Every year, 200,000 to 250,000 veterans leave the Armed Forces and re-enter civilian life, most of them as job seekers. More than 11 million vets are in the labor force, from cashiers to CEOs, but relatively few gravitate into the LBM business. Except for a handful of the industry's largest retail chains, pro dealers don't aggressively recruit or hire veterans, and some question whether a military background is even suited to their businesses.

That's a missed opportunity, say dealers that have hired vets and recruiting and networking groups that help vets in transition. Based on their experiences, they think companies that sell or distribute building materials and hardware are good fits for what veterans can offer employers.

"When I was a captain in the 1st Cavalry Division, I had people who ran lumberyards for me," says Tom Aiello, vice president with Chicago-based Military.com, a Web site with 8 million veterans as members.

Dan Caulfield, (no relation to the author) president of Hire A Hero, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based veterans networking organization, says that building-product distribution is like the military in that both are "logistical organizations," and would be a perfect fit for veterans.

Others point to vets' loyalty and trainability as attributes. The Home Depot certainly agrees. In 2004, the Atlanta-based dealer launched "Operation Career Front," a recruiting program that has hired 50,000 veterans.

"The skills of vets match with what we're looking for," says Gretchen Lumsden, director of retail staffing for The Home Depot. "Many vets have tremendous leadership skills" and show maturity and judgment beyond that of the general labor pool, she says.

Some have construction experience that meshes with The Home Depot's goal to service builders and remodelers. Former junior officers account for half of the employees that The Home Depot has enlisted into its two-year Store Leadership Program, which prepares associates for management. And an evaluation of veteran-employees that The Home Depot conducted last year found they stay with the company longer than nonmilitary hires and have better performance ratings.

The question of hiring vets–or anyone, for that matter–is moot for most pro dealers waiting out the housing slump. But when they do hire, many leave that to their stores. Bill Stark, vice president of human resources for Builders FirstSource, thinks a corporate recruiting program would be difficult to administer for 100 locations. Still, BFS has "a good number of vets" in its employ, and Stark sees merit in attracting more. "Our business has a lot of requirements when it comes to customer service and meeting deadlines, and having a military background lends itself to them," he says.

Natural Leaders

In an October article in the Washington Times, Thomas Lynch, a former Marine colonel and a military fellow with The Brookings Institution, wrote that veterans "display a propensity toward leadership," which pro dealers would agree is rare in today's labor pool.

"We have a yard manager, a former Marine sergeant, who is a real go-getter," says Scott Levitt, general manager for Manning Building Supplies in Jacksonville, Fla. "His work ethic is unbelievable."

Lynch also noted that vets often have "exceptional information technology know-how and technical expertise," something to which Wolseley, the parent company of Stock Building Supply, can attest. Keith Fox, corporate recruiter for Wolseley's North American division in Newport News, Va., observes that the Defense Department often pioneers technologies before they reach the private sector. At its warehouse operations, Wolseley uses veteran-employees to help train other associates on those systems.

Dealers looking for veterans to hire have lots of resources to tap, starting with military bases and their transition officers. RecruitMilitary, a Loveland, Ohio-based organization, has 6,000 clients that include The Home Depot, Lowe's, and 84 Lumber; the latter two have microsites that link to RecruitMilitary's Web site. In 2008, RecruitMilitary will conduct 104 job fairs in 44 cities. Larry Slagel, executive vice president, says fairs will draw between 400 and 700 job seekers, and 15% to 20% of them will secure follow-up interviews.

Military.com conducts eight fairs per year and is refining its Web site so vets can cross-reference their specific experience–for example, combat engineer–with available job postings.

Perception vs. Reality

There is a disconnect in how the private sector and veterans perceive each other, which partly stems from a lack of familiarity. There are far fewer people today who have served in the Armed Forces than a generation or two ago. Consequently, companies sometimes don't have the context to appreciate how military experience can translate in the workforce, says Caulfield.

In addition, "vets don't know how to market themselves, especially the younger ones," says Slagel. Fox of Wolseley has sat in on several transition meetings at military bases, "and what we tell [vets] is not to undersell themselves."

Some pro dealers wonder about the abilities of vets. "In the military, you're managed by fear," says one dealer who asked not to be named. "They don't do anything without being told, and all of their initiative has been taken away from them."

It's not like vets are beating a path to pro dealers' doors, either. Stark of BFS says his son, a Marine helicopter pilot who will complete his tour of duty in two years, has shown little interest in pursuing a retailing career. Hudek of Wolseley says that the industry could do a better job educating vets about the opportunities that are in the field.

Shane Cornett wasn't thinking about retailing before he joined Lowe's two years ago. He had been in the Army since he was in high school and made the rank of staff sergeant when he was contacted by a Lowe's HR manager about working for the giant retailer. Cornett is now Lowe's transitioning military recruiter and oversees a vet recruitment program the dealer started in September 2006 that, as of November 2007, had hired 586 people. Lowe's ranked 37th on GI Jobs magazine's 2007 list of vet friendly employers. The Home Depot ranked 12th, and Sears Holdings ranked 50th.

Cornett says most vets that Lowe's hires are store employees, and that human resources and loss prevention are "particularly good fits" for vets. But he's not satisfied that the company is attracting enough vets, so Lowe's is stepping up its recruitment efforts this year by participating in more of RecruitMilitary's fairs.

Search for Yourself

Curious to see who is hiring vets and for what? Check out www.military.com/network and enter the name of a company for listed openings. You also can search the Web site by location.

–John Caulfield is a contributing editor to ProSales.