TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Kamal Ahluwalia, president of, and Mike Thiel, a US Navy veteran and talent acquisition manager at Micron Technology, about helping military veterans transition into civilian jobs with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Karen Roby: Mike, talk a little bit about what it’s like for our veterans when they come home, when they’re trying to maybe transfer over to civilian life with some of the issues that they’ve faced with the military. This can be a really hard transition. Talk a little bit about trying to find jobs and the struggles they face.

SEE: TechRepublic Premium editorial calendar: IT policies, checklists, toolkits, and research for download (TechRepublic Premium)

Mike Thiel: The transition is very hard, and I coach a lot of veterans, even with nonprofit organizations. The biggest thing that I think I’ve found is the terminology. What active duty military people are doing in today’s world for them is very similar to what a lot of civilian jobs are asking for. But the vernacular is very different. Oftentimes when you’re trying to apply for a job where you have a resume, using the terminology you’re used to, sometimes civilian recruiters don’t see that and they don’t register it. On the flip side, it could be very fearful for a veteran to be able to go to a job board and basically look at all these jobs and see, well, what am I really qualified for? What Eightfold does is it allows not only for the recruiter to basically do skills matching through the AI technology to say, “OK, these skills that a veteran has, or a transitioning military has, match the skills that are looked for in the civilian world.”

Also, we use a portal called the Personal Career Site, where a veteran can actually upload their resume and it’ll help them match to jobs that also are identified based on their skills that they have from the military. That’s the biggest challenge, just getting that vernacular translation of all of us speaking the same language.

Karen Roby: Mike you work with folks from all diverse backgrounds, in all kinds of positions and industries. It’s not just veterans. But if you don’t speak their language, obviously the veterans, it can be very tough. Kamal, that’s where of course, Eightfold comes in. Talk a little bit about the AI program and how did this come to life? How did you find the need?

Kamal Ahluwalia: We had an AI platform, and we do want to help everyone with employment. In fact, our mission is: Right career for everyone in the world. Two years ago, we realized that if we are going to make this happen quickly, we do need to go after the largest talent pools in the world. And veterans actually do represent 6%, maybe even more, of the total workforce in the US. There are about 20 million veterans that are actually active in the country. So when we got the opportunity to actually help them with the transition program, we absolutely jumped into it and said, “OK, what do we need to do? How do we need to adapt our algorithms to help the veterans?” Part of that was we already had what we call a capability matrix. That is used to actually predict what a person is capable of doing, not just what they have done in the past. What Mike was pointing out is one of the key things. One is of course, translating their military occupation codes to how that applies to the civilian job.

We match the terminology and the capabilities. But the more important part, as we went through the process was, as a veteran is getting ready to transition. One is, of course, that if you’ve been working on logistics or IT, yes, there is a natural transition into a similar role in civilian life. But a lot of them have very different aspirations. In fact, in one of the sessions, one of them wanted to pursue performing arts in Florida. A couple of them wanted to go back to school. One of them wanted to move to Chicago. One of them wanted to actually become a state trooper in New York. So, the aspirations that they have, it is our duty to help them pursue a career of their choice, not just trying to keep them doing the same thing that they did when they were serving for us in the military.

SEE: Natural language processing: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

Both those options are very important. And the third thing that we learned was, every employer is looking for people with leadership skills. They’re looking for people who can work in ambiguity. This year is all about working and thriving in a very ambiguous, difficult environment. Almost all veterans are great at it. They walk out having done this under pressure over and over again. So, how do you harness all of this and then make it easy for both the employers? Like Micron, they are doing the actual work of giving employment. And our job is to use our AI models to bridge that gap, both translating the skills, and then making it easy to figure out what they are capable of doing.

The goal is to make the transition, not just full of anxiety, but full of hope and confidence, that, “Yes, I’m good to actually do this.” All of that, I mean, I keep saying that just like you said at the beginning, you’re also a daughter of a veteran, that just saying, “Thank you for your service” is not enough. If you are able to do more, we should.

Karen Roby: Absolutely, Kamal. I couldn’t agree more. And I love to hear you say that it is, you feel, your duty to help them. And that is the least that we can do to put them on a new path. And Mike having served yourself and understanding some of the struggles that men and women face in making this transition, it’s got to be exciting when you do have a veteran that does make that transition and because of your help and programs like this, they go on to, really, a whole new life for them. That that has to be exciting.

Mike Thiel: It is. And Micron has done a great job over the years, in reaching out to a lot of the veterans, and we do have a pretty robust veteran hiring program. I think every company obviously can do a little bit more. But it’s not only just hiring, it’s also the inclusive part. We have a Veterans Employee Resource Group, that we’re actively participating in, and we actually reach out and do referral campaigns to have other veterans … you refer veterans to our organization as well. When we just give these opportunities to veterans who are very scared of transitioning, that they’re going to be without a job and they don’t know what they’re going to do next, to be able to provide something for them is huge. And we find that we have really great retention with veterans as well because they are great leaders, and we try to promote from within as much as possible.

Karen Roby: So many of them are so dedicated to the work that they’re doing and truly make wonderful employees that we’ve all seen it in different ways. Kamal, before we wrap up here, talk just a little bit about AI in general. It’s really fascinating what is going on and what’s to come. When you look, say, six, nine months down the road, or even a little bit longer than that, what do you see for AI? I mean, it really does seem like the possibilities are endless.

Kamal Ahluwalia: They are, and it’ll happen faster than it would have, normally. I think COVID-19, unfortunately, or fortunately is accelerating, that “How do we do this thing better and faster?” And there are a couple of factors there. All of us are getting more comfortable with remote work, right? Even companies that didn’t think this was for them, everybody is having to adjust to it. What that means is, you are going to become more comfortable hiding in any part of the country, right? In areas that you wouldn’t go to because you didn’t have an office, but if the talent is available, absolutely. Why not? Because more and more people will be able to contribute. What that means is your aperture is much wider, where you had a thousand applicants, you may actually now have 5,000 or 10,000 or more for every position. AI can help you quickly filter out who’s the best fit for what role.

Also in our case, what we’re able to identify is the skills that we can validate, what are likely, what are missing, and what needs to be verified. And we can make it visible to both sides. So now it’s transparent AI also. Not just in the hands of the hiring manager, but also in the hands of the candidate. What we have seen with a lot of our customers, Micron is a great example of that, is when you bring that transparency on both sides for the employee and candidate, as well as the hiring manager, especially people of diverse backgrounds, feel even more confident that they should be applying with confidence for these roles. More women are applying when our customers are using our stuff for this matching because they’re applying with confidence. And we have seen the diversity numbers improved by 18% to 33%. They’re also applying to the right job, and they are getting hired.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Same thing with internal mobility. More people are raising their hands and wanting to actually learn more stuff. Because what we focus on with capability is, not just what people have done and what’s on their resumes, but have they shown the ability to learn more stuff? And that was something that Assistant Secretary (of Labor), John Lowry told me: Don’t discount the aspirations of a veteran because they know how to work hard. And if they want to do it, they will do it. Our job is to simply make it easy and connect the dots, say, “OK, here are the three things you need to do.” It’ll get done. That is the power of AI, how to unlock more opportunities and find the alignment in a self-service mode, right? A lot of our engineering team comes from Google and Facebook. They’ll learn from large amounts of data that, how do you get the engagement going?

How do you inspire all these folks to pursue a career of their choice or multiple careers? And the same thing with COVID right now, as you’re saying six, nine months. Now, my kids are a little older. A lot of our colleagues have kids in the background, right. So, when you have two parents at home, both are working, that’s hard. Single parents, oh my God, how are you going to manage multiple kids who are trying to learn from home, all that stuff? All that means that the workday may actually split into shifts. Because we need to accommodate that work-life balance. So, that’s gone, but you still need to manage both sides. There are so many of these variations that are coming up, that I think AI can solve this at scale so that we not just get through this thing, but maybe this will unlock more opportunities for everybody to actually rethink how we will do our work.

Karen Roby: The silver lining is what we have to look at because we’re in such uncertain times and the new normal. But to know that it may inspire new things for us is the good side of it. Mike, before I let you go too, in speaking of this pandemic, the time that we’re living in right now, do you find that it’s difficult or how do you deal with candidates? Do you feel that they’re very apprehensive, their anxiety is high just because of the time that we’re in and trying to find a job during this time, no less?

Mike Thiel: There’s obviously some candidates that are probably going to feel like that. But overall, I think the majority of the population that is interested in opportunities, especially with Micron, the pandemic really plays a very minimal part. We’re doing a great job in ensuring that our team members are safe. With us being a manufacturing facility, we do have people still on-site, and we’re doing very well in terms of that. It’s just, it’s all about just the communication and making sure everybody has all the data points to make a right decision. And some of the things with Eightfold that’s allowed us to do that, is to work faster in terms of identifying these top diverse candidates through the AI matching and be able to actually communicate with them easier because everything’s integrated into one tool instead of us having to use seven different tools and remember who’s doing what.

I’m confident that we’re all going to get through this. It’s definitely a different time, but Micron leadership has been amazing in terms of allowing people who need to work from home. We have rotating shifts if needed. It’s been an enjoyable experience, but I’m excited to get back to the office and see all my team. I miss them.

Image: iStock/Drazen Zigic