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How a hiring bias against veterans inspired one of Cincinnati's fastest-growing tech firms

Veteran job-search frustration inspired Tilr app
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Posted at 10:12 AM, Nov 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-11 16:10:17-05

CINCINNATI - What sounds like a compliment felt like rejection to Niecey Freeman, a U.S. military veteran who was repeatedly told she was too qualified for the jobs she was seeking. It took her three years to find full-time work after her Army service ended in 2008.

Freeman

“I couldn’t get hired anywhere,” said Freeman, who is now an account manager for Tilr, a Cincinnati-based technology startup that’s trying to change the way employers find skilled workers and, in the process, eliminate hiring bias against veterans.

“This is something that’s keen to my heart,” said Tilr co-founder Summer Crenshaw, the wife of a wounded Iraqi war veteran whose job-search frustrations “burned into my soul” and helped to inspire the technology on which her skills-matching app is based.

“We have a strong military appreciation and a strong veteran community here,” Crenshaw said. “However, that doesn’t always translate into a civilian employer understanding the value of a veteran. A lot of times they have preconceived notions of what a veteran may be.”

Hiring bias against veterans? Here's the evidence

For most of the last decade, the unemployment rate among veterans was higher than the national average. In October, the U.S. Labor Department reported the number of unemployed veterans at 460,000, up 9 percent from a year ago.

A 2012 survey of human resources executives by the Center for a New American Security show hiring bosses “sometimes struggle to understand the skills an infantryman could bring to a civilian job.” Others expressed a fear that the veterans they hire might suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Kroger Co. has hired more than 17,000 veterans since 2009. Macy’s Inc. has been criticized on social media for rejecting a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, even though it refuted the claim. Macy's has an executive training program for veterans and has raised more than $6 million by partnering with Got Your 6, a nonprofit that “works to normalize the depictions of veterans on film and television to dispel common myths about the veteran population.”

The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber is planning a Veteran’s Day event with the Tri-State Veterans Community Alliance “to better integrate veterans” into Cincinnati’s workforce. Cintas Corp., Intelligrated Inc., GE Aviation and U.S. Bank are among the companies participating in the Nov. 11 event at Xavier University’s Smith Hall.

But as a former consultant for Careerbuilder.com and an activist in military support groups like Operation Homefront, Crenshaw is convinced that bias in the hiring process is keeping employers from finding qualified workers – veterans included.

“A lot of organizations continue to say, ‘We don’t have workers. There’s nobody with skills,’” Crenshaw said. “There are people with skills. You just keep overlooking them because we keep using the same technology over and over again and wonder why you keep getting the same outcome.”

Tilr uses proprietary algorithms to match the skills of job seekers to companies seeking those specific skills. There is no posting of resumes. No job interviews. The Tilr app replaces all that with an Uber-like process in which employers offer work shifts on an as-needed basis. If a job seeker accepts the shift, Tilr gets a fee from the employer for covering a shift.

Crenshaw wouldn’t reveal revenue details, but said the company has booked 2,500 shifts for a community of 6,000 job seekers. Companies in the logistics, warehousing, restaurant and hospitality industries are among those booking employees through Tilr so far, Crenshaw said.

“We have the ability to empower a veteran to divulge their skills in a manner that they’ve never done before,” she said. “Eliminating that resume opens them up to talking about everything that they are. They’re an amalgamation of their skills over time.”

Up to 150 new jobs coming

Tilr has raised about $2 million to date from private investors who are fueling the company’s growth. It currently has about 14 employees in Cincinnati and 19 in New York and Toronto.

Crenshaw recently moved the fledgling firm from the Cintrifuse building in Over-the-Rhine into an office building at 308 E. Eighth Street Downtown.

The city of Cincinnati has offered a job-creation tax credit to encourage its expansion and establish Cincinnati as its permanent headquarters. The deal is headed to Cincinnati City Council next week.

“Our goal is to stay in downtown Cincinnati,” Crenshaw said. “We have a two-year lease here. We’ll start looking in eight months or so to expand into a new location.”

Crenshaw expects to hire up to 150 new sales, marketing and operations employees – along with Tilr “ambassadors.” These are employees who guide job seekers through the process of identifying a list of skills they can offer to employers.

That’s the job Neicey Freeman landed on the same day she downloaded the Tilr app. She entered her skills, received an offer and cleared a background check within hours, never once disclosing her Army service.

“That’s something you get used to not disclosing up front,” she said. “There were too many war questions. ‘Do you support the war?' Things like that. So, you just stop talking about it.”

A few weeks after Freeman accepted her first shift at Tilr, Crenshaw started talking to her about becoming a manager. That’s when Crenshaw first learned about Freeman’s military background.

“It made me so happy,” said Crenshaw, because Freeman was able to prove herself based solely on her skills and performance, as opposed to a resume that could expose her to false impressions and bias.

“Revolutionizing the hiring process was the core” goal for Tilr, Crenshaw said. “In doing so, we saw a way to close the skill gap globally. But we also saw a way to eliminate bias by opening up a population of workers that really has been untouched because we have been relegated to job titles and resumes and keyword search. By eliminating that and focusing on skill set, you open yourself up to a much broader population.”