Leveraging Veterans: ‘Smart for business!’

November 30, 2016 12:03 pm

General Motors’ decades-long commitment to hiring, retaining and supporting the military community is good for both the community and the bottom line, explains Keith Nattrass, who leads GM’s military and veterans affairs.

Leveraging Veterans: 'Smart for business!'Keith Nattrass
GM Military and Veterans Affairs
GM Global Diversity


Keith leads the team responsible for General Motors’ (GM, No. 48 on the DiversityInc 2016 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) military advocacy and initiatives that empower GM’s proactive support for the military community and alignment to GM’s corporate strategy. Keith has been a longtime GM military advocate, serving as the president of the Veteran Employee Resource Group (ERG), leading to the formulation of the GM Military and Veterans Affairs Office three years ago. In this role, he manages enterprise-wide programs and projects that sustain relationships between GM and its external partners, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “Hiring Our Heroes,” Veteran Jobs Mission, Habitat for Humanity, among many others.

In November 2015, Keith was recognized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes Foundation with the Colonel Andres Award for “Individual Excellence in Veteran and Military Spouse Employment.”

Keith is the son of a World War II Fifth Army Armored Tank Commander and a former Air Force Aviator, as well as proud father of an Army Afghanistan OEF Veteran and Naval Aviator son-in-law. Keith is a member of the National Ski Patrol, a certified Professional Rescuer instructor and certified American Red Cross trainer.


Q. Why is your company focused on recruiting veterans? Describe your veteran’s recruitment/outreach initiatives.

A. General Motors’ support for the United States armed forces spans generations. For over one hundred years, GM has supplied manpower and materials in support of our military and their families. Since the times of World War II, when the Detroit-based manufacturing might was coined as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” GM has expanded its footprint to meet the global needs for technology and transportation services worldwide. With this global growth and technical expansion, finding and retaining a highly skilled workforce is a key business imperative.

However, many of today’s technologies are being developed concurrently with this search for new talent. Emerging areas like autonomous vehicles, alternate propulsion systems, alternative energy sources, cybersecurity, just to name a few, are all in relative infancy stages. In most cases, the available “talent” for these areas does not exist and therefore must be internally developed or grown.

This is a big struggle for any hiring manager looking to fill an immediate opening with a specific job skill set — only to find that it’s extremely rare to locate or that none exists. Closing this talent “gap” is where our Veterans play a vital role. Our search criteria shifts from “skill set,” toward looking for individuals who have proven abilities to learn, demonstrated leadership capabilities (sometimes under extreme conditions), effective team work and people skills across a diverse workforce. Veterans come in the door on “day one” with leadership, integrity, collaboration and problem-solving, and they know a thing or two about big corporate cultures!

GM was one of the first corporate partners to sign on with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “Hiring Our Heroes” Program, as well as the Veteran Job Mission — both national coalitions of private sector companies aligned to support and assist our military veterans and their spouses. GM also attends targeted military career fairs around the country and specific military base activations.


Q. Are veterans recruited for leadership positions? If so, have you had success in this area?

A. GM continues to seek the best and brightest talent from all of its global sources and has recently insourced its Talent Acquisition in order to identify and support talent needs across a wide spectrum of work functions. More than 60,000 GM employees have served in the U.S. military, and today GM employs more than 4,500 military veterans. These leadership positions include on a GM Board of Directors (i.e. Retired Admiral Mike Mullen), and a former chairman and CEO (i.e. Dan Akerson). But, our objective is not to hire for the Board Room; it’s to recruit and hire the right talent across all of the company ranks. There’s no question that Veterans bring value to the company, but those who excel in leadership positions will find many challenging career paths that match their passion.


Q. Once veterans are hired, do you have programs in place to retain and develop them?

A. The technology found in the automotive sector is amongst the most demanding, requiring the individual to keep their skill set sharp, especially in the area of emerging technologies. Veterans are used to constant cross training and skills development, which is a perfect match for GM. To that end, GM has an extensive benefits and educational training program to support our employees — directed at all employees, not just Veterans.

One aspect of Veteran hiring that is not mentioned much is the support for our National Guard and Reserve members. Many veterans facing transition (i.e. uncertainty) elect to remain in the National Guard or Reserve but are unsure if their potential employer would support that decision. I am proud to say that GM was the first company in the nation to sign the very first letter of support for the Guard and Reserve back in 1972 (i.e. the Nixon Era). In fact, our former CEO became the first chairman for what is now known as the “Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve” organization. The value that these veterans continue to provide to our country and our company deserves that same level of support that extends to their families during their time of active duty.


Q. What challenge(s) has the company faced in recruiting or retaining veterans, and how has it overcome those challenges?

A. In addition to participating on the National Veterans Employment Advisory Council, GM is proud to be a member of the State of Michigan’s Veterans Employment Advisory Council. One of the hardest obstacles we faced early on for attracting talent into Michigan was the winter weather! While we had no problems getting recruiters to attend a January job fair in San Diego, we had plenty of problems trying to convince California prospects to make the snow trek!

Our biggest hurdle was overcome by telling the automotive technology story to our prospects — leading edge, future sci-fi type job requirements and how their technical background and skill set translated into a real world automotive application and career path. As everyone knows, competition for veterans has increased across all the industry sectors, throughout the business community, and the unemployment rate for Veterans has dropped significantly, making this career market extremely competitive.

Of course, hiring the Veteran just starts the process. Key to retention, specifically for our Veterans, is to have a mentoring process in place to support their transition. Oddly enough, GM’s mentoring program is called “Wingman” — I say odd because the name actually came from a former Marine! Like many mentoring programs, senior employees are matched to the Veteran in a structured program that provides one-on-one support. There’s no magic here — all employees want to know how much you care, and a mentoring program is the easiest way to take a corporate culture and bring it down to that personal level.


Q. Do you have a veterans resource group? If so, can you describe how it has helped the company address or meet business objectives?

A. Our Veterans Group was formed back in 2001 and represents a cross section of Veterans, family members and advocate employees. It is an amazing chemistry of personal and national commitment — passionate and compassionate — toward helping Veterans and their families. We are centrally organized in the Detroit area but regionally deployed out to most of our other locations — Georgia, Texas, Arizona, etc.

These groups work to embrace our company values and employees’ understanding of the issues unique to our Veterans, which are not too unlike all other new employees. This structure provides a forum where employees (Veteran and non-Veteran) get together to encourage, support and mentor each other for both their personal and professional development. The one military attribute that is routinely leveraged is their outreach and support within the local community. These groups conduct fund raisers, make care packages, extend homeless shelter support and support other worthy local community needs.

The Veterans Group also support various marketing campaigns like our GMC Building for America’s Bravest, Chevrolet Achilles Freedom Team and GM’s Military Discount Program.

Leveraging Veterans nationally and locally is smart for business!