Entertainment industry giants have made a notable commitment to help America’s armed forces transition to civilian life, and in particular to welcome them to Hollywood.
It’s a complex, difficult transition. Those who’ve put their lives on the line, often in positions of responsibility and leadership far beyond their years, may lack the savoir-faire to move smoothly into the job market. Having never interviewed, many struggle to express themselves in non-military terms. Hiring managers, meanwhile, can fall prey to stereotypes, and can’t always read a military resume’s nuances to match them to civilian work.
“When I see these brave, talented men and women transitioning, and their identities and their networks are taken away … it’s hard,” says Richard M. Jones, CBS’ chief veteran officer as well as executive VP and general tax counsel.
Though returnees don’t want or expect special treatment, they welcome a helping hand. Retired Army Col. Kevin Preston, now manager of Disney Veterans Initiatives, says: “We’re not looking to say, ‘you owe me something.’ We just want an opportunity to show what we can do.”
Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger announced such an opportunity to stockholders in 2012, vis a vis a company-wide commitment to 1,000 veteran hires by 2015. More than 2,500 managers have gone through a military education curriculum, and five years later the Heroes Work Here initiative boasts 8,000 vets snapped up by Disney’s various entertainment, media and resort divisions.
“Hiring veterans has become part of the fabric of the Disney Company,” Preston says. “It’s been internalized.”
Not to be outdone, Comcast NBCUniversal announced in 2015 an initiative to recruit 10,000 veterans, Guard and Reserve members and spouses/partners across its divisions within two years.
“It wasn’t a mathematical calculation,” says retired Brig. Gen. Carol Eggert, now senior VP, military and veterans affairs, but “a North Star” that their people could rally around. “Military-friendly is ‘thanks for your service.’ Military-ready is, ‘we have programs in place to hire you … we understand you.’”
To bring about a state of military readiness, Eggert and team created the Comcast Military Community Roadmap to take its civilians through unfamiliar concerns: “Why are military spouses important? What are the military ranks? You wouldn’t offer the same job to an E4 or specialist as you would to, let’s say, a colonel.” The roadmap “has made a big difference in increasing understanding, and increasing interviews.”
“We can’t commit to 10,000 jobs, like Disney, with its theme parks, or like the banks do,” Jones says. “But what we can do is make sure we’re influencing senior leadership when there are hiring opportunities.”
He cites “our very robust internship program” and the CBS Veteran Network, “an internal affinity group to provide community for the 400 veterans and family members who have this commonality. We also use it to align our efforts to do our outreach, to find ways that we can marshal the good that CBS can do.”
He rejects any idea that media giants are simply checking off a give-back box. “Through our advocacy, people see it and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize that. I’m going to make sure I’m doing something impactful.’”
Speaking of impact, no fewer than 43,000 nonprofit organizations tell the IRS their raison d’etre is helping veterans. This poses a quandary for the Call of Duty Endowment, created in 2009 by Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, and named for the company’s phenomenally successful video game. Where, among those 43,000 501(c)3’s, should grants go?
“It’s a needle in a haystack problem,” says endowment executive director Dan Goldenberg, a Navy flight officer and captain in the Navy Reserve. Working with pro bono donator Deloitte since 2013, Call of Duty employs a lauded screening methodology to identify and monitor high-performing nonprofits, bestowing Seal of Distinction awards and grants and matchmaking between partners and applicants. Hire Heroes USA, for example, originally got $50,000, and “now we do about $1.4 million with them annually. … The whole point of it is to pick winners.”
Goldenberg notes the endowment’s average cost-per-placement is $553, almost one-sixth the federal government’s cost to install a veteran hire. “We’ve put $25 million against this since 2009 and the result is 37,000 veterans in high-quality jobs,” he says, at an average starting salary 88% higher than the national median.
Small- and mid-size companies hire 80% of America’s veterans, and they, too, benefit from media support. Eggert says the Comcast Employers School provides online content free of charge “to help employers set up a hiring program: how to interview military candidates, how to set up an employee research group.”
Preston estimates the Disney Veterans Institute, a no-cost seminar laying out the Magic Kingdom’s playbook, has led to “just shy of 20,000” new hires at non-Disney concerns.
Training is crucial because the divide between returnees and civilians seems beyond dispute. The same sobering data points keep coming up: Only 6%-7% of the population has been in the armed forces. The 67% of 1970s Americans who knew someone who served has shrunk to around 30%.
“Less than 1% serve at any one point,” Eggert says, lending credence to Jones’ contention that “America needs to be reintroduced to itself, by being reintroduced to the brave men and women who serve in our military.”
Veterans with Hollywood aspirations have two weighty obstacles to face. For one, civilians often can’t see them as anything but security guards or technical consultants, in what Goldenberg calls “the false stereotype” that “they don’t have a creative bone in their body.”
Yet Preston says “the military trains directly transferable skills. … Don’t put us in a box, that we can only do X, we can only do combat arms.”
Eggert lists “being part of a team, the ability to problem-solve … situational analysis,” and gets specific: Specialists in combat documentation produce video content in the field, while public affairs officers do likewise in media relations. Youngsters with school theater experience, actively recruited by the services, “have exactly the kind of base entry skills that the entertainment industry is looking for.”
The situation should improve as awareness grows; already, visitors to Heroes Work Here’s website can click on their military specialty and view jobs with which their skills might dovetail. Another hurdle is ironically fostered by Hollywood itself. “They shape people’s understanding of who veterans are,” says Goldenberg. “There’s a perception out there that A, you must have been in combat; B, you must have been traumatized; or C, it’s somehow not going to make you a normal person.”
“Without the proper context,” Jones says, hiring managers will “say thank you for your service, but no thank you. It’ll reinforce a narrative that veterans are broken and dysfunctional.”
Eggert acknowledges “a population that’s in need,” and “nobody does it better than the military” in preventing suicide and fighting PTSD. But military service “often creates resilience, not fragility. They don’t come back broken.”
In or out of combat, “there’s so much of a challenge in any position they’re in: working with teams, having to solve problems, having to deal with budgets….I think that military service can make individuals much stronger in character, as well as skills.”
She cites a Rand finding that veterans give back to their communities at a greater rate than non-military, while Goldenberg notes a Corporate Executive Board study showing 4% higher productivity and 3% lower turnover among veterans.
With the understatement typical of all his fellow veterans advocates, Preston urges those in a position to hire.
“Give them a platform to stand on,” he says,”and they will generally do very well, and please and amaze the people they work with.”