In quest for workers, firms search ranks of US military

Inside his company's spacious suite on East Bay Street - a cannon shot from where the Civil War began - John Grisillo is helping change the face of corporate America.

This West Point graduate and former Army officer is filling corporate America's ranks with a highly specialized group of managers known as "JMOs." Junior military officers are eagerly sought by companies from Michelin to Coca-Cola to General Electric, who covet skills honed in command.

"What these companies are looking for is strong leadership skills, technical aptitude, and a proven track record of success," says Mr. Grisillo, a burly Gulf War veteran who started his company five years ago. "In the last three years, the demand for JMOs has surged dramatically."

Grisillo's firm, The Compass Group, is one of about 30 such companies that specialize in placing young military officers leaving the service.

While firms that place JMOs have been around since the end of the Vietnam War, their success has waxed and waned with the fortunes of the economy. Right now, a booming private sector combined with an exodus from the armed services, is keeping military headhunters busy.

Several large corporations have been so impressed by the leadership skills of these former lieutenants and captains that they recently compared their performance with MBA graduates from America's most prestigious schools. They found little difference in performance, Grisillo says.

SCOTT FORBES, a business manager for the pharmaceutical company Merck in Lancaster, Pa., has hired at least 10 junior military officers. Mr. Forbes says working with military headhunters has made hiring noticeably easier.

"One of the big challenges we face when we get a rsum is trying to discern the true level of maturity and experience," he says.

When he screens rsums submitted in response to a newspaper advertisement, no more than 1 in 10 candidates is hirable. When he works with military head hunters, the number of employable candidates rises to about 7 in 10.

Junior military officers, he and others say, can perform under pressure, are comfortable with long hours, and often have strong leadership skills.

"People in the military typically have an openness to principle-based leadership," Forbes says. "It isn't blind faith. They are looking for a place where the principles are laid down and they are principles they can believe in."

John Peake, a former military officer who works with Career Development in Alexandria, Va., helps to place about 220 junior military officers each year.

His ex-officers are quickly snapped up by companies such as Frito Lay, Lockheed Martin, Pfizer, and General Electric. (GE has hired about 650 JMOs in the past three years.) The reason?

"They've been tried and tested and given a significant amount of responsibility right out of college," Mr. Peake says of the officers. "Categorically, JMOs represent a pretty competitive group of people. They are a rich target area demographically."

Junior military officers typically have served anywhere from five to 12 years. They are experienced enough to step into middle-management positions, headhunters say, but not so set in their ways that adapting to corporate life would be difficult.

Both Grisillo and Peake are quick to note that they don't recruit officers out of the military; they are keenly aware of the difficulties the services are having keeping people. Officers come to them once they decide to leave the military.

GRISILLO, who places about 100 former officers each year with companies that include Michelin, Coca-Cola, and Merck, says demographics are on the side of prospective corporate middle managers.

Because of declining birth rates, the number of 35- to 44-year-olds will fall by 15 percent in the next few years. That means "the availability of strong management talent is on the decline," Grisillo says.

Melinda Miles would agree. An ex-Army officer, Ms. Miles is a field manager for Coca-Cola in Charlotte, N.C. She actively recruits junior military officers and has had great success placing them.

"The military people bring a higher level of skill and talent than people getting out of college or people off the street," she says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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