Corner Office Q&A: Kevin Phillips

Kevin Phillips is Chairman, CEO and President at defense contracting firm ManTech International, Monster’s 2021 winner for Best Employers for Veterans.

Here, he talks with Monster about ManTech’s veteran hiring strategy, why veterans are such an important part of the workforce, and the hiring and recruiting challenges that are facing companies in a post-COVID-19 world.

Monster just awarded ManTech as the #1 Employer for Veterans. Can you talk about ManTech’s track record as a company that hires veterans?

As a company, we’ve always supported the Department of Defense. In the 1960’s, we started as a Navy contractor, in the 1990s, we supported the military during the first Gulf War and we’ve continued to support the military, intelligence community and other agencies after 9/11.

That history has given us a good view and focus on veterans as a trusted partner. As you may know, government missions change from time to time. Today it’s very much focused on technology and bringing digital capabilities to the federal government and to the Department of Defense, so we spend a lot of time on that.

How do you nurture and grow your veteran talent?

Veterans understand the mission sets the government needs, they have a lot of experience and passion for what that mission is, and today about 45% of our workforce are veterans. That’s not by chance. That’s something that’s very purposeful and intentional. It’s a commitment we make as a company.

So we mentor the veterans, we have career enablement initiatives, we have company-paid certification and degree programs, and we try to retrain and retool veterans once they join the company if they have an interest in it. We also work with online degree providers like Purdue University Global to establish tuition-free degrees in competencies that we think the government is going to need long-term. It’ll also provide greater mobility, better pay in the life of the veterans.

This last Veteran’s Day, we established a ManTech Vets Training Program. We’re training a certain number of veterans for six months on technical training that’s focused on a capability called Service Now as well as some cloud skills. Once they’re done, they have those Service Now certifications and we can put them directly on support for different government customers.

ManTech has retained 80% of veterans hired in the last year. Do you credit the programs you’ve put in place as being the things that have kept veterans there long-term? 

We have definitely spent a lot of time over the last four to five years focusing on those investments to train employees, provide mobility within the company, and give them career options.

Many of our employees are veterans themselves, so they help coach and guide new veterans. Veterans fit very well because they know that we’re here, we understand how they think, we understand where they’ve been. And I do think it provides a very good value proposition, but also an environment for these veterans to come in and expand their careers.

What specific attributes or skills would you say veterans have that are a benefit to ManTech?

They tend to be objective-driven because that’s how they’ve been trained — we call it “mission-focused.” And that’s how our government customers think: What do I have to achieve? What’s the overall timeline? What’s the objective? And they fit into that because timelines and outputs really do matter, and that’s a natural thing for them.

They’re already naturally disciplined to know what to do and what to focus on. Especially in the veteran community or the Department of Defense, if they have an urgent requirement, it’s a very compelling thing. It can be a matter of life and death sometimes. So our employees have to understand the importance of that. Veterans bring that to us and allow us to be a trusted partner to the federal government.

What hiring and recruiting challenges have you experienced over the last two years, and what do you predict is coming down the pipeline? 

There are two unique things we have to deal with in our sector compared to other sectors of the economy:  The first is whether an individual can receive a security clearance. The second is that everyone in the industry is dealing with the COVID mandates from the federal government.

I’d say the security clearance process is something we’ve been focused on for the last few years. And for the last six months, making sure that we bring our workforce toward getting fully vaccinated is what we’ve been focused on.

I wouldn’t say these items have created a greater challenge in recruiting, but they’re additive areas we’ve focused on in order to get people in. So that means our recruiting effort has to be more focused and attuned to who we can find and how we can attract that talent.

Beyond that, the workforce has learned to be mobile, learned to be remote, and all of us have been able to adapt to that in a fairly flexible way. That can be good in that it provides people with mobility, but at some point, we might lose the human touch, so we’re trying to make sure it all works together.

Are there some opportunities at ManTech that can’t be done remotely?

I think everyone, not only the employees, but also the decision-makers, learned they can do their jobs at home — maybe not in total, but in part. That changes a lot. So for some of our support staff and customers, I think that will become more of a norm. There will be a hybrid system that’s permanent for a lot of the workforce.

That said, for some of our customers, they can’t work remotely, because they have to be in a secure facility to work. So it very much depends on the type of work and whether you can do it at home or not because of the type and classification of work.

Can you talk a little more about your vaccine challenges?

We’ve been very focused on educating people, providing them with a view on why vaccines are important, and recognizing that some people have deep emotional reasons why they wouldn’t want to be vaccinated, and a lot of those are religious or health-related.

We have a concierge service that provides the closest areas for employees to get a shot. We track it fairly rapidly, because we want our customers to understand as well as our employees what risks might exist if a subset of employees passionately feel it’s not appropriate for whatever reason.

If you look across our industry, the percentage of the workforce to date that have been vaccinated ranges anywhere from 75% to the low 90%. And all of us are trying to work toward this goal of 100% because that’s the mandate. But there will be a percentage of the workforce that may have to decide whether they want to work in another industry that doesn’t require it.

 What kind of challenges or opportunities do you see when it comes to the evolving workforce, especially finding people with the right skills?

The areas we’re focused on from an investment standpoint are to retool, educate and improve our workforce around cyber analytics and AI, digital engineering or systems engineering in a digital world; enterprise and mission IT systems, and what we call “tactical edge computing.” I think that’s fairly unique to defense contracts.

We’re also focused on how we help the military operate in the technology-driven environment of the future, whether that’s 5G, whether that’s remote computing or other things. How do they aggregate into a format and a communications forum that they have to operate in the future?

Those are the areas we invest in because we think they’re important to the customers and their future requirements.

You mentioned a partnership with Purdue University. Do you rely on partnerships like that, or have you taken a lot of your upskilling in-house?

It’s both. We have Skillsoft that we use to help provide career journeys within our workforce. We have a CTO that develops R & D that people can apply to support. We have an annual tech share event that shows what we’ve been doing to invest in and where we’re headed, and our own ManTech University is award-winning.

We just recently announced a Master of Data Science degree through Purdue University, exclusively for ManTech employees. Many of these higher education folks are able to work with us to create a tailored degree program that meets the customer’s specific needs.

We’ll get a group in the class that are committed to this type of degree. We’ll bring them in and educate them on the cohort, and when they come out, they don’t have to be retrained against the customers’ needs because we’ve already gotten approval and certification and accreditation that the degree program meets our customer’s needs. We focus on that with a number of universities, but Purdue was an early partner, and we’re very proud to have worked with them.

To learn more about veteran recruitment best practices, read Monster’s Veteran Hiring Guide, and see the complete list of 2021 Best Employers for Veterans.