Memorial Day 2012 – Do Veterans Really Need a Welcome Home Gift? Or Just a Chance?

Recently, on May 6th, 2012, Admiral Mike Mullen co-authored a well-received editorial in the Washington Post entitled A Welcome Home Gift for Veterans: Jobs. Hard to argue with that sentiment…or is it?

Jobs are not a gift. A gift is a freebie. Something given, gratis. Free of any recompense or obligation to return the favor (supposedly, but we know how regifting works). But I am not so sure that “gift” is the right language or the right image we want Americans to have when it comes to the issue of veteran employment and re-entry into a post-combat, post-military civilian workforce.

In my eyes, veterans not only have earned the right to compete for a place in the workplace in the global free market, but are eminently qualified to perform and contribute as value creators. For those of you who have read the book Moneyball or seen the movie by the same name starring Brad Pitt, the central theme is that Billy Beane created value (both by winning a championship and by making money!) by finding and extracting performance from assets in a labor market that were overlooked by traditional baseball metrics. I submit that this is the fundamental dynamic that is at work as veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan enter the civilian labor market today, and will continue to do so for the next decade.

From a hiring manager or employer’s point of view, hiring a veteran is no gift. It’s not a give-away. Its making a shrewd business judgement based on an evaluation of what that veteran can bring to the workforce. Its not an act of charity, but an act of self-interest. Its about finding and extracting value from a traditionally and currently overlooked asset in the labor market, where other employers are not making that same judgement. In that sense, it gives the hiring manager or employer a competitive advantage, in an economic environment where capital is scarce and fiercely contested, and everyone needs every edge and advantage one can get.

With all due respect to Admiral Mullen, and I appreciate his message, but jobs do not equal gifts. An article entitled Record Suicide Rates Highest Among Jobless detailed a study that found suicidal ideation far more prevalent among the unemployed. Another recent article The Best Medicine Might Just be a Job cites “Study after study correlates unemployment with suicidality” and a “two-fold to three-fold increased relative risk of death by suicide.”

Two thousand five hundred years ago, Thucydides observed in his History of the Peloponnesian War, that the Athenian politicians found it was easier to honor the dead than care for the living. What was true then remains true today. This Memorial Day, as we remember more than 6,000 dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 50,000 wounded, and several hundred thousand permanently disabled – lets remember the approximately million veterans who are unemployed and looking for work.

Jobs equal a chance for veterans to re-enter the civilian workforce and re-integrate into American civilian society, having earned the hard way – through blood and sacrifice and suffering – a shot at making their American dream a reality.

Start-up Nation

It takes a special mindset to volunteer to join the military in times of war. To leave the comforts of home, to leave family and friends, to go into harm’s way in far off foreign lands creates a complex mindset. It takes a certain mindset to brave the dangers of combat, to go outside the wire and engage the enemy on their grounds.

What is it, ultimately, that makes veterans different from civilians? I have been interested in this question since 1994 – my first recruiting tour of duty. Why did some people sign on the dotted line for four years or more, and some not? What was the unmoved mover that prompted the best and brightest of America’s youth to raise their right hand and take a solemn oath to support and defend the Constitution? Over 6 years and two recruiting tours of duty, I never could put my finger on it. It remains a mystery to me, even now.

But there is a difference, and we are here tonight to celebrate that difference. It takes a special mindset to transition from a combat and military environment to a civilian business and entrepreneurial environment.

I just read a book entitled Mindset by Carol Dweck, a psychologist who studies success. In her book, she posits two fundamental mindsets, Growth vs Fixed. Growth mindsets have a tendency to learn experientially, a willingness to take on new challenges and explore new opportunities, and maybe most importantly, a proclivity for hard work. In other words, qualities we most often associate with successful entrepreneurship.

A body of academic research exists about why veterans the world over tend to be successful entrepreneurs. In the book Start-up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer explore the factors contributing to the entrepreneurial success of Israel, on a per capita basis, the most entrepreneurial country in the world. They assert one of the key reasons is Israel’s compulsory universal military service, which creates a common language and mindset for mission accomplishment and – once again – hard work.

There is something to this veteran-entrepreneur relationship. Here in CT, we have a population of approximately 235,000+ veterans; but more than 50,000 veteran-owned businesses, a better than 1-in-5 ratio.

Today, as I speak, the unemployment rate among disabled veterans is 25%, in some states as high as 30%.  Approximately 2.6 million Americans have served in the military since 9/11. Of that number, about 2.2 million have served in combat theaters in Iraq or Afghanistan. If 1-in-5 of those veterans started businesses – our nation would create nearly 500,000 start-ups.

We veteran-entrepreneurs, with our different mindset, with our extraordinary experiences overseas, with our Growth mindset – we are part of the solution to the present economic situation.

Let’s break it down.  2,500,000 veterans. 50 states. 10 years. 500,000 start-ups.  Basically, we’re talking about every state starting 1,000 veteran and service-disabled veteran-owned businesses for the next decade. 50,000 a year for the next 10 years.  This is eminently doable.

We can create a start-up state, and a start-up nation.