Joint Executive MBA Project Helps Employers and Veterans Speak the Same Language

May 16, 2022

Joining the U.S. military is the textbook definition of commitment. Service members stay the course no matter what – developing discipline, organizational skills and leadership abilities that serve them throughout their lives. And yet, some 80 percent of them leave their first post-military job within two years.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Chan (EMBA-SL, ’21) knew lifetime service members often struggled with transitioning to civilian life. So, after joining the Executive MBA – Strategic Leadership (EMBA-SL) program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business in 2021, Chan and classmate Andrew Roberts (EMBA-SL, ’21), a recently retired U.S. Marines major, teamed up on a joint Organizational Action Project (OAP).

Their goal? Bridge the gap between what traditional veteran service organizations (VSOs) provide and what potential employers need, helping former service members land and keep well-paying corporate jobs. Veterans to Volunteers, a nonprofit that would tackle the problem of veteran attrition in civilian jobs, was off and running.

Identifying the Skills Gap

The first roadblock veterans hit when trying to find a job is their lack of hard skills. They often can’t even get an interview, as Chan learned after retiring in November 2021. “I heard a lot of ‘noes,’ even after I graduated EMBA-SL,” he says. “I have 30 years of military experience, leading people and managing cross-functional teams, but my identity was military, not private sector. I didn’t have business experience, per se.”

The problem, says Roberts, is even more glaring for those whose jobs are the most military-specific. “Infantrymen and artillerymen don’t translate at all to the corporate world, whether blue collar or white collar,” Roberts says. “Employers think, ‘Well, you know how to blow stuff up, but what can you do for me?’”

Still, companies insist they want to hire veterans for the traits military service cultivates – self-discipline, organization, time management and working well in a hierarchy. Many businesses list themselves with the U.S. Department of Labor as “veteran friendly” to attract former service members, but the effort often ends in failure to hire or in quick turnover.

Chan and Roberts recognized the chasm between military and civilian cultures. Veterans’ indelible sense of identification with their military service can make it hard to find purpose and meaning in civilian jobs. Most employers don’t know how best to help them.

Paddling in Both Directions

To bridge this disconnect, the duo worked both sides of the employer-employee equation. This dual approach would distinguish Veterans to Volunteers as a unique service, one that would help companies minimize turnover and hire the skills they value most.

Roberts took on the veteran-side planning, mapping the network of existing VSOs in Tennessee, ensuring Veterans to Volunteers wouldn’t duplicate services. Based on his research, he outlined three key ways to assist veterans:

  • Create a team of transition coaches to provide holistic, personalized support for each veteran
  • Connect veterans to the VSOs most closely matching their needs
  • Pair veterans’ specific talents with known needs in the business community, possibly in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Labor

On the employer side, Chan collected data on businesses’ needs and identified potential capacity to meet demand. He also began developing a program to help businesses become “veteran proficient” – not just “veteran friendly.” Chan’s critical components:

  • Encourage companies to hire for soft skills with a concrete plan to train hard skills
  • Help businesses establish a mentorship system in which employee veterans work with new hires to ease the onboarding process and help them acclimate to the culture
  • Coordinate with companies to identify veteran talent that can meet their specific needs

A sharp language divide exists between veterans and the business world. Veterans express their abilities and desires in an insider lingo that the military understands, but which the corporate world doesn’t. Chan is designing a training module to help human resources teams decipher military-speak and spot the soft skills hidden between the lines. He and Roberts also plan to teach veterans to break down even the most military-specific roles into their component abilities to strengthen their resumes and help them land interviews.

For example, service members with experience in infantry and artillery might highlight their ability to withstand stress in a high-pressure environment, their capacity to either lead or follow depending on what the objective requires and their ease in handling group dynamics – emphasizing conflict resolution, collaboration and effective communication.

Launching a Nonprofit

Chan and Roberts now work as strategy and business consultants, but they received so much positive feedback on Veterans to Volunteers that they’re taking the next steps toward launching as a nonprofit.

In a major boost toward their goal, current EMBA-SL student Jay Land, who also is a retired army veteran, is using their project as the foundation for his OAP. He plans to build relationships with companies, VSOs and the Tennessee Department of Labor as he develops pilot programs for Veterans to Volunteers, while Roberts and Chan continue work on budgeting and marketing. They plan to test the first pilot programs with a small number of veterans later this year and are excited that the project could eventually be a full-time responsibility.

“Especially because Andy and I are fresh off our transition to civilian life, this is our passion, this is our core,” Chan says. “This is our ‘why.’”


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist,