Nonprofits Help Service Members Find Their Fit in the Workforce
San Diego Business Journal – 9 November.
San Diego – Employment prospects for post-911 veterans were grim just a few years ago. About 15 percent were out of work in early 2011, compared with roughly 9 percent of the general population.
The gap has been closing ever since, as the economy continued to rebound an a series of federal initiatives bolstered incentives for companies to hire veterans. By September, only 5 percent of recent veterans were out of work, compared to an overall 5.1 percent unemployment rate.
The turnaround was due in part to pair of 2012 tax credits for companies hiring veterans, Obama administration websites designed to connect employers and veterans and aWhite House-backed push from top employers, including JPMorgan Chase, to bring on more veterans, according to outplacement consulting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas.
But another key factor has been the work of non profits that help soldiers transition to civilian work.
“These men and women have skills and experience that are in demand, but they just don’t know how to describe them in a way that nonmilitary recruiters understand,” CEO John Challenger said.
With more than 230,000 veterans, San Diego County has launched plenty of nonprofits in the past few years dedicated to getting veterans into high-paying jobs. Veterans may have a strong work ethic, discipline and technical skills learned in the military, but former soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen still face perceptions that they are rigid-minded and aren’t self-motivated, those groups say. Private sector job interview etiquette and resume writing are often new concepts.
Maurice Wilson, a former master chief petty officer, said the military spends months conditioning recruits to follow orders and integrate into the command structure. It makes sense that former service members would need help changing some of their behaviors once they have left active service, he said.
After leaving the Navy, Wilson advised Activision, publisher of the hit video game “Call of Duty,” on how it could spend an endowment to benefit veterans.
Wilson evaluated various organizations seeking funding, but said they all focused their efforts on veterans who were already struggling.
“It was never prevention, it was always after they had hit rock bottom,” Wilson said. “They got out of the military, but they didn’t get their behaviors rebooted.”
Wilson and others founded National Veterans Transition Services Inc. in 2010 and created a “Reboot Workshop,” using behavioral training techniques to help active-duty members of the military. Over three weeks,they learn stress management techniques, hone career goals and prepare for the civilian job search process.
“Many people think officers and enlisted are different, but fear is fear,” Wilson said, adding that veterans of all ranks can fall prey to self-destructive behavior. “You feel you don’t fit in because you’re institutionalized with all of those cultural, structural things you get in the military. When you leave, you don’t have that support element.”
The workshops have expanded to Oceanside, Irvine, Los Angeles, Norfolk, Va.,Detroit and Indiana, graduating close to 1,400 service members. NVTSI said 93 percent of graduates are employed or in school, with an average salary of $44,000.
A Manufacturing Course
Other groups put a greater focus on specificjob training. Workshops for Warriors, founded by former naval surface warfare officer Hernan Luis y Prado, offers a series of four-month courses to prepare graduates for advanced manufacturing careers. Participants learn computer-aided design, machine repair, welding and computer numerical control machining. Only about five percent have prior experience in the field.
They leave with industry-recognized certifications and earn average salaries of $50,000. Since 2011, there have been about 200 graduates, all finding work at companies that include General Dynamics NASSCO, Miller Marine, Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co. and General Atomics. Luis y Prado said that while instructors spend some time on resumes and mock interviews, so-called soft skills are not a key feature of the workshop. “People love veterans, but it doesn’t make them a good welder or fabricator,” Luis y Prado said. “When they have five credentials and months of documented attendance, that’s a game changer, versus, ‘Hey, look at me, I can dress well.”
Luis y Prado isn’t a machinist himself, but said friends who had left the military would often come visit his house and want to tinker with tools in his garage, looking for something constructive to do with their time. Their interest and Luis y Prado’s experiences seeing veterans without college degrees struggle to find rewarding careers inspired him to launch the nonprofit in 2008. He’s now in the midst of a $10 million capital campaign that would allowfor a second location and expand the student pipeline five times over.
The program costs Luis y Prado about $10,000 per student and is funded through donations and profits from WFW Industries, an advanced manufacturing firm. Luis y Prado started WFW in 2009 after several companies said they couldn’t donate to the workshop, but would be happy to pay for the students’ services while still enrolled.
“‘We need this equipment repaired; maybe your students could do it?” Luis y Prado recalled them asking. “When we’re not training, we’re doing work. I can only donate so much money.”
The company specializes in machinery repair and parts fabrication for the Navy, United Technologies Corp., Amada America and others. WFW has hired several workshop graduates, though Luis y Prado said he’s not doing it out of charity. “I’m looking to build a workforce,” he said. “I’m building an army.”
Matching the Expertise
For Navy SEALs and other special operations forces,these types of programs may not do enough to cater to their unique skill sets and drive. Joe Musselman trained to be a SEAL in 2009 and 2010, but a spinal injury during training led to a medical discharge. He remembered going to a Navy transition session and sitting between a former SEAL with a master’s degree and six Bronze Stars for combat valor and a Navy chef Special operations forces are used to being trained by the best, by Olympic athletes and top strategists, so why should their transition out of the military be any different, he thought.
“We need chefs,”Musselman said. “But there’s a difference. When a CEO leaves a company, he doesn’t have the resources a cashier would have. SEALs go through the same types of transition experiences a Navy chef has. Something had to be created at that level of expertise.”
Musselman started The Honor Foundation, a nonprofit now affiliated with the Universityof California, San Diego’s Rady School of Management. The three-month program focuses on raising students’ self-awarenessof their skills and personal story, polishing traditional job-seeking tools such asLinkedlnprofilesand includes a series of lessons from business professors on corporate culture, salary negotiation and leadership. Faculty is culled from UCSD, the University of California, Los Angeles, Harvard, Dartmouth and others, and speakers include executivesfrom Google, Facebook, Verizon and Citibank.
Special operations forces veterans have led teams of up to a dozen personnel, managed equipment worth millions of dollars, directed logistics planning and devised strategic plans, Musselman said. But like any other service member, they aren’t used to the self-promotion required to land an executive position. In fact, Musselman believes the classified nature of some SEAL work puts them at an even greater disadvantage.
Covert Operations Mode
“They’ve spent years underground, not telling people what they do, not talking about how they do it and not answering questions like, ‘Tell me about yourself,” Musselman said. “How do they expect to be experts without practice? That whywe focus so much on their personal story.”
More than 95 percent of Honor Foundation graduates are employed within 90 days of leaving active service, almost all in executive positions at companies that include Chase, Airbnb and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. None have salaries less than $70,000, with some occasionally topping $1 million. A network of C-suite executives have agreed to mentor students and the Honor Foundation recently hired Amazon’s former head of talent acquisition to help place graduates.
A $2 million grant this year from the Navy SEAL Foundation is helping the program expand to Virginia Beach, the East Coast hub for SEALs, early next year. The program costs the foundation about $10,000per students and Musselman asks them to pay $1,000, which he said is mainly used to increase their dedication.
Despite their disparate approaches to increasing veteran employment and better integrating servicemembers back into civilian life, all three nonprofit founders said the key to continued success is ensuring their programs attract participants while they are still in active duty. Success rates are improved by preparing members of the military for civilian careers ahead of time, opposed to offering reactive programs for already stressed veterans, the founders said.
“If you catch these guys before they become unemployed, before they become a drain on society, that’s a win,” Luis y Prado said.