Agnipath and a second career for veterans

The raging controversy around the Agnipath scheme has placed the spotlight on an issue that has been pushed under the carpet for too long.

Indrajit Gupta

[Cdr. Raja Narayanaswami, a former naval commander who successfully transitioned to a leadership role at Amazon]

Last week, in the aftermath of the violence surrounding the controversial Agnipath scheme, the exchange between Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra and Admiral Arun Prakash had twitterati in a complete flap.

Admiral Prakash’s tweet may have found resonance and tapped into the innate frustration among many ex-servicemen. Except that a part of the blame must also lie with the Admiral and the defence establishment as well.

I recently spoke to a veteran with two decades of experience in the Navy who transitioned to a leadership role at an MNC. What has Admiral Prakash done in his capacity as the Naval chief to improve job prospects—and provide a second career for Armed Forces personnel, he asked. He did not put that in the public domain though.

The answer is: Very little. And simply, not enough.

A recent analysis published by Business Standard shows the following:

For instance, by December 2019, Bihar, UP, Punjab, and Haryana, which together account for 80 percent of the armed forces in India, have given jobs to only 1.5 percent of the 200,000 veterans who had registered for a job.

And that’s why if one were to search for a silver lining in the controversy around Agnipath, it is this: instead of indulging in finger pointing or mere lip service, we need a deeper and more constructive conversation among all stakeholders — whether it be the government, industry, Armed Forces or civil society. And everyone must work together to ensure that long-term, systemic solutions are found.

The need is palpable because the sheer waste of human capital is staggering. Every year, as many as 60,000 defence personnel leave the armed forces. Barely a small fraction find jobs, let alone a proper second career. On their part, India Inc remains mostly unaware of the quality of the talent pool that exists in the armed forces. And has thus far lost out on the opportunity to inject diversity into their workforce with the induction of a cadre of disciplined, well trained ex-servicemen.

To top it all, four years from now, imagine the situation when 75 percent of the 46,000 Agniveers exit and are forced to find jobs outside. This crisis will simply worsen since the Agnipath scheme aims to ramp up hiring to 1.25 lakh in four years. So what’s the way out?

A new collaborative model

In a pyramidal structure, there are many legitimate reasons why officers, junior commissioned officers (JCOs) and other ranks (ORs) choose to leave the services. 

Sometimes, growth tends to plateau, they could get overlooked for promotions leading to less challenging roles and their refusal to be superseded by juniors. This ‘up or out’ system creates perennial pressure on the personnel and the system to find new roles outside the armed forces.

Now, the Directorate General Resettlement (DGR) is tasked with the onerous challenge of resettling veterans and jawans who either retire or take premature retirement from the armed forces.

Some of the existing models have delivered results, such as the six-month ‘Certification Course in Business Management for Defence Officers’ (referred to as CCBMDO). DGR invited bids from the IIMs, IIFT and MDI and selected applicants for the 50-60 odd seats in each institute (the seats are now being augmented with two batches a year.) They also pay 60 percent of the course fee, while the candidate is expected to cover the balance so that they put skin in the game.

In many cases, this is often the first time that officers get a peek into how the world of business works. Crossing the chasm from the relatively secluded, regimented life in the Armed forces to the wider civilian world with its own uncertainties and ambiguities can be formidable. Let’s consider a few adjustments that make it challenging for them. 

One, the hierarchical nature and the top down decision making culture of the Armed Forces organisations. Armed forces personnel are not expected to challenge an order. In the corporate world, it is expected that you sometimes offer your dissenting view and yet abide by the final decision. 

Also, getting things done often demands the ability to influence others in the corporate world. “In the business world, people have to be persuaded and convinced before they are ready to act,” says Deven Pabaru, CEO, Stellar Value Chain Fulfilment Solutions, a leading integrated logistics company, that is embarking on a big veterans hiring plan this year. 

Two, the need to figure out the most cost effective solution is an integral part of a corporate leader’s job. “When we are on a mission in a Naval assignment, the plan is already set. We simply have to focus on getting the job done. We don’t necessarily have to work on looking for alternatives that are financially viable,” says Cdr. Raja Narayanaswami, a former naval commander who successfully transitioned to a leadership role at Amazon, after completing the six month course at IIM Indore in 2015.

These certification courses do help in bridging gaps and widening perspectives. However, by themselves, they aren’t enough. 

Sanjay Choudhari, associate professor at IIM-Indore, who managed the program for two years, says that they had to reduce the heavy quantitative bias in their regular MBA curriculum because many of the participants sometimes struggle with “numbers”. The case studies offer a varied management perspective, which participants find interesting, adds Choudhary. Of late, IIM-Indore has added a set of company visits, based on participant feedback, since many of them have not even seen the insides of a business organisation.

At the end of the program, however, students have to use their own networks to find placements for themselves. Parv Kaushik, who was the head of the student placement cell at IIM Ahmedabad for the same CCBMDO program in 2020, said there weren’t very many companies who had an established culture of hiring defence officers. Most candidates were able to find jobs within two or three months of graduating, largely thanks to their own initiative. Neither did the IIMs nor the DGR assist in any way. Kaushik now is the program manager for the Indian chapter of Amazon’s Global Military Affairs team, based in Bengaluru. 

It is seldom easy because very few corporates have a well-established program for hiring veterans. Despite that, many deserving candidates have successfully made the transition to the corporate world.

The huge demand and supply mismatch though is a reality. And many officers fall through the cracks even when they find a job because there isn’t enough hand holding either before and after they join an organisation. 

Instead of squabbling on places such as Twitter, the DGR, corporates and industry associations will do better if they start work to collaborate and build bridges that help with this critical transition, beyond signing MoUs. 

That simply means understanding the journey that an officer or a jawan has to go through during the transition. It also means dealing with the many pain points that they encounter, some of which are beyond their control.

Different strokes for different folks

Over the years, there’s a widespread industry perception that veterans are cut out largely for security and administrative roles. Such a narrow view of their potential invariably hurts their chances of gaining a meaningful role in industry.

Armed forces personnel come from varied backgrounds. And the three branches also have their own nuances. And some of them, especially in the Navy and Airforce, are exposed to technical areas like data, technology, logistics, software development and risk management.

Bridging this gap is important. If you’re not intimately familiar with the work of officers in the armed forces, the chances are that you will struggle to understand the experience that these officers bring or whether they fit your requirements. That’s why a few such as Amazon, Wells Fargo and others have inducted some of their lateral hires from the armed forces to join the interview panel.

Hiring one-off candidates is one thing. Building a hiring and onboarding culture for veterans is a major leadership initiative, often under a larger diversity and inclusion agenda in a firm. And it requires serious commitment from the top management. 

At the Wells Fargo India office, Parthajit Panda, a senior lateral hire — a Naval commander with 20 years experience — took the initiative to lead and build a veterans program. As sponsor, he took on the role of building a business case, sensitising hiring managers, and building greater organisational awareness. “Hiring managers had to be convinced that there was merit in hiring veterans. And not all such hiring mandates would be successful. I had to explain to them that it was better to focus on the successful crossovers, rather than an odd failure here and there. After all, hiring failures aren’t restricted only to veterans,” says Panda.

After many years, the program has now gained a critical mass.

Think career, not jobs

Much of the onus of successfully transitioning to the corporate world lies with the veteran himself. And early exposure to the world outside helps in a big way. Much depends though on the nature of their roles in the armed forces. Some officers get an opportunity to work with vendors and OEMs. Having been involved in ship building and allied projects that involved working with the likes of L&T, Cdr Raja says he was able to gain some insights into how corporates work. But not everyone is lucky enough, given that many postings can be in remote locations.

And therefore, this is what makes the transition a lot more challenging. Instead of waiting until an officer is ready to retire, at say, age 40, there are ways to build greater exposure to the world of business early on. And the DGR will need to creatively figure out these immersion opportunities.

[Former Naval Commander Parthajit Panda who pioneered a veterans employment program at Wells Fargo]

Another key challenge is a lack of a strong career orientation. Many officers are used to a system that takes care of promotions and growth in a predictable, fixed manner. When they enter the corporate sector, they very often struggle to understand how to identify opportunities. 

During his counselling sessions, Panda says he finds veterans tend to sometimes seek leads on jobs, rather than attempt to understand what it takes to build a second career. “They sometimes haven’t thought hard about what they are good at or what they’d like to do. I often hear the refrain: I can do everything! That simply doesn’t help and is hardly a credible pitch for an employer,” he says.

Panda himself sought out and built a network of technologists and software experts in Hyderabad, before he opted for retirement. He also took a couple of certification programs based on inputs from his network of experts. His own initiative in trying to be industry ready helped him bag an assignment at GMR and then Wells Fargo, even during the recession in 2009.

He is perhaps an exception. Ambition and clarity of purpose is missing in many cases. Panda says a majority of his batchmates have chosen to lead a retired life — instead of trying to build a second career. “They’ve chosen to manage their son’s sports career or simply ended up whiling away time,” he says.

It is this paternalistic mindset that young people around the country seem to suffer from that might have led them to resort to violence after the announcement of the government’s Agnipath scheme, says Cdr Raja. Across the country, especially in the rural areas, a career in the Army bestows not just prestige, but a safe and secure career option. However, it could lull a lot of people into believing this will last forever. “People need to take ownership of one’s career in today’s world. They’d be fooling themselves if they think otherwise,” he adds.  

Public commitments

Like Wells Fargo, many US firms like Amazon, Goldman Sachs and others have well established Veterans Employment programs. The US government has taken the lead to nudge established firms to make public commitments. For instance, Amazon has committed to hiring 1,00,000 veterans (and military spouses) globally by 2024. As part of the program, it has various initiatives for veterans, JCOs (and other ranks) once they come on board, including mentoring programs with other veterans, an elaborate training program for not just the veterans, but their supervisor to sensitive them on the dos and don'ts of how to manage and lead them. During the early phase, the veterans usually have lots of unanswered questions. Having a buddy system helps reduce anxiety and improve self confidence.

Ever since it rolled out its first pilots of its Military Veterans Employment program in India in 2019, Amazon already has around 400 officers and jawans at various roles across the company. Put together, all these initiatives amount to a drop in the ocean, says Panda. More Indian firms need to step up.

And if the DGR, government and the industry bodies like CII and Nasscom learn to collaborate deeply, there’s clearly a lot more that can be done for both officers and jawans. 

(A shorter version of this column first appeared in Business Standard)

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About the author

Indrajit Gupta
Indrajit Gupta

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Indrajit Gupta is a business journalist and editor with over two decades of experience. He was the Founding Editor of the Indian edition of Forbes magazine. Within four years of its launch, Forbes India became the most influential magazine in its space.

He is the co-founder and director at Founding Fuel.

He has served in leadership positions at many of the leading media brands in the country. Before taking up the assignment to start up the India edition of Forbes magazine, Gupta was the Resident Editor of The Economic Times in Mumbai and before that, the National Business Editor of The Times of India.

Over the years, Gupta has built a reputation for grooming talent and creating highly energised and purposeful newsrooms. He has interviewed several leading global thought-leaders and business leaders including CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Wayne Brockbank, Sumantra Ghoshal, Carlos Ghosn and Nitin Nohria, and also led cutting-edge joint research-based projects with McKinsey & Co, The Great Place to Work Institute, Boston Consulting Group, KMPG and Coopers & Lybrand.

He won the Polestar journalism award in 2010 and was awarded the Chevening fellowship by the British Foreign office in 1999. Gupta is an alumnus of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai and a B.Com (Hons) graduate from St Xavier's College, Calcutta.

Gupta teaches a course on Business Problem Solving at his alma mater. He writes a column named Strategic Intent in Business Standard’s edit page. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and two young daughters.

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