What Corporate Recruiting Can Learn From the U.S. Military

Several Mondays ago, I watched a National Geographic documentary called Restrepo. Restrepo is a feature-length documentary from National Geographic that chronicles the one-year deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in one of the most dangerous and remote locations on earth, the Korengal Valley. Named “Restrepo” after PFC Juan Restrepo, who died on a hillside 7,000 miles from home on July 22, 2007 the Korengal Valley was a Taliban-infested death trap where nearly 50 U.S. soldiers lost their lives in five years of conflict, according to the Miami Herald.

This was one of the most gripping and moving war documentaries I have ever watched. The documentary followed the daily lives of the platoon members assigned to the valley outpost. By now, you are probably asking yourself what in the heck does this have to do with corporate recruiting? The answer is EVERYTHING. U.S. Military recruiters SELL.

Watching and analyzing Restrepo made me think back on my time in the military — perhaps I had gotten a little bit lucky during my tour as our country was not involved in any conflicts like we are now. The location, the lifestyle, the battles, the pure hell these soldiers were put through on a daily basis made the selfish side of me think “I’m glad that’s not me.” In the days that passed, I would reflect on my time in service and on the men I saw in the documentary, and a thought crossed my mind: “Who and why in their right mind would want to go to that place?”

The military may not be for everyone, I understand that, but it is a company nevertheless, an employer; one of the largest employers in the world in fact, with its own culture, mission, pain points, and recruiting and retention needs. Looking back and examining the U.S. Army’s recruiting numbers over the past couple of years, this is what we find (numbers provided by U.S. Army Recruiting Command):

FY10 Mission Accomplishments

Active Army
Mission 74,500
Achieved 74,577

FY09 Mission Accomplishments

Active Army
Mission 65,000
Achieved 70,045

In fact, going back and analyzing the recruiting numbers from FY03 Mission Recap to present, the U.S. Army had only fell short one year in its recruitment needs. We are not talking about an organization that needs to recruit 20 individuals or even a few hundred; this is an organization that year after year needs to recruit upward of 60,000 individuals for dangerous assignments. Reviewing the recruiting numbers with thoughts of the Korengal Valley fresh in my mind, the recruiting success of the military astonished me.

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So the question persists: How can the U.S. Military sell an individual into giving up their regular lifestyle, travel halfway around the world, be gone for months at a time, and risk life and limb while working in a hostile environment? Easy: the military sells the benefits of its opportunities and lifestyle, pays bonuses, and is aggressive. As dangerous as it can be, there are benefits in every opportunity. In my experience, corporate recruiters and hiring managers seek out every reason why an individual IS NOT qualified for a position — while military recruiters look for every reason why the individual IS qualified for a position. Another important selling factor is pure opportunity; everyone regardless of their background can be eligible for career fields such as HR, Finance, Aviation, Communications, Logistics, Nuclear Power, Combat Arms, Healthcare and many more fields. Everyone is given the opportunity to succeed.

People want to join the military for various reasons, just as they would like to find an opportunity within your organization. It’s important to outline the benefits, to be aggressive, provide future growth and training, to sell the applicant on the company and as to why an individual would want to work at your company — an important application I call “employment branding.” Moreover, the military is smart — it partners with trusted organizations to help build, market, and deliver the respective employment brand — rather than trying to do it on its own. In speaking with several former military recruiters, the group consensus on what makes military recruiters successful is the following: meaningful and productive activity, being personable and friendly, ability to outline benefits and long term goals, ability to relate to the applicant, and provide constant and consistent communication.

Here is a challenge: next time you find yourself interviewing a candidate, take off your recruiter hat and put on your sales hat. Look for every reason on why the individual is qualified for the position, listen to the applicant’s goals and objectives and match them up accordingly, give them their due time, outline the organizations benefits, sell them on why they should want to work for your company, advise the hiring manager on why you are presenting the individual and most importantly provide consistent communication — even if the answer is no.

Rest in peace PFC Restrepo. 

Morgan Hoogvelt currently serves as director, global talent acquisition for ESAB, a leading engineering company. Drawing on his expertise in human capital strategy, executive search, RPO, essential hiring practices, candidate sourcing, Internet recruiting, and social networking, he provides organizations targeted, best-of-class solutions, and employment branding strategies that help his clients meet the challenges of recruiting, technology, and retaining and rewarding top talent. He is also passionate about delivering excellent customer service and building positive, productive relationships. He can be contacted at morgan.hoogvelt@esab.com


12 Comments on “What Corporate Recruiting Can Learn From the U.S. Military

  1. Thank you for the article, Morgan. My .02, based on 22 years of military experience and 14 years of HR consulting & staffing experience:

    1. The military hires for aptitude and attitude – not for what someone has already proven they can do.

    2. The military services conduct assessments and hire based on a person’s potential to learn and do well in an area of strength and interest; they will train the employee to do the job specifics.

    3. A decade ago the military’s efforts to use every tool in the marketing tool box was far behind corporate efforts. These days, their marketing efforts put most corporations to shame. Mobile recruiting, chat, YouTube videos, all manner of social media outreach, video games – you name it. It can be an uphill sell, but the 4 services and their guard and reserve components have to recruit over 260,000 people a year, and they accomplish their mission. As a matter of fact, the services are already well ahead of mission for FY 2011, thanks in part to a lousy economy and overall frustration with competing with 400 other people for every job opening.

    Lisa Rosser
    Military Hiring Expert
    The Value Of a Veteran

  2. Recruiting IS the ultimate sales job. Great article, even though, I am former Navy. The positive approach to qualifying is something that recruiting professional should follow.
    Bob Thomason, CPC
    Recuiting Project Consultant for Recruitment & Retention Resources, Inc.

  3. Lisa is absolutely correct that the military’s recruitment marketing efforts put to shame the vast majority of corporate recruitment efforts. The military consistently markets its opportunities like consumer marketing experts do and they understand branding.

    Corporate employers, on the other hand, are often focused on the wrong metrics: cost per click or cost per application when the vast majority don’t even know with any degree of accuracy where those clicks or applications are coming from because they rely on candidate self-identification.

    More and more corporate employers are getting better and better at marketing their employment opportunities but if they’re looking for best practices, they need look not further than the many who serve with distinction in the Army, Marines, Air Force, and Navy.

  4. Restrepo was a highly moving documentary – I fully agree that it’s extremely eye-opening and is certainly worth watching, especially for those looking for more insight as to what we’re encountering in Afghanistan.

    In regards to this well-written article, I can’t speak for all military services, only the U.S. Marines. Here’s the skinny:

    In regards to Recruiting, the Marines don’t have to “sell” you. You “sell” them. They’re not asking you to aspire to earn your way into their Ranks. Either you want to commit and do what it takes to earn your way into the lifelong brotherhood, or you don’t. Not everybody will earn the title “Marine”, but if you’re willing to commit, all the Leaders around you will do everything in their power to make you a success.

    Consider their ad campaign that laid this out, point blank. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvQHAEz8yn4)

    “We don’t accept applications. Only commitments.”

    Let that sink in for a moment . . . their entire Recruiting philosophy is simplified with this statement.

    While I do not mean this to be a shot against any other military services, it’s undeniable that Corporate Recruiting has more in common with how the other services recruit (US Army, US Navy, US Air Force, US Coast Guard, etc.) I mention this because their commercials and ad campaigns are inundated by “what we can do for you”, such as technical skills, tuition coverage, etc.

    In that way, they’re selling you. The Marines don’t work this strategy. You sell them.

    So here’s where I’m going: When you develop a brand (an employment brand, if you will) that is bigger than any one person and speaks to truly becoming a part of something special (i.e. “the best of the best”), there is a new-found shift in the equation where you’re now in a position of advantage . . . and quite frankly, the quality of Candidates increases because the best want to join the best.

  5. Interesting post. One of the most intriguing documentaries I ever saw was The Recruiter, which followed one of the most successful army recruiters in the country. He recruited high school students out of Arkansas. The work he did to help people qualify made an impression on me (though it was also exploitive on some levels, but I think that was the director’s intent). In corporate recruitment, we’d never go to those lengths to help a candidate. However, it was also clear that the needs and desires of most people who are joining the military (average age is 20 with no college degree) are very different than most job candidates corporate recruitment works with.

  6. I know this post is over four years old, but I wanted to chime in anyway…

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything you mention here. I served in the National Guard for six years before transitioning into the Reserves as a recruiter. Even though I was an Army Reserves recruiter, I enlisted way more active duty personnel than reservists.

    Since then, I have been trying to break into recruiting for a civilian company. Other than a temp assignment I had two years ago before I relocated to a different city, I haven’t had much luck getting recruiters to consider me for open recruiting positions.

    It’s a shame really, because like you mentioned, military recruiters are aggressive and know how to sell their organization. I led my station in enlistment contracts during my last year on tour. I was also very upfront and honest about the dangers of military service to ensure that only the most dedicated individuals would take up my time. Anyone who was wishy-washy would change their minds immediately, saving me from wasting precious time on paperwork only for them to change their minds later.

    I have a phone interview today for a college and veteran recruiting position with a lending company, which fits right up my ally because I spent a lot of time on college campuses for recruiting purposes — I also went back to college following my recruiting tour — and of course, I know military veterans well. Hopefully, this opportunity works out for me.

  7. Reading through some of the comments here, I saw that some don’t feel there is a correlation between military recruiting and corporate recruiting. It could be why I am not getting considered for positions: A lot of corporate recruiters are sharing the same opinion. Anyway, I wanted to chime in again about that…

    Yes, military recruiters, for the most part, aren’t looking for individuals with set skills; they are looking for people who fit within a certain parameter and have the ability to learn skills. However, military recruiting is more than just signing up a bunch of high school kids. There are various other programs that military recruiters are responsible to fill.

    For example, in addition to regular enlistments, I had to recruit warrant officer and commission officer candidates too. In order to be a commissioned officer in the military, you need a college degree. Also, you must successfully go through a boarding process where you are interviewed by senior military personnel who are evaluating you on leadership skills and potential. And that’s assuming an OCS candidate gets passed the other interviews he must do with the station commander, the company commander, and the battalion commander. That’s three sets of interviews he must successfully pass before getting through the final interview. Trust me, for a process as thorough as that, military recruiters have to be very judicious about who they recruit for OCS vacancies. I’ve had some candidates make it through; I’ve had some who didn’t.

    There is also a division of Army recruiters who only recruit medical personnel — nurses, dentists, doctors, etc. — and yet another division who only recruit legal personnel, primarily for the JAG Corps.

    So to corporate recruiters out there, I invite you to go to your nearest recruiting station and talk to some military recruiters. You may just find that your respective positions and respective talent pools are more similar than you first thought.

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