An Interview with Starr Companies' Tom Donovan, Head of Veterans Initiative

November 01, 2016

Uniting Veterans with Meaningful Careers

Veterans Day is a time to remember, a day to pay tribute to the men and women who have served our nation in times of turbulence and in times of peace. As we reflect on this national holiday, we also recognize the diversity and value that Veterans bring to our nation and our workforce.


Though many post 9/11 Veterans are actively searching for employment and many businesses are in need of top talent, bridging the gap between professional organizations and prior service members has not been without its struggles. Throughout history, the transition for Veterans is not as clear cut as one would hope.


In an interview with Tom Donovan, Head of Veterans Initiative, he discusses difficulties in choosing a career and transitioning to the lay workforce faced by Veterans and the challenges corporations have with understanding former service members. He then talks about how Starr Companies’ Veteran’s Initiative contributes to uniting Veterans with meaningful careers.

HF (Honey Fender): Tell me a little bit about your military career.


TD: I served 28 years in the Army mostly as a paratrooper and also in the rangers and a few other assignments. I was an officer and rose to the rank of Colonel. I commanded companies in Korea, a battalion in the 82nd airborne division, and a brigade in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I did four combat tours to Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I retired in October 2014.


HF: What was transition like for you separated from the military?


TD: Unlike some other people I wasn't quite clear what I want to do after the military. I knew I wanted to do something in leadership, but I knew I wasn’t interested in a government or defense contractor position.

HF: What attracted you to the role of Head of Veterans Initiative for Starr Companies?


TD: One, I've been looking for an opportunity to give back to Veterans. I served with them over four tour combat deployments for 28 years and in many parts of the globe. I wanted to give them opportunities that I felt like they deserve and they were struggling to get. That appealed to me - a continuation of selfless service in the military.

HF: So what are the struggles you see with Veterans transitioning?


TD: The biggest challenge I see is networking. That is the way many jobs are found these days. It tends to be more word of mouth than it is necessarily searching the internet for a job. You have to get to know people so they know who you are and what you're trying to achieve. Before this though, you need to know what you're trying to do and what you're trying to achieve. That is an even bigger challenge.


The second challenge is that most of Corporate America doesn't understand Veterans. They don’t understand the skill sets that Veterans have coming out of the military. They understand that they come out with values but are not quite clear what those values are and how they translate in Corporate America. They tend to under appreciate how much leadership skills Veterans have, how they are quick learners, and how much “make things up and make it happen” skills they have.


They don’t understand Veterans because the majority of people in Corporate America never served in military, unlike 40 or 50 years ago. That sort of knowledge doesn't exist right now, so assumptions are made that don’t help us.

On the other hand, there are actually people trying to hire Veterans. They are aware of it and trying to do something. It's just that the translation of skills from the military and gaining the technical skills Corporate America that is the challenge.


HF: What is some advice you would give to Veterans currently pursuing their degree or recently graduated so that they can easily transfer their skills for their next job out of college?


TD: Well, I think if you're a recent college graduate you have the advantage of starting with a new slate. What I mean by that is you’re compared to other college graduates and you're not expected to have much life experience compared to the workforce. Your advantage is you actually have 4 to 6 years military service with often with leadership experience which makes you a distinctively attractive college graduate.

I think being open-minded that civilian careers are different from military careers is important. There are a large variety of options out here which is much more complex when compared to the military as far as job and career paths go. But you have to go figure it out, figure out what appeals to you, what looks right and give it your best effort, then shift from that point forward based on what you want.

Another thing that is different is that in the military, you kind of have to accept the culture as is.
In corporate America when you're in a company, they're not just interviewing you, you're interviewing them. You have to sense it out whether a company culture feels good to you or doesn’t feel like a place you could work. This is as equally as important as finding a job.


HF: Going back to what you said about corporations not understanding Veterans, how does your role in Starr Companies as Head Veterans Initiative address common Veteran stereotypes and make Starr Companies a place where veterans can feel like they will be appreciate for who they are instead of a prejudice that comes along with the Veteran status?


TD: I think you can understand that better than me. So, I think my role is one having been a part of the company now for almost two years. I've gone through some training that has helped me start to understand the lingo of the insurance profession and the structure of this company and how we operate both from the insurance perspective as well as HR perspective and hiring perspective.

Now, I can talk to the right people about potential candidates that are out there. But I also try to reach out with Veterans who are preparing for interviews and talk to them about the company. I talk to them about specific programs that they might be eligible or interested in. If possible, get them connected with one of Starr’s employees so they can have an informal informational interview to learn about the company, about the job, and about their careers.

HF: What do you think that makes Starr Companies different when it comes to hiring Veterans?


TD: The one thing that strikes me is that we're actually trying to provide opportunities for careers instead of only jobs. I'm not saying there are companies don't do that, but there are some companies that are hiring Veterans or cycling through Veterans coming for 6 months to a year and leaving. At Starr Companies, we are trying to get them all to stay.


Learn more about at Starr Companies' Veterans Initiative.



Honey Fender is a U.S. Army Veteran. She started her career in 2005 in the Army Reserves in Indiana as a vehicle mechanic. She then enlisted active duty in 2007 as a clarinet player in the Army Band. She was stationed in Germany and deployed to Iraq. After returning from overseas, she served in the Indiana and New Jersey Army National Guard until 2013. Honey is currently a senior at Baruch College and a Marketing Coordinator at Starr Companies in New York City.

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