Enlisting veterans

by Joel Crews
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At this time last year, Master Sergeant Darin Smith was proudly serving his country in the US Air Force, winding down a 21-year military career at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb. One year later, the former C-135 aircraft mechanic is proudly serving in the ranks of Hormel Foods, applying his mechanical expertise as a maintenance manager at the company’s Fremont, Neb., pork-processing plant.

A growing number of servicemen and women are transitioning out of their military careers and are prime candidates for jobs at all levels at meat and poultry processing companies. According to information from the US Dept. of Labor, approximately 1 million active-duty soldiers will be “separating” from the service and joining the labor pool by 2016.

Processors such as Hormel make a point of recruiting applicants with military backgrounds. “Hormel Foods is actively recruiting military veterans through representatives at job fairs and by posting open positions to various websites,” says Judy Callahan, a Hormel recruiting manager. Those websites include: www.recruitmilitary.com, www.Vetsuccess.gov/jobs and www.dol.gov/vets/.

For Smith and many others like him, a civilian career in the meat business is a natural evolution. “The same core values of the Air Force – integrity first and excellence in all we do – are prevalent at Hormel Foods,” he says.

A solid understanding of accountability, responsibility and effectively prioritizing work to achieve positive results are core skills Smith learned in his previous career, during which he was deployed to Saudi Arabia, England and Germany. “Learning about new machinery and all of the different processes at Hormel Foods has stretched and further developed the skills I gained in the Air Force.” He is eager to recommend a similar career path for his fellow soldiers.

“It will challenge and broaden their horizons,” he says.

Working in the meat business has also been the “right thing” for another Hormel employee. Having worked for more than a decade at Hormel, Gary Sample attributes much of the success he has enjoyed in his civilian career to the skills he learned serving in the US Army for 26 years. Retiring as a sergeant major, Sample has since worked up through the ranks at Hormel and is now a human resource manager at the company’s Dold Foods plant in Wichita, Kan.

“The concept of working as a team to accomplish a shared goal has applied to my career in the Army and Hormel Foods,” Sample says. “After a few months as a production supervisor, I was able to transfer to human resources and directly apply more than 20 years of experience in the field I had gained while serving in the Army.”

He says the transition into civilian life isn’t without its challenges, but plenty of opportunities to succeed are available in the meat industry.

“I would encourage military veterans to consider a supervisor-level position with the company because their skills transfer well. My only advice is for them to maintain a good attitude and have a humble heart,” he says. “There will be a period of adjustment, but the long-term payoff is worth the effort.”

From combat to khakis

In the weeks leading up to Veteran’s Day 2011, Tyson Foods President and CEO Donnie Smith, and many of his company’s employees crossed paths with President Obama and members of the White House staff as part of a joint effort to give back to US Veterans who have served and sacrificed to ensure the freedom of their country. On Oct. 19, Tyson’s Melissa Lee and Smith were part of a rally announcing the “Joining Forces” program, an initiative by suppliers to the military commissaries, to hire more US veterans and military families. Lee, an attorney with Tyson who also served in Afghanistan and Iraq as a US Army Reservist in 2008-2009, had the honor of introducing the president and First Lady Michelle Obama at the event. Smith met privately with the Obamas before the festivities, which was highlighted by American Logistics Association’s announcement that its member companies, of which Tyson is one, planned to hire up to 25,000 military veterans over the next two years.

“Tyson Foods supports and honors veterans,” said Smith of his company, which currently employs about 3,000 veterans. “Not only are they excellent workers who are well-trained and have strong leadership skills, they also have a dedication, honesty and accountability that fits with the Tyson culture.”

As many companies in the processing industry are realizing, the discipline, loyalty and work ethic required to succeed in the military are the very attributes sought by successful employers. As President Obama pointed out this past month, “These men and women are the best that America has to offer. They are some of the most highly trained, highly educated, highly skilled workers that we have.”

As a supporter of the ALA’s commitment, Tyson was subsequently tapped to participate in the White House’s “Champion of Change” program this past month. As a participant in the program, two Tyson employees were sent to represent the company in a roundtable discussion focused on what some leading corporations are doing to offer job opportunities to US Veterans.

“The US veteran fits in well with the Tyson culture,” says James David, a former US Air Force captain who has worked at Tyson for about two years, currently as a pricing manager with the consumer products division. During his job search, David was recruited by other companies, including a pharmaceutical firm. He was impressed with the company’s willingness to bring his family to Springdale, to get a better feel for the community and the company they would be a part of. That sense of community and the fact that Tyson is directly involved with feeding families and serving communities where it operates, made his decision easier, and made it easier for him to hit the ground running.

“The thing about veterans is they thrive on challenge,” he says, “and they have an intense desire to achieve results. So as long as you put a veteran in a capacity where they can do that, they are going to be happy and they’re going to get those results for you.”

David was one of five military veterans selected to go to the White House to discuss their employers’ programs to hire veterans as part of the Champions of Change program. It was an experience he will never forget.

“It’s one of those pieces of news you get and you don’t really question,” he says of his being asked to participate in the roundtable in Washington DC. “I received an email saying, ‘We think this would be a good fit for you,’ and I was honored to serve the company in that capacity,” he says.

David is still involved with the military, serving as a reserve officer with the 22nd Air Force Detachment Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at the Little Rock Air Force Base.

Russell Tooley, Tyson’s senior vice president of corporate and international human resources, accompanied David to Washington. As a recruiter for Tyson both domestically and internationally, Tooley, too, was asked to represent the company at the roundtable. He says it was a memorable experience that was highlighted by David representing both the company and the military so positively. “He is a great example of the talent that comes out of the military,” he says, and corporate America is realizing their value as team members.

“There is a lot of momentum among companies throughout the country to really try to help these military men and women as they come out and join the work force,” he says.

Realizing how military skills that appear on the resume of a reservist or a veteran can be applied and how they translate to civilian jobs isn’t always that obvious. Too often these attributes get lost in the hiring shuffle. Tooley points out that having resumes from military applicants reviewed by someone with a military background enables Tyson to hire candidates they might have otherwise overlooked. At Tyson, one of those reviewers is David. “For most companies, if they don’t have someone on staff that has been in the military reviewing those resumes, they may pass over it because they don’t understand their experience.”

Designating a Business Resource Group (BRG) dedicated to Tyson’s veteran hiring efforts is one big part of its commitment to assisting in the recruitment and retention of candidates that are part of this growing pool. With more than 3,000 employees with military backgrounds already on its payroll, Tooley is well aware of the new tax incentives for employers hiring veterans, but says Tyson backs the plan “because it’s the right thing to do.”

As participants in the new programs, Tooley anticipates a growing number of former enlistees to join Tyson’s ranks. And they will be relied on to fill positions at all levels of the company. “We’ve got them in operations, HR, everywhere. And we think they fit everywhere,” Tooley says.

The veterans program plays into the company’s new slogan: Making great food. Making a difference, he says. “These military people have already been making a difference,” and as a major supplier to the commissaries of military bases around the country, “we’ve already been feeding them through these military commissaries, so it’s a great fit for us to go recruit military personnel and bring them into Tyson,” he says.

Civilian transition

Jim Trotter, president of Lutz, Fla.-based Jim Trotter and Associates, has worked as a recruiter specifically for the meat and poultry industry for about 17 years. His clients seek positions ranging from executive level to mechanics and production supervisors. He has high praise for candidates with military backgrounds. “They are appealing to employers because they have proven discipline and they tend to have very good leadership skills,” he says. And most have outstanding references and are willing to relocate. Veterans tend to be easy to place for all of these reasons and are a recruiter’s dream client. “They interview well and they’re used to working effectively on a team because they’ve been in an environment where they have had to work well as a team.”

Trotter points out, however, that many meat industry processors are reluctant to hire someone recently leaving a military career unless they have at least some food-manufacturing knowledge and are not likely to recruit a veteran with no industry background over someone with experience and familiarity with processing. “That’s still an obstacle to overcome unless they are hiring for entry-level positions,” he says.

Some clients realize more career success as civilians by earning a college degree after leaving the service if they didn’t already have one. Without a degree, “you’re likely going to get to a certain level, to about mid-management and that’s it – you’re going to be capped out.” Trotter says most of his clients with military backgrounds range in age from the mid 20s up to the early 50s, and most are male, although he says diversity candidates including females with college degrees who have leadership skills learned in the military are hot commodities. “A lot of companies are looking for that,” he says, “including companies like Smithfield, Nestle, Kraft and Tyson Foods.”

Keira Lombardo, spokeswoman for Smithfield Foods, points out, “We do not have formalized programs in place to recruit military veterans. Our various HR departments attend career fairs that are focused on veterans and our Murphy-Brown subsidiary hosts career days at bases in North Carolina.”

Leading by example

While the large processing companies are increasingly realizing the benefits of employing veterans and their families, the operator of at least one smaller company says his military experience is vital to the success of his custom meat plant. Randy Alewel, owner of Alewel’s Country Meats in Warrensburg, Mo., says his loyalty is divided between his family’s business and his country. He credits his success as a National Guard Reservist to the willingness of his family and his employees to keep the business moving forward when he is fulfilling his military commitment, either domestically or during overseas deployments. “You hear a lot about the employers who support their military employees,” he says. “My role is very much reversed: My employees are supporting their employer.”

Outside his company, however, Alewel is appreciative of other employers who show their appreciation for the sacrifices other reservists make by allowing them to serve their country without risking losing their civilian jobs.

Alewel, who was recently promoted to brigadier general, has served in the Missouri Army National Guard since 1981 and is now the commander of the 35th Engineer Brigade at Fort Leonard Wood. A third-generation owner of his family’s successful business, he has also served on active duty during two, one-year deployments – once in support of Operation Noble Eagle and again in Kosovo. He says the leadership and communication skills he has honed as a soldier translate to the business of meat processing and vice-versa. Utilizing the best processes and procedures is required on both fronts as does maintaining a system of checks and balances. “You have to be effective, but you also have to be efficient,” he says. Empowering subordinates and giving them responsibility is another skill that translates in both the meat plant and in military environments, he adds. Not unlike successful military missions, successful businesses are based on achieving a common goal using teamwork. “It’s collectively how we perform, not individually, that ensures us of being successful at the end of each year.”

Executive support for US Veterans
In the spirit of Veteran’s Day 2011, President Obama signed into law an important portion of his American Jobs Act this past month, after bipartisan approval of a bill to provide tax incentives for companies hiring any of the 850,000 unemployed veterans in the country. Incentives include a “Hiring Heroes” tax credit of $5,600 for companies hiring veterans who have been unemployed for three to six months; and the “Wounded Warriors” tax credit of up to $9,600 for hiring veterans with a service-related injury.

“For businesses out there, if you are hiring – hire a veteran. It’s the right thing to do for you. It’s the right thing to do for them,” President Obama said after the ceremonial signing. “And it’s the right thing to do for our economy,” he added.

Tyson Foods’ Red, White and Blue efforts:
Tyson Foods provides differential pay for all employees called to active military duty. The money makes up any difference between their military compensation and the pay they normally receive from Tyson. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Tyson has provided more than $2 million in differential pay to almost 400 employees.

  • For the past six years, employees of Tyson Foods have sent holiday care packages to fellow employees and family members serving in the US military in the Middle East.
  • Tyson maintains a Veterans Business Resource Group for military veterans employed at the company’s corporate headquarters. This group provides an avenue for veterans to network and develop their professional knowledge and skills.
  • Tyson has been recognized with the National Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Freedom Award, primarily because the company provides differential pay.
  • In 2010, Tyson Foods made a $75,000 “challenge” grant to an organization seeking to provide more burial space for military veterans at the Fayetteville, Ark. National Cemetery. The Regional National Cemetery Improvement Corporation is using the money to support the group’s mission of securing nearby land to ensure the cemetery can continue to receive veterans for burial.
  • For the past three years, Tyson Foods has sponsored an annual Honor Flight from Arkansas to Washington, DC, to fly military veterans (free of charge) to visit the World War II Memorial and other military memorials.
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