OPINION: Enlisted vets absent from most exec roles—officers dominate
Retired military officers, especially those at the O-5 pay grade and above — like an Army lieutenant colonel or a Navy rear admiral, are disproportionately represented in executive roles aimed at supporting military veterans.
Of the roughly 200,000 service members that transition out each year, 90% come from the enlisted ranks. But most of the top posts at state veterans’ affairs agencies and in executive roles in corporate America are occupied by former military officers, not the enlisted like a former Air Force staff sergeant or Navy petty officer second class.
At state veterans’ affairs agencies, 78% are run by former military officers. Well over half of the roles filled by officers once held the military pay grade of O-5 or above.
Corporate America is very similar. My initial analysis shows that executive positions supporting the veterans’ community are mostly occupied by prior service officers. Specifically, I looked at titles at the director and vice president level and above with a clear focus on the military community. Of the 24 corporations reviewed, 20 of the executive roles went to officers.
I conducted this analysis after reflecting on my personal journey in the military and veterans’ community. I ascended to one of the highest executive roles coveted by many veterans, serving as the head of Student Veterans of America. While there, trying to assist veterans to find post-military jobs, I noticed how corporate America placed a greater value on recruiting officers over enlisted, especially for management tracks.
In fact, over a decade ago, I admonished the private sector for focusing on junior military officer recruitment programs, targeting veterans who held a rank like Marine Corps and Army captains, while overtly ignoring enlisted veterans. While my article is now lost in the catacombs of once-living websites, a reference to my article still exists on the Bradley-Morris website (now owned by Recruit Military).
My latest research shows little has changed: companies I reviewed seem to value senior rank in their veteran talent acquisition teams and military outreach divisions. Take USAA, a widely respected financial institution with a longstanding history serving the military community.
USAA has a team dedicated to military affairs. Six of the 15 members of the team are prior service officers, with the top executive role occupied by a retired Navy vice admiral. Those that are not officers are mostly E-9 — the highest pay grade one can attain in the enlisted ranks. Only one is an E-7, which is still a senior enlisted rank usually associated with a long career in the military. All 15 positions are held by those who have retired from the military, likely with 20 or more years of service.
The pattern of former high ranking service members, especially former officers, as top executives may go beyond the veterans’ community. In 2019, Business Insider ran an article highlighting 15 veterans serving or having previously served at the head of a Fortune 500 company. Only two were previously enlisted service members.
Korn Ferry issued a report in 2014 describing military officers as “over-represented among the ranks of CEOs.” The report mentions enlisted once, describing the population as having little to no college education. The statement is fair when describing the junior enlisted population within the military, but shortsighted when articulating the better comparison group of enlisted veterans, reservists, and members of the National Guard, especially those with greater access to revamped education benefits.
Companies did expand recruiting programs to enlisted veterans after the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, especially for tracks beyond technical roles. A report published at Brookings by U.S. Military Academy associate professor Michael Kofoed described prior enlisted Army veterans as the highest Post-9/11 GI Bill users. Specifically, non-commissioned officers or NCOs, at the E-5 to E-6 level have higher participation rates compared to other ranks. Additionally, a study by Student Veterans of America shows that business degrees are the top programs of study by veterans.
But noncommissioned officers are still thought of by the business world as less educated and less prepared to manage corporate teams even though their main job in the military was to manage people. When enlisted are represented in executive ranks, they tend to be retirees with the rank of E-7 or above. Meanwhile, most troops leaving the service are E-6 and below.
The veterans’ community should take notice of the rank discrepancy in executive roles. By not doing so, we are failing to fully represent the entirety of the community in strategic-level positions, and we are also missing an opportunity to inspire the next generation of enlisted service members.
Michael Dakduk is a Marine veteran that served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a sergeant. He previously ran Student Veterans of America. Dakduk works as an executive and board member in nonprofits, advocacy organizations and a private equity backed company.
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