Enlisting Veterans into the Workforce

Enlisting Veterans into the Workforce

Veterans have shown their country dedication and commitment. So how do employers return the favor? Michael Weiss, an HR Account Representative at Xenium, joins us to discuss workplace tactics that can help veterans thrive and succeed in the workforce. We’ll talk about the many skills veterans bring to the workplace, how employers can support reintegration efforts and the ways employers and coworkers can support veterans emotionally as they continue their transition back to civilian life.

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Run Time: 30:13

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Brandon Laws: Hey, welcome back for another episode of the Human Resources for Small Business Podcast. I have to say I’m really excited for this conversation today. I have Michael Weiss. We call him “Mike” at the office here. He’s at Xenium. He’s an HR Account Rep. And more importantly, he’s a veteran. He served some time and he’s back in the workforce. I mean, he has been back in the workforce for a while.

We were talking offline about his story and were like, “This would be an interesting topic. I don’t really ever hear anybody talking about veterans getting back to work and what employers can do.” So we’re going to just have a conversation and talk all about that.

Mike, it’s awesome to have you on the podcast.


Michael Weiss: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Thanks for having me, Brandon. I’m really excited.

Brandon: Yeah. So give us some background. What branch of the military did you serve in? How many years? When did you get back in the workforce?

Michael: I entered the Air Force 2007, Security Forces. So I focused on military police type duties. Deployed two times to Iraq and got out in December of 2011. I finished my degree shortly right after that and then got back in the workforce pretty immediately in 2012. So I’ve been working, trying to build my career ever since.

Michael Weiss, HR Account Rep at Xenium

Brandon: What was the moment where – when you left the Air Force, getting back in the work force – you sound like you went to college. You went to school probably to go develop some skills. What was that whole thought process? Did you want to jump right into the workforce or were you like, “No, I need to get more education”?

Michael: Well, yeah. So I did want to finish my degree. I started before I enlisted. So that was already a goal I had. But getting back in the workforce was something I definitely wanted to do. But knowing what it was I wanted to do and how my skills from the military were going to help me with that, was kind of – well, I didn’t know where to go from there.

So I figured going to school would not only help buy me some time, but help me kind of find out what is it I want to do after the military. Because there wasn’t really a whole lot of time to focus on that.

Brandon: I don’t know if you were in a state of panic like most people when they get out of college? ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do with my life.’ Maybe some people have a general area of study. But you were in the Air Force and then seemingly you’ve probably developed a bunch of skills that you’re not sure if they even translate to the workforce. But you didn’t really know what you wanted to do.

Michael: Right.

Brandon: Because what you’ve been doing is so drastically different than anything that you’re going to probably do in like an office environment like you’re in now.

Michael: Right.

Brandon: So where did you start talking with people? What was the whole thought process behind “Here are the skills that I have. Here’s where I might want to go. Here’s the education”? Just lay that out for me.

Michael: Yeah. Well, the support system, number one, was going to be who I went to first. Family, friends. Kind of what do you think I’m good at? So there was some of that personal support. And the military did help a little bit as far as the reintegration transformation back in the workforce.

They have this program called “TAPS”. I don’t remember what it stands for, so don’t ask. Yeah. But it’s supposed to help you kind of reintegrate and find what your skills are. So you may do things like surveys. What are you good at?

Brandon: Like an assessment of some sort to figure out. OK.

Michael: To be honest, it’s something that reminds me more of like a guidance counselor in a high school.

Brandon: Yeah.

Michael: Fill this out. Here’s what we think you would be good at.

Brandon: And it spits out some – like here are some general career areas that you should go for.

Michael: Right, right. But I really didn’t know what or where I was going to be. I was stationed in Idaho. I knew I wanted to come back here to Oregon with my family. So I had to first figure out where I was going to live. Am I going to stay in Idaho and finish school there? So once I kind of figured out where I was going to be, then I could figure out my next step as far as the workforce.

Brandon: When you think about when you were serving, and then you get out. You’re sort of going through those profiles. You’re talking with people, your inner circle. You’re considering going back to school. Did you ever look at it like the Air Force provided me, or I developed, these types of skills while I was serving? But now I need to go get X amount of more skills or I need to enhance these skills to bring out the best version of myself, to enter the workforce. What did you sort of think about from that perspective?

Michael: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think there are a lot of things that just serving in the military, no matter what you do, who you are, having that experience, you’re going to come out of it with certain skills. Now, how those skills might translate and apply to a job specifically, that might be where, as an individual you need to figure that out. But there are probably a handful of things, I would say in general, that most people leave the military embodying these skills and traits, or your experience is going to include things like having the perspective of working towards something higher, a greater goal.

So my position as an MP, I obviously had my own individual skills. But I understood that I was serving the military. My higher purpose was protecting our country and our allies. So having that perspective…

Brandon: That’s an interesting one because it’s funny. We – especially in the office environment, just in today’s business world – we always think of a mission-driven business. And if you align your employees around those types of things, you’re probably going to have a more productive and happy workforce.

Michael: Right.

Brandon: And it’s really hard to stack up the mission of a company versus the mission of the military, because in the military you’re serving for people’s freedoms, for something so grandiose that it’s almost hard to comprehend sometimes. How does that translate to – you’ve done that. You’re serving for other people, for their freedoms, all that. Safety, security, whatever.

Now you’re going to come into the workforce where you’re coming into an organization that’s seemingly mission-driven, but on such a smaller scale.

Michael: Right. You’re right in the way that it is a smaller scale. But it’s still very similar – because it’s still a scale. When you enlist in the military, you take an oath and that’s essentially your contract with that position. When you enter the workforce, you’re doing the same thing. You’re accepting an offer letter. You’re putting your name on applications, saying I want to work for that company.

So individuals need to understand that by doing that, you are committing to that higher goal. Now, your position may not directly align with it in your eyes, but understanding that each position is equally important, because without them, that company is not going to succeed from the bottom up. Someone you may view at the bottom, say the receptionist, is extremely important to a business because if those calls are not getting answered or routed, that business is not going to succeed.

Veterans, I feel, understand the need to commit to a higher goal and mission.

Brandon: Yeah. So it’s safe to say that those who have served – and they’re so aligned with that grandiose purpose and mission – that when they come into the workforce, they’re likely to be more receptive to a mission-driven organization, right? As long as they believe what the organization believes.

Michael: I feel they will. I strongly feel so.

Brandon: We talked about you a little bit. Now talk about some of the skills that you think are developed in the military, that are very useful in the workplace.

Michael: Yeah. Well, being in the military, it’s a very structured environment.

Brandon: Yeah, yeah.


Veterans, I feel, understand the need to commit to a higher goal and mission.

Michael: So –

Brandon: So you follow rules.

Michael: You follow rules. You understand that there is a structure in place, first and foremost. So I feel having that organization and understanding of structure is important. Sacrificing your own benefit for the benefit of others, I feel, is something that you develop as well.

Brandon: Like the team?

Michael: The teamwork. Yeah, building the team, understanding you’re not going to get through this alone. You can. You might. But that’s certainly not going to make the company more successful and that’s not going to help your partner sitting next to you.

So some sort of personal sacrifice for the benefit of your coworkers, your teammates, the company.

Self-discipline as well. Another thing I think you develop in the military is that you’re courteous of people’s time. There’s the saying that we all are very familiar with. Hurry up and wait. We rush to everywhere. We literally rush.

Brandon: Just to stay there and wait for the commander.

Michael: Exactly. But – we would rather be an hour, two hours, a day early than a minute late because being late is just holding up everybody. So that’s something I feel –

Brandon: Being on time, being –

Michael: Yeah.

Brandon: Yeah. I mean that’s such a valuable skill.

Michael: You know, and ending appointments on time, respecting that other people have that time value as well.

Brandon: What about communication? To me that’s something that comes up all the time. Our most downloaded podcasts are communication-based. So I get that in the workplace, it’s such a big issue. What kind of skills are developed from a communication standpoint? Probably direct communication is something that comes up.

Michael: Yeah, very direct communication. One of the biggest things I think when you talk about communication is listening and you are forced to become a listener in the military.

Brandon: Do you have to like recite back what your superior officers are saying? What kind of things would come up to where you’re like – when you say “forced,” give me an example of that.

Michael: Oh, even starting just from basic military training. Not speaking unless spoken to and starting very basic, only saying what you’re allowed to say. You know, reciting on command. Those kind of communications and understanding that whatever comes out of your mouth is not only – does not only reflect you. But it reflects the situation.

So you need to only communicate in the situation when it’s appropriate. But also understand that you need to listen. Talking is not listening. And listening, number one, to your superiors will be the best way for you to be successful.

Brandon: When you think about yourself the way you are in the business world now, so you work for an HR consulting company at Xenium, right? So you’re working with clients. You’re visiting and talking with business owners and leaders of companies. Have you ever done some self-reflection about how you behave in meetings now, just based on your experience in the Air Force? Like when you talk about that you have to listen, and details are important, and you’ve gained all those skills. Have you noticed any behaviors of yours in meetings in the workforce?

Michael: I feel interruptions are very common.

Brandon: So you observe it.

Michael: Yeah, I’ve observed and not to try to brag. But I feel like I don’t interrupt as much because – and I feel like that does come from the military. You did not get a chance to speak unless it was given to you and that was my profession. I know that. But interrupting causes feelings of anger and defense and understanding that is very important in a meeting situation. That’s something I’ve noticed in a group setting that I’ve always kind of tried to let the other person finish because interruptions just really kind of get the situation out of control.

Brandon: Talk about the hierarchy. We talked about it before we started recording this, that it’s a very structured organization in the military branches. You don’t jump over your superior officer. In the workforce we live in today, we have access to our president and we can go talk to her at any given point. It’s more of a flat organization. We have the structure but it’s more of a flat organization where you have access to people. Military, not so much, right? Talk about the differences there.

Michael: Yeah. So in the military, you’re right – you don’t jump the chain of command. So there’s really a strong appreciation and respect for the chain of command. And yeah, in the workforce here, there’s an open door policy. Our president here at Xenium is so awesome that we have that policy with her as well.

Yeah, you’re right. That is hard to get used to. And I think it comes down to respect. From my experience, personally, if I’m going to jump the command in the workplace here, whether the situation deems it’s worthy, or maybe my superior is out for the day, I understand what it means for my superior to find out about that from someone else. That is something that I think was very pounded into us and if you’re ever going to do something like that, i.e. go around me, make sure I know about it. So that I know what to do. So I do that same thing in the workplace here.

Brandon: Oh, that’s good.

Michael: Yeah, open door policy.

Brandon: It doesn’t make your superior –

Michael: No.

Brandon: – the person you directly report to – you went over that person’s head without them knowing – it doesn’t feel good, right?

Michael: Yeah. Well, yeah. So while I love the open door policies here, I make sure my superiors know that I’m using –

Brandon: Yeah, absolutely. So I think that’s – going back to the skills that we were talking about that you developed – that’s another skill that comes into the workforce. It’s making sure that you’re reporting to that one person. You’re not going over their head, so that you’re maintaining the structure that’s set in place by the leadership.

Michael: You could even try to loop that into the understanding of those higher goals if we tried to – understanding that a superior has the responsibility to be managing you. If they get asked or something, and you put out the perception that they aren’t and without them knowing it, then that could be an issue.

Brandon: Yeah. So we laid the groundwork and the whole reason I wanted you to kind of tell your story and we talked about the skills and the mission-driven stuff is I wanted to talk about the opportunities that veterans have as they come back in the workforce. So they serve their time. Some people – I’ve got two brothers-in-law who – one is still serving. He has been there over 10 years in the Navy. Another one has been in there four years and then he’s back in the workforce.

Michael: Right.

Brandon: The other one who’s still serving, he’s going to be a lifer and he has built a great career for himself. But for the majority, they don’t – they’re not lifers. They come back in the workforce. They have to find something and what I wanted to have this conversation with you about, Mike, is that you went through this where you sort of looked at the landscape. What do I want to do? What skills do I have? What skills do I not have? How does that match up with what employers are offering with the field of interest?

So you ended up getting into HR somehow and I’m sure there’s a backstory to that. But just talk about what that reintegration is like. You said there were programs. I don’t know much about that. Give me some sense as to what’s provided for veterans from a reintegration program. Then the second part of that, what can employers do if they’re – maybe they’re already doing something – what can employers do from a reintegration standpoint, to help build skills that veterans do not have?

Michael: Right. Yeah, that’s a very good point. So yes, there are programs when you’re getting out of the military. So if you have a date when you’re getting out, you may be able to go partake in a one or two-day class that –

Brandon: That’s offered.

Michael: Yes. And it’s – sometimes it’s mandatory but sometimes time doesn’t allow. But that will focus on things maybe like resume writing. Some of the basics that no one in the military has really had to do. Our resumes were always on our uniform and on our sleeves. So we had no reason to tell anybody who we were.

Brandon: Yeah, that’s a valid point. Yeah.

Michael: So we need to learn some basic skills like that. Now the employer obviously can’t help us with that because we’re going to need to figure that out before we get hired.

Brandon: Or could they? Can they offer things – just as the right thing to do for veterans. Couldn’t they say, “Hey, we’re going to do some interviewing,” or mock interviews or – I know organizations out there like I’m involved with PHRMA, the Portland Human Resources Management Association. They’re affiliated with SHRM. And they do things like that where, usually for college students, they do mock interviews. I’m sure veterans can get involved in that too. Stuff like that, to me, would be great. I just don’t know if veterans know about those opportunities.

Michael: So maybe they do and maybe they don’t and I think it comes down to where they are.

Brandon: Yeah.

Michael: When we look at the Portland area, we don’t have an active military base near us.

Brandon: That’s a good point. Yeah.

Michael: So we’re probably not going to have a very large veteran base in the area.

Brandon: Luckily, this podcast is international. We have listeners across all the countries. So inevitably, somebody listening, I think this conversation will resonate with them.

Michael: Right, yeah. If you’re in Texas and you’re a veteran, your chances of getting a job – you’re going to get a job a lot quicker than if you were in Oregon. Probably just because the veteran and military population is so large.

Brandon: So you’re saying there are probably more programs in place to help with the reintegration.

Michael: Right.

Brandon: Versus in Oregon, not an active military base. So the veterans that are coming back into this area are few and far between. So there’s probably not a lot of structure and programs in place. Is that what you’re saying?

Michael: That is. Yeah. Like personally, when I came back, any programs that I maybe would have found in the Portland area were either through the VA Hospital, which is good. However, that will come with an asterisk on whether it’s trusted or not by the veteran population.

Brandon: Interesting.

Michael: But they are a good resource. But other than that, you’re really looking for non-profits, things like that. So the veteran is kind of directed to an online search if they’re not really using things like the VA.

Brandon: So you resorted to a lot of online-based learning. OK.

Michael: I did. Yeah. Like for example, veterans looking for a job in Portland, Oregon.

Brandon: Is that the domain name? [laughing]

Michael: Well, no –

Brandon: Veterans looking for – OK, got it. So that was what you typed into Google. OK, got it.

Michael: Or Portland companies who like veterans.

Brandon: Yeah.

Michael: So if the companies aren’t marketing or advertising that, it’s not going to be searchable and that veteran may not find them. So these companies need to be putting it out there.

Brandon: You found the secret as to why we developed this podcast because, I think, to your point, people resort to Google.

Michael: Right.

Brandon: And if people use the same behaviors that you just described, you get back from serving and everything is so aligned basically. You’re like, “Oh, I’m just going to Google it.” Well, what if you don’t know about any resources? So I’m making a promise here. With this podcast, we always have a blog post. We will put links and resources to things that Mike has searched for to cut down on the time that it’s taking you to look for things.

Michael: Very nice. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So companies need to put it out there so it can be found. But the VA is probably going to be the number one.

Brandon: Yeah, that’s the one I hear of quite often.

Michael: Yeah, for us locally.

Brandon: Yeah. What sort of things do they help with? Because I’m not really familiar with everything that’s offered there.

Michael: So the VA can really help with anything. From mental, physical health, finding a job, finding a place to live.

Brandon: OK. So just everything related to life, like really getting back into civilization.

Michael: Yeah. Theoretically, I will say, part of the reason why the VA system is not trusted is because –

Brandon: It’s spread too thin.

Michael: Exactly, so slow. I found a job on my own well before the VA was going to be able to help me. That’s my personal experience here, probably different for other areas.

Brandon: We could probably have another whole podcast on this, and this is totally veering off topic. But it seems like with the VA – the structure of it – it shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. It should consider contracting with other institutions who are really good at what they do.

For example, how to buy a house, or training and development, or education. Essentially – here’s a referral and a discounted price for this service or – I don’t know. To me, that would make more sense.

Michael: You got my vote.

Brandon: Yeah. All right. Getting into politics.

So what can employers do? This is really the heart of this discussion. What can employers do? Because if the VA is spread too thin, veterans don’t really know where to look. What are some things that employers can do to give back to the community. What could employers do to get involved in this?

Michael: In helping veterans find work?

Brandon: Yeah, absolutely.

Michael: Number one, again, I think it’s just putting it out there. If it’s not known that you’re trying to help, your help is not going to be found. But beyond that, you may have a veteran in your workplace right now. You may not even know it.

Brandon: You may not even know it. Yeah, exactly.

Michael: This Veterans Choice wasn’t always a thing. Preferred status, these points, the tax benefits that companies got for hiring veterans, were not always a thing.

Brandon: I didn’t even know that.

Michael: Oh, yes.

Brandon: So you just dropped some knowledge on me. I’m sure HR people listening, they knew about that. But I didn’t.

Michael: Yeah, there are some. There are all these things. It’s a changing environment for the veterans. So I think the employers need to make some changes as well. If you’re trying to find veterans, I think you need to put out searches specifically for veterans. And maybe you only have a few positions, so you’re going to get a whole lot more than you can – you’re going to bite off more than you can chew.

Maybe create a pact with some local companies, maybe some industry competitors. You know, keep your friends close, enemies closer. Do what you need to do. Put a program out there to let veterans know, “Hey, we are looking for you and we want to hire you.”

Brandon: Yeah. And we care about you and this is the right thing to do.

Michael: Yeah, and those veterans in your workforce, they may be connected to them.

Brandon: Yeah.

Michael: They may have a connection to a local VA chapter, a local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, someone out there who they can help. You’re not going to know unless you ask or unless you say, “We’re looking.”

Brandon: Compassion is something that I’ve talked about in this podcast before and I hear it coming up a lot. We need to have more compassion in the workplaces. It’s going to develop the culture a lot more. You know, all of that stuff.

With veterans, it’s interesting because I think a lot of people, they serve. Some of them experienced some really terrible stuff. Others maybe not as much. But still, getting back into the regular lifestyle of civilization, it probably is challenging. Every veteran probably has a story to tell.

What’s the balance of being able to share your story? Is that something that’s comfortable for you? To share what you’ve experienced, so that way people can be compassionate to what you’ve seen and what you’ve done and – you know, that’s hard, right?

Without opening up, it’s probably – it’s just that nobody is going to ask you about it.

Michael: It is, it is. You know, you’re right in that there is an experience – I think every veteran has an experience – and that experience, on some levels, probably should be known and can be shared and learned from.

Where I think veterans can benefit in this area the most is maybe leading the charge of getting the rest of the employee base to open up about their experiences as well. Because we don’t want to say, “Hey, I’m a veteran and this is my story.”

Brandon: But without somebody else telling their story.

Michael: Exactly.

Brandon: It’s like, OK, the spotlight is on me. This isn’t even fair. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Michael: But you can lean on that veteran and maybe it’s just a conversation. You know, maybe it’s something you have formally, informally, within. But I would almost look to that person and say, “Hey, here’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to increase compassion in the workforce. I’m trying to build more teamwork. I kind of want to rely on you because of your experience in that leadership role from the military.”

I would almost put them on the spot a little bit. We got to make sure the way we do it is not in a pressuring way.

Brandon: Sure, yeah.

Michael: So they don’t feel like they have to. But let them know. Hey, those experiences are what I want you to talk about. They may not even feel like their experiences are worth talking about until you tell them, “I want to hear about it.”

Brandon: Yeah.

Michael: If they’ve been working in the workforce for 20 years, they’re a veteran, and the person next to him doesn’t even really know about it, they probably don’t feel like there’s anything they’re really gaining from that. So you need to let them know. Hey, there is that untapped potential that you need to release onto the rest of the workforce. So we can build a stronger team together.

Brandon: I think that’s the whole message that I wanted to convey. Veterans have developed such unique skills that are very valuable and they have really interesting stories to tell, if they get a chance to tell it. I think those doors just – we don’t have a lot of experience here and I personally don’t – but I imagine it’s just not happening a whole lot where there’s a platform to tell your story when people are empathizing with what’s happening. If they can’t empathize, they’re not able to show compassion because those stories just aren’t being shared. Do you see that happening? Do you encourage employers to open up those doors?

Michael: Absolutely, especially now I feel like the way the workforce is moving with these new generations, people want to feel a purpose at work.

Brandon: That’s a great point.

Michael: Yeah, and one way you can increase that feeling of purpose is to let them talk about themselves. I go home every day and I get to talk about myself to my wife and all that and it feels great. But it feels even better to come to work and to not have to shut that off.

Brandon: Yeah.

Michael: So lean on them. Let them talk about their experiences.

Brandon: I love it. Yeah, that’s great. Honestly, Mike, we could talk about this all day. We’ve been talking for about 30 minutes. We got to cut it. But what’s the message that you want to leave employers with? So if you have an HR person that’s listening to this podcast, which there’s a lot of them, or small business leaders or owners, somebody who has an influence on these kinds of things, what’s the message that you want to convey just about veterans getting back into the workforce? What can they do to help?

Michael: Not only is this maybe a selfish way to help my veteran brothers and sisters get a job, but the veteran workforce truly can help your company. You probably just don’t even know the ways they can until you talk to them. Ask about their experiences. Share your experiences. There probably is some leadership skill that they’ve developed, a communication skill that we’ve talked about. People management, compassion. On some level, there’s probably a way that they can help you. With that being said, there’s probably a way all your employees can help you.

Those veterans, I just feel, may be a little more empowered to feel the leadership and step up and take action because they’ve already illustrated that they’re prepared to do so on such a grand level.

Brandon: Mike, thanks a lot for being a part of the podcast. This was a lot of fun. I really appreciate it.

Michael: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Brandon: Yeah, you bet.


Download “Veterans Employment Resources” document here:

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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