civilian career leveraging his military experience and is now happily double-retired. I know that, for him, military service was a tremendous step up from what his prospects were as a black first-generation immigrant. I highly doubt that the same would be the case if he had gone to college without ROTC assistance or without a military career to follow.
Secondly, I read his comments as an indictment of our civilian corporations. Companies, by and large, do not know what to do with veterans. While some may harbor concerns about mental stability, I believe it is much more a case of not knowing how to make the most of a veteran’s experience in order to further the company and/or an inability to see how a veteran can fit into a corporate culture. They may not understand what a 28-year old E-5 or E-6 (or higher or lower…or officer) has done and can do. These men and women are the backbone of the Army (I’ll try to speak to the branch I know best) and are capable of leading men and women doing hard work in difficult situations. They can think and operate independently. They can learn new skills and they can teach others to do the same. I will venture to say that that is not always the case with a 28-year old who went to college for four years and has been in the work force for six. There are many cases where companies are able to bring in veterans and give them the opportunities they need to really shine. There are also companies who have failed miserably to bring in veterans and help them transition. There’s a lot of literature out there about how to incorporate Millennials into the workforce; just as with that demographic, hiring managers need to know what kind of individual they’re bringing in and how to best make that individual part of the team.
Now, while I say that companies may not understand what veterans can do and should work to realize that there’s this amazing talent pool out there that they can tap into, I also want to point out that, part of Bernanke’s message is (or should be) that veterans have to get out there and sell themselves. This is hard, I’ll admit. It took me 6 months to turn my “crap I did” list into a civilian resume. Then I took it to some civilian friends and they said, “eh, it’s good, but you have to demilitarize it”. I’ve heard veterans say things like, “well, companies should learn what the military language I use in my resume means.” Wrong. Dead wrong. What that says is “I’m unwilling to put forth the effort to get this job, but give it to me because #SupportTheTroops.” The hardest things I did with my resume were 1) to delete “scout platoon leader” and replace it with “General Manager”, and 2) put my platoon leader time into an area that was about a quarter of my executive officer time. The things you enjoyed the most in the military and were most proud of may not be the things that really sell you and showcase what you can bring to a company. Knowing how to call for fire or call in airstrikes will never trump your experience as a Unit Movement Officer or NCO. Sad, really sad, but true. Veterans need to know how to translate their experiences, highlight the impacts they’ve had, and showcase their work in ways that will resonate with people who have no idea what a VS-17 panel or 2062 are. Unfortunately, veterans receive inadequate training on this aspect of transition, which leads me to my next point.
Bernanke’s most stinging words were leveled at the Army, and rightfully so. He said that the military, and Army in particular, uses misleading advertising to drive recruiting. We all have that story…mine involves a scout who told the recruiter he wanted to work with computers. “Well, scouts use computers,” was the recruiter’s reply. That’s not on recruiters…well, that one is, but we all understand the pressures that they are under to drive numbers. More importantly, the Army fails to follow through on many promises and sets its soldiers up for failure. The Army is not focused on preparing soldiers for transition, it’s focused on training soldiers for the fight. As a result, medics don’t have certifications required to do a fraction of the work they did in uniform, mechanics that rebuilt multi-million dollar armored vehicle engines and transmissions don’t have certifications needed to do that kind of work in the civilian world, and so on. We need to promise training that has parity with the civilian world and to follow through with that. We need to create opportunities for soldiers to make the most of their training as well. My soldiers could never take college prep classes or higher education assistance because we worked our tails off preparing for deployments or recovering from them. I realize that the DoD has other places it would rather put its money, but I am a firm believer that there is no greater recruiting tool than an educated and successful veteran who can speak to young Americans who are interested in service about how his or her military time left them a better person, better equipped to do battle in the civilian workforce. We need to do more to help transitioning soldiers be successful brand ambassadors through education and assistance.
Looking at the raw, aggregate data, I’m sure that Bernanke is right: on average, 28-year old college graduates are economically better off than 28-year old recently separated veterans. While I’d like to see if the data set was normalized for economic and geographical differences prior to college or military entrance, I fear that he has some valid points. Companies need to be educated on what veterans can offer and how to make the most of their experience, veterans need to learn and focus on showing what they can do for civilian companies, and the military needs to work harder to prepare veterans for civilian service. As it stands, his words do nothing to encourage America’s youth to serve their country through the military. I can only hope that we can apply the truth behind his comments to turn that around.
Want another take on Bernanke's speech? Read You Wasted Your Time in the Military?