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Shows & Panels
Veterans make up growing share of federal workforce so why is their morale faltering?
Monday - 3/10/2014, 2:00am EDT
Nearly three in every 10 new employees hired by the federal government have worked for Uncle Sam before — in uniform.
Even with budget downturns and slackened hiring at many agencies in recent years, the feds have managed to keep pace with steep veteran hiring targets mandated by President Barack Obama in 2009.
In 2012, nearly 29 percent of new hires were veterans — by the government's count, the highest percentage of new veteran hires in some 20 years. That equated to more than 56,000 veterans joining the ranks of the civil service that year.
But even as the federal government has found success onboarding veteran employees, new questions have been raised about the workplace environments veterans are encountering.
As a group, veterans' perceptions of workplace fairness are more negative than their nonveteran counterparts, and they're more likely to feel disengaged from their supervisors, according to the most recent Employee Viewpoint Survey published by the Office of Personnel Management in November.
Fewer veterans said that prohibited personnel practices were handled properly by their agencies or that managers communicate well with their employees, according to the survey.
What are the root causes of these feelings?
Current and former federal employees, who are also veterans, cite a few key factors: the often-difficult transition to civilian life, in general, and federal managers' perceptions of — and misconceptions about — veterans as employees.
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Veterans are used to taking charge
The transition from military to civilian, in even the most ideal circumstances, is trying for many veterans. Most civilian jobs lack the structure and discipline of the military, and veterans may find it hard to relate to co-workers in those jobs who simply don't have the same experiences veterans have racked up on their resumes.
"When I was 23-years old, I was in charge of a 38-man platoon," said Brandon Friedman, who was a young lieutenant in the Army's 101st Airborne Division commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. "When I was 25-years old, I was second- in-command of a 110-man rifle company. … It's one of those things that in the military you're given that level of responsibility so young, and for the most part in the public and private sector, you're not leading 30 people or 100 people until you're very senior."
Friedman left active duty in 2004 and went to work for the Veterans Affairs Department in 2009 to help start up its digital communications team. He now works at private PR giant Fleishman-Hillard.
Still, in the 11 years since he left the military, he said, he's never managed a team of more than a handful of people.
Friedman said he wonders whether the military is doing enough to prepare vets for the world of civilian employment, and what role that might play in the veteran discontent the survey uncovered.
"Veterans are used to a very structured environment; they're used to having their leaders mentor them and take care of them in ways that you don't often find in the private sector and sometimes in government," he said. "They're also used to taking charge of situations — leading people. And a lot of times, those opportunities aren't there [in government]."
'Everyone loves and supports the troops, but —'
But even if vets themselves feel they are prepared for civilian employment, managers don't always agree.
A June 2012 report from the Center for a New American Security revealed many private sector employers frequently have misgivings about hiring veterans in the first place.
Hiring managers worry that their skills won't translate to the job at hand and that veterans, accustomed to the order and the discipline of the military, are too "rigid" to be collaborative or creative employees.
While the report specifically surveyed private sector employers, its findings likely hold true for the federal workplace too, said Alex Horton, who served as an Army grunt during the troop surge in Iraq and left VA last year after three years on the department's digital communications team that Friedman led.
More troubling may be the negative stereotype of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In actuality, PTSD manifests in only 11 to 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to VA estimates. But media and pop culture depictions tend to portray nearly all veterans as unstable and prone to violence.
"Everyone loves and supports the troops," Horton said. "But then, when people become a veteran, there's like this weird dichotomy. When you wore the uniform you're a hero, and you're selfless and you're brave and all that. Then, when you take it off, you're broken, or you're suffering from PTSD."