David MacLeod joined the military at age 17 to provide for his mother and younger brother following his father’s death in 1982. He served 27 years, including deployments to Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, before being medically discharged in 2010. These days, he runs his own consulting firm in Antigonish, N.S., a business that leverages his military intelligence background.
Mr. MacLeod, who is also a veterans advocate and author, credits his successful transition to civilian life to a three-point plan he devised later in his military career with his wife, Katarin. Every time he went on tour, the money he sent home was earmarked for his wife’s education (she has a PhD), his own education (his bachelor’s and master’s) and for their financial nest egg.
“I had done a pretty hard tour in Bosnia,” Mr. MacLeod said. “When you see your friends and the people you care about get hurt, and they don’t have anything to fall back on, that was a pretty solid lesson for me.”
But not all veterans make such a seamless transition. The federal government spends a pittance on veterans education, training and career-transition services, leaving most former military personnel to plan their postservice careers on their own.
It’s a daunting challenge; some military skills and training are difficult to articulate on résumés. Additionally, upgrading one’s education can also be tricky without knowing which credentials are being sought by prospective employers.
It’s a disgrace that Ottawa leaves veterans in the lurch when other countries, such as Australia, assist defence personnel in planning their postmilitary lives as soon as they enlist. Here in Canada, charities and non-profit organizations try to pick up the slack. But what’s really needed is a call to action in Corporate Canada that goes far beyond wearing poppies and marking two minutes of silence on Remembrance Day.
There were 649,300 Canadian veterans as of March 31, 2018, but there’s only a small pot of government money available for career-transition services, rehabilitation and New Veterans Charter support services – an estimated $62-million in 2018-19 for all those services combined.
That’s grossly inadequate because 32 per cent of veterans reported “difficulty” adjusting to civilian life, according to a 2016 federal government survey. And while that same survey found that the unemployment rate for veterans was 8 per cent and comparable to the general public, those figures may not be reliable. Statistics Canada doesn’t regularly track veteran unemployment rates. Veterans, meanwhile, are likely suffering from “underemployment,” according to a 2017 study by the Veteran Transition Advisory Council (VTAC).
“Based on the findings, which showed a decline in income of 10 per cent and a decline in earnings of 42 per cent post-release (three-year average), VTAC inferred a significant decline in earning power for veterans post-release,” reads the study.
That same VTAC study also concluded that “most private-sector companies are not motivated to hire veterans.”
Most have no veteran hiring policies. Part of the problem is that companies have little insight into the transferability of veterans’ skills. The other big obstacle is social bias. Veterans face stereotypes about being difficult to manage, while the general public tends to "overestimate the percentage of post-9/11 veterans who suffer from mental-health issues such as depression, anxiety and PTSD,” according a 2016 study by the George W. Bush Institute, which looked at the United States, Canada and Britain.
So what are the solutions? For starters, veterans say HR specialists need to understand military culture. Companies also need to recruit in advance by travelling to the bases because leaving the armed forces takes months.
“It’s not like a two-weeks’ notice kind of thing,” said Kyle Dowd, a veteran and branch manager with Bank of Montreal in Ottawa. Mr. Dowd, who left the military in 2009, says he believes that financial services is an ideal fit for a lot of veterans.
“Banks, much like the military, are very large structures. They are policy- and process-driven."
BMO has long been the official bank of the Canadian defence community but other financial services companies, including Bank of Nova Scotia and Manulife Financial, also have programs to hire and support veterans.
Toronto-Dominion Bank, meanwhile, hired retired general Rick Hillier in 2008 to assist with its leadership development and training. TD also has a program to recruit veterans in the U.S.
Cybersecurity is also a potential career option for those with an intelligence background. Professional-services firm KPMG supports Coding for Veterans, a program designed to fine-tune digital skills.
Recruitment, however, is just step one. Companies also need to do a better job retaining veterans by ensuring they are not underemployed and overlooked. Most veterans will change employers within the first three years after their release, according to Statistics Canada.
Michael Mitchell, a partner at KPMG Canada who leads the company’s management-consulting practices for the federal government in Ottawa, left the military in 2013. His advice to companies is to be mindful that many veterans enlist right out of high school. Some may never have had a civilian job and may not be familiar with the unwritten rules of corporate culture.
"The biggest challenge for me in transitioning [to civilian life] was moving away from that command-and-control environment, where you wait to be told in many ways what to do, into industry where you have to take the initiative and make things happen,” he said.