Military vets: MBA job recruiter's dream candidates?

July 13, 2011: 10:13 AM ET

While the unemployment rate for recent military veterans is higher than the national average, recruiters from plum post-biz school gigs are actively courting many vets who opt for an MBA.

By Ethan Rouen, contributor

FORTUNE -- In their first year as Wharton MBA students, military veterans Aaron Perrine and Joe Kistler attended a recruiting event at Morgan Stanley with about 40 other vets enrolled at top business schools.

They didn't think the event could get any better when chairman of the board and former CEO John Mack joined them for breakfast, but then Mack announced that he had a special guest who would like to talk to the students. In walked General Stanley McChrystal.

"Everyone is on their feet in half a second," says Perrine, 33, who is working as a summer associate at McKinsey. "It showed that these employers are serious. They are trying to get veterans in the door early."

For veterans in top tier business schools, this experience is not unique. Overall, the unemployment rate for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was 11.5% in 2010, higher than the national overage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that statistic belies the fact that, for the first time in several generations, employers are seeing an increase in young applicants who know how to handle pressure and have the kind of management experience it often takes decades to acquire.

"We have plenty of veterans who are 27 who have had 100 direct reports in a combat situation," says Perrine, a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Nobody coming from the private sector has had that kind of experience, and especially in those high pressure situations."

In the last few years, many of the most desirable employers in banking, consulting and technology have gone out of their way to attract these servicemen and women, according to campus veterans organizations and some employers, inviting them to celebrity-packed recruiting events, hosting veterans-only events on campus, and creating affinity groups that allow employees who served in the military to reach out to prospectives.

"Military service builds a wide range of professional leadership skills that we value at Morgan Stanley," says Pen Pendleton, a spokesman for the company. "By recruiting veterans throughout the firm, we strengthen the culture and reinforce our commitment to fostering leadership, collaboration, and risk management skills."

The results, it seems, have been impressive, according to veterans clubs at some business schools. Rob Carpio, 29, a West Point graduate who served in the Army as an air defense artillery officer, was the co-president of the Armed Forces Club at Harvard Business School when he graduated in May. Of the 32 graduating members of the club, two were in active duty in the military, 28 had accepted employment offers by graduation, and one was planning to start his own business.

Carpio, who starts work this month at a management consulting firm, says demand for access to the members of his club continues to grow, as do the number of business sectors that want to recruit veterans with business skills. The club's annual career fair attracts between 20 and 30 companies hoping to lure veterans.

"These individuals have already been responsible for big teams and millions of dollars of equipment, doing the most high-impact, dangerous missions you could ever ask for," Carpio says. "There's a lot there in terms of maturity and focus."

While the leadership skills, the ability to handle pressure, and the proven experience working long hours are evident in these veterans, transition to civilian life comes with numerous roadblocks.

Carpio, who is a co-founder of MilitarytoBusiness (See: Do Veterans Need Unique Admit Advice?), a consulting firm that helps veterans make the transition to civilian careers and top law and business schools, says that veterans often find it difficult to discover value in their new lives. Many people join the armed forces to serve a cause they consider greater than themselves. Finding meaning in private sector work is not always as easy for these veterans.

Also, employers often express concerns about veterans' ability to lead outside of the military rank structure, a scenario where position is literally worn on the sleeve.

"My response is always, 'I've never led with my rank,'" Carpio says. "'I derive my power and authority not from my rank but from the respect I have for my subordinates and the respect they have for me.'"

But the biggest challenge in entering the private sector, especially fields like banking, technology and consulting, is getting up to speed on the language and the day-to-day skills that are unique to any industry.

Coming out of MBA programs, veterans are competing with people who have already worked in these fields. Affinity groups and military networks within organizations have certainly helped to overcome this barrier, as have veterans' clubs at schools, but it doesn't make this barrier disappear.

At McKinsey, which says it has made a concerted effort to recruit veterans, employees who have served in the armed forces spend nights and weekends working with veterans who are applying for positions with the firm, helping them prepare for case interviews and the application process, Perrine says.

Kistler, 29, who served two tours in Iraq as a marine infantry officer, says the clubs at schools help veterans craft their interview stories so they can explain in compelling language why they want to enter a new industry. Relying on the experience of alumni and second-year students, club members also receive help in shaping their resumes to explain exactly why their combat skills will be so valuable to potential employers.

Still, the most useful experience veterans develop outside the military is the education they receive in class.

"One of the biggest challenges is developing analytical experience and business skills," says Kistler, who is working as a summer associate in the investment banking division at Morgan Stanley (MS). "During recruiting, you need to show bankers you have those capabilities and can further develop them. That was one of the primary reasons I came to Wharton."

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