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A look inside Disney's effort to hire 3,000 veterans

Photo by Tom Bricker via Flickr Creative Commons

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It can be difficult for anyone to find a job right now, but it’s especially tough for new veterans.

The unemployment rate for recent young vets averaged more than 20 percent last year. That’s more than five percentage points higher than young non-vets.

But now, some big companies are making an effort to hire more veterans, including Disney.

“This is no different than planning for a mission,” Disney’s head of veteran hiring, Kevin Preston, told a room full of job seekers recently at a Disney-sponsored job seminar in Long Beach. “Know what you’re going to wear the night before. Make sure the tie is there. Make sure the shoes are there.”

Aside from attire, Preston stresses the importance of acing the interview, of networking—and of branding.
“Don’t overlook the status and the brand of being a veteran,” said Preston. “You need to have in the first three words of your resume ‘veteran.’”

Vets bring experience, follow-through

Preston served in the Army for 27 years, rising to the rank of colonel. He joined Disney a year ago to lead its effort to hire a thousand veterans in three years.

The company may have set the bar too low.

Already, Disney has hired 1,300 veterans. It recently announced a new goal of bringing on 2,000 vets in two years.

“Not since World War II has there been a better time to be a veteran,” said Preston in an interview after his seminar.

Corporate America has finally realized that veterans make excellent employees, he said. They’re good at following orders and at leading; they know how to follow-through on assignments; and they have experience with different cultures.

But Preston said many veterans never get to show what they can do on the job because they don’t know how to get a job. They’re used to the military, where you wear your resume on your sleeve.

“Building a resume is learned skill, learning how to interview a resume is a learned skill, building a network is a learned skill," said Preston. “The military doesn’t do that. We don’t use resumes, we don’t do interviews, and networking is not really needed.”

Understanding different behavior on the job

It’s not just the veterans who need training. Preston also teaches classes for Disney managers.
“And one of the things I tell them is, ‘Here’s where’s these people are coming from: You may see different behaviors in the office than what you’re used to,’’’ said Preston. “For example, the veterans may not be the chatty person that asks everyone, ‘How was your weekend?’ It’s not because they don’t like you; they’re just really focused on the job.”

If any place required a sunny disposition, it would seem to be Disney.

Many veterans who came to the job seminar badly wanted to work at the Happiest Place on Earth, even though their experience since leaving the military has been far from a fairy tale.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me: ‘Find a job.’ But it’s not that easy,” said Eric Nicholson, who was medically discharged from the Marines in 2010.

He has nerve damage in one leg and uses a cane to help him walk. After two years of looking for work—sending out dozens of resumes—Nicholson’s only job offer came from Taco Bell.

He tried it for a month - and then he quit.

“It’s a little bit frustrating, but you gotta roll with the punches,” said Nicholson.

Nicholson hopes to work at the Magic Kingdom as a security guard, but what he’s really hoping for is that the company hires him to play a Disney character.