Military Veterans in Pharma: Serving to Improve Lives

Tim Sweeney

Military veterans exemplify traits valuable to pharma industry.

Many of the skills that veterans develop during their years of military service translate well to a wide range of roles in civilian workplaces and industries. This is particularly true for the pharmaceutical industry where over the past several decades veterans have proven themselves to be disciplined, adaptable and high-performing employees.

Take Andrew Sanders, a former Naval Aviation Electronics Technician who served for 20 years before joining ARxIUM as a RIVA Automated IV Compounding Service Technician in 2016. At ArxIUM, Sanders services robotic IV compounding systems and guides pharmacy technicians on systems maintenance.

Jeff Moehling is another veteran who enjoys a successful career in pharma. After his service as a critical care Registered Nurse for the Army, his post-military career began in 2000 with a world-renowned pharmaceutical company where he is now a District Sales Manager.

Success stories like these can be found throughout the industry. The key has been a concerted effort between veteran and employer to ensure the right fit and the right tools for a successful transition to the civilian workplace.

Sanders and Moehling find meaning in pharma

Sanders' decision to join the Navy stemmed from a lifelong desire to help others. When the time came to transition from the military, the pharma industry appeared to be a natural fit. Not only did pharma represent an opportunity to leverage his technical expertise gained from years of performing preventative maintenance and corrective/emergency services on naval aircraft, it also allowed him to continue improving the lives of others and belong to a service-driven culture. From the start, he offered to service customers throughout the country, and even during the pandemic he willingly traveled to perform onsite corrective maintenance and emergency service. As with his current role at ARxiUM, Sanders' job in the Navy required him to work in a high paced and tightly regulated environment on a daily basis. Like other former military, Sanders' ability to adapt to difficult and time constrained situations lends itself well to industries like pharma that never stand still.

Moehling's interactions with pharma sales reps during his years working in a military hospital opened his eyes to the pharma industry as an ideal long-term career path. Not only did it put his years of medical training and service to good use, it also represented a meaningful and well-paying profession. After extensive industry research, he interviewed with six pharma companies at a military hiring event in Dallas, TX. As an RN and army officer who already could speak the language, knew how the system works, and understood the responsibilities of healthcare professionals, Moehling clearly stood out and left the hiring event with five opportunities in hand.

For Moehling, one of the most surprising differences between working as an army hospital nurse and a pharma sales rep has been the autonomy of the role. In the Army, he worked in the same place with the same people and followed the same routine every day. As a sales rep, he works independently, singly defining what each of his days look like and what determines success. During his transition to pharma, he also learned the value of building and maintaining relationships − a priority considering the lengthiness of most pharma sales cycles.

Veterans a natural fit for pharma

Like Sanders and Moehling, most veterans are uniquely qualified for an industry devoted to bringing cutting-edge ideas to life. During their service, many veterans receive substantial amounts of advanced technical, electronic and mechanical classroom training in their area of focus. This training combined with hands-on involvement with radar and weapons systems gives them ample experience to excel in working with precision pharma machinery.

In other ways, too, veterans are well-suited for careers in pharma. One of the regulations that the pharmaceutical industry follows is CGMP (Current Good Manufacturing Practices) which emphasizes that products are produced according to quality standards, and guards against risk during the manufacturing process. The military places the same emphasis on Standard Operating Procedures − general instructions that describe "who, what, where, when and how to operate in a functional area." Following standard procedure is a requirement in the military and, as in pharma, skipping steps or failing to follow them correctly can cost lives.This attention to detail, production, quality, safety, maintenance and procedural compliance gives military candidates unique skillsets that translate well to highly regulated CGMP environments.

Beyond their many hard skills, veterans have a unique set of intangibles that are well-suited to the fast-paced pharmaceutical environment. Veterans are known to be quick learners, instinctive leaders, adaptable team players, and customer service oriented. They have the ability to work autonomously and are used to overcoming obstacles in high-stakes environments while staying focused on deadlines, safety and mission. Like other pharma professionals, veterans are driven by a strong sense of purpose, and working in pharma is an opportunity to act on that drive to improve the well-being of others.

Winning the race to hire top military talent in pharma

An effective, dedicated military hiring program is a prerequisite for pharma companies looking to realize the many benefits veterans bring to the industry. Opportunity for improvement usually starts with a better understanding by hiring managers and recruiters of what military officers and technicians bring to industries like pharma that are continually challenged by rising customer expectations and performance scrutiny.

For example, military resumes often include language that is unfamiliar to civilian employees. The military is loaded with acronyms and, in some cases, its own unique language − particularly for veterans who have combat arms backgrounds. Plus, as Sanders points out, "veterans are sometimes lumped together as one type of entity such as infantry or battle, and not thought of as having specialized roles."

One way to help hiring managers and recruiters better understand how military experience translates to success in pharma is to provide them with ample opportunity to speak with veteran candidates. Don't understand what a Nuclear Machinist Mate or Air Force Avionics Craftsman will bring to your company? Most veterans will enthusiastically talk about their service experience, so just ask them to explain it.

However, this comprehension gap is often a two-sided problem. As Moehling explains, "civilian recruiters may have a hard time aligning a veteran’s background to the business world, but veterans may also not understand how to connect those dots or recognize the transferable value of their training and experience. Having a veteran employee involved in the recruiting, interviewing and hiring of veterans can be extremely helpful, as is having a list of questions at hand to help decipher a veteran’s specific experiences."

So what should you be looking for when reviewing military resumes? Overall, look for transitioning Junior Officers (rank of O-2 or O-3) and Field Grade Officers (rank of O-4) for leadership and management roles such as Manufacturing Supervisor; Production Supervisor; Center Manager; Facility Administrator; Operations Manager; and Medical Device, Clinical, and biopharma sales reps. Specifically, recruiters can look for titles such as 1st or 2nd Lieutenant, Lieutenant Junior Grade, or Captain.

When considering these individuals, know that training to become an officer is a major focus in the military, and the acquisition of leadership skills is a priority. Military officers typically interact with higher ranking officers on a regular basis, and also have excellent communication and sales skills.

For roles that are technical in nature seek those with nuclear training, electronics, electrical or mechanical backgrounds. These candidates have experience conducting equipment maintenance and troubleshooting on submarines, ships, aircraft and tanks, and are a great match for roles within pharma such as R&D and Laboratory Technicians; Medical Compliance Managers; Chemical Operators; and Process Automation, Calibration, Instrumentation, and Maintenance Technicians.

Tips for building an effective military hiring program

In addition to understanding how to translate veteran skillsets, here are five additional tips that talent acquisition leaders should keep top-of-mind:

  1. Ensure key stakeholders are aligned on the business case for hiring veterans. This includes buy-in from the C-Suite, TA Leaders, HR professionals and hiring managers.Start by figuring out why you are hiring veterans in the first place. Is it to meet regulatory or diversity requirements? Or, is the goal simply to hire top skilled talent? When this kind of alignment is achieved, accountability follows, and it becomes easier for business stakeholders to confidently move forward with a step-by-step plan.
  2. Identify the best roles for veterans within your business. Since the military is driven by leadership, operations, and technology, focus on auditing positions in these areas to identify best matched jobs for veterans. Remember that not all positions in your organization will be a good fit for someone with a military background.
  3. Develop a military community outreach platform that positions your company as an employer of choice for veterans. DE&I continues to be a challenge for the Life Sciences sector, and a dedicated veteran hiring program can help employers achieve more inclusive workplaces as well as meet Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) regulations.
  4. Ensure that current employees involved in the hiring process receive specific and appropriate training which conveys sufficient knowledge about the experience of a military veteran, pay grade and rank structure, and a general understanding of Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) codes. Non-military recruiters can educate themselves further by attending and talking with veterans at student veteran organizations and recruiting events.
  5. Track metrics. The best way to improve your process is to identify where you are having issues and take proactive steps to address problems. Time-to-hire, offer acceptance rate and retention are good starting points in measuring success.

Retention starts before day one

Transitioning to the civilian workplace can be a huge stressor for veterans, and many veterans leave their jobs within the first year. A veteran's experience with your company starts during the interview process, so be sure to emphasize how your company makes a dedicated effort to provide them with the resources they need to successfully transition. Once on board, emphasize robust training programs to close gaps between the military and civilian workplace experience, create visibility into career paths and opportunities for professional growth, and communicate benefits and healthcare coverage.

Moehling also suggests "monitoring veterans’ progress and establishing an Employee Resource Group (ERG) or mentorship program for them so they have a place to interact with colleagues who share common backgrounds."

Sanders, who went from working in the Navy with thousands of shipmates, peers and mentors to being the only employee in his state reminds us to understand the mindset of transitioning service members. While he feels the flexibility he developed during the service prepared him for any challenge, he was appreciative that his new company was there for him from the start, always just a phone call away.

Veterans in pharma are a win-win

Veterans provide a unique blend of material training and experience combined with intangible assets. From laboratory technicians to medical device sales reps, veterans are qualified for many roles in pharma, and a perfect fit to help fuel innovation and growth for the pharmaceutical industry.

Moehling sums it up perfectly saying "pharma represents a great opportunity for veterans to continue drawing from their military training and experience to serve their communities. Regardless of their position in the military, transitioning veterans have much to offer civilian employers, and the pharmaceutical industry is a great place to start."

Tim Sweeney, former U.S. Naval Officer and graduate of the US Naval Academy, Vice President of Business Development and Senior Partner at Orion Talent