According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, there are 22.7 million military veterans in the U.S., many of whom are seeking employment opportunities in the civilian workforce. In a time when employers are consistently disappointed at the state of employee loyalty, dedication and work ethic, veterans are an untapped market committed to themselves, each other and their prospective employers. They offer a promising solution for organizations seeking top talent.
Approximately 10.4 million U.S. veterans are working, and 5.5 million are living with disabilities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics overall unemployment fell to 9 percent in January 2011. However, the unemployment rate for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans was much higher in January — 15.2 percent — and a sharp increase from 11.7 percent in December and 9.4 percent in November, indicating a worsening job market for younger veterans, many of them combat veterans.
Further, veterans with disabilities face additional issues. Often, employers considering hiring them are not always willing to make these accommodations. On average, the greater the severity of the disability, the lower the proportion employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to a June 2010 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “Employing Military Personnel and Recruiting Veterans — Attitudes and Practices,” 46 percent of HR professionals think post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health issues may present a challenge to hiring veterans, and 22 percent think the same of combat-related physical disabilities. The assumptions appear unsubstantiated as only 13 percent of HR professionals experienced in working with disabled veterans reported issues with their transition back into the workforce.
Understanding Their Story
A 2008 study by the RAND Corp. reported that nearly one in five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is living with PTSD or major depression, and 19 percent of troops said they might have experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI). People often group TBI and PTSD together because of their prevalence and because they often coexist in returning service members. TBI and PTSD are quite different, however; TBI is a physical injury, and PTSD is a psychological injury.
“Civilian employers need to take into account that a person who’s wounded in combat may have more than just physical damage to the body,” said Ted Daywalt, CEO and president of VetJobs. “There’s severe trauma associated with it. The two combined affect a person physically and psychologically, but there is a difference, and there’s [also] a difference between acknowledging and respecting the veteran and simply disregarding him or her.
“Wounded warriors don’t expect special treatment. They want to be able to get in there, compete and do well in their job. They’re just asking for the opportunity to get out there and prove what they can do.”
Although PTSD and TBI injuries are significant, depending on their severity, they may not hinder employee performance.
“PTSD, TBI and other physical and mental injuries are often a barrier to the military veteran and for some employers who might otherwise want to hire a veteran,” said Emily King, president of Military Transitions. “The problem is there’s a big information gap. These combat injuries don’t always make somebody more volatile at the workplace. They’re not the big, scary things employers think they are. People just need to be educated about them.”
Further, organizations should make the effort to understand military culture and experience because it instills values that are vital to a thriving business. Wounded military personnel have served in an environment where leadership skills are mandatory. They come to civilian organizations with skills already embedded into the way most organizations conduct business. To fuse both worlds correctly, however, civilian organizations have to learn the military’s language.
“Neither military veterans nor the civilians hiring employees are very good at translating a military resume into relevant skills for the civilian workforce,” said Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion initiatives for SHRM. “Veterans have a great deal to offer civilian workforces. But because what they do in the military is so specialized, a typical military resume is just pages and pages of stuff, which is useful to a detailer [who is] going to assign the next post in the military but not as useful for a civilian recruiter.
“Civilian organizations who want to benefit from hiring veteran staff need to know more about military culture and what the military experience means so they can help those veteran hires onboard and work effectively within the civilian culture.”
Executives who understand military rank structure, injuries, branches of service, active versus reserve components and demographics, for example, will better value veterans’ potential.
“There’s disconnect between veterans and employees, and the only solution is education and awareness of resources,” said Jesse Canella, general manager of System One Veterans Resources, a technical outsourcing solutions provider. “Veterans are exceptionally structured and detail oriented, and military language reflects that. Companies will be more inclined to work with veterans if they understand their past experiences.”
Providing the Right Tools
While organizations are showing a strong intent to recruit and hire military veterans with disclosed disabilities, the number hired in the past year has been relatively low. Results from a poll conducted by SHRM and Cornell University, indicate 67 percent of HR professionals have included veterans in their organization’s diversity plans, but only 17 percent said their organizations hired a veteran who disclosed a disability either before or after time of hire in the past year.
“The Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Labor have a lot of decentralized efforts happening alongside grassroots groups to try to educate employers,” King said. “There’s a feeling of goodwill and a desire to help veterans, but there’s also reluctance based on a lack of information and a concern of how big a challenge it could be. By integrating and onboarding veterans correctly, wounded or not, it won’t be a challenge at all.”
Corporate America could join forces with veterans to identify and provide the skills and mentoring they need to rejoin the civilian workforce. Assistance in career counseling and professional networking would provide immediate and positive impact on an organization’s productivity and give opportunities to those who have offered their time and service to the country.
Companies such as Verizon Communications and General Electric (GE) have made veteran employment part of their organizations’ cultures as well as an integral part of business. For instance, Verizon established an internal veterans advisory board as one of its employee resource groups to provide recognition, mentoring and development for military and veteran employees. The board counsels the company’s senior executives on veteran-related issues and directs veterans to assistance programs and information on their rights and benefits; it also takes part in wreath-laying ceremonies at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In addition, Verizon has a recruiting team dedicated to building relationships in the transitioning military/veteran community. Nicholas Relacion, a recruiter at Verizon who enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve 20 years ago, has deployed overseas four times, and in November 2010 was asked to establish and organize relationships with the military community to recruit transitioning military, veterans and their spouses.
“Veterans that join Verizon, regardless of their condition, are going to be a fabric of the company they just joined,” said Al Torres, vice president of global talent management for Verizon. “Verizon understands that these individuals bring a unique set of skills that are highly desirable. They’re focused, take initiative, are quick to adapt and learn, are spectacular at managing people and situations — they’re serious and accountable. They’ve spent time outside the United States and have great global experience. I can’t imagine why every company isn’t bending over backward to accommodate this group and get their attention.”
As a founding member of American Corporate Partners, the Verizon Foundation has enlisted 43 Verizon employees to serve as mentors to military veterans. GE is also a member of this program, which is dedicated to helping veterans transition from the armed services to private enterprise through career counseling and professional networking.
In 2009, GE signed a memorandum of agreement with the Army Reserve to guarantee priority consideration for job interviews to all qualified participating soldiers no later than 30 days after completing military occupational specialty training. Further, the company’s veterans network is part of its group of affinity networks and employee groups that allow employees with common backgrounds and interests to get to know their colleagues inside and outside of business.
“I tell veterans transitioning into the civilian workforce that, based on my own experiences, there’s good news and bad news,” said Dave Ferguson, military staffing and recruiting program manager at GE. “There are a lot of knowledge, skills and abilities that made you successful in the U.S. military; we’ll call those A. Then there’s a set of knowledge, skills and abilities that will make you successful in corporate America; we’ll call those C. The good news is A and C are the same. The bad news is there’s a process to get jobs and adapt to a new culture; we’ll call that B. Most military folks aren’t good at B, but you have to get through B to get from A to C.”
To smooth the transition, GE’s Operation Yellow Ribbon program provides special recognition and support for employees and their families before and during deployments and when an employee returns from service to GE. They also offer an entry-level junior office leadership program designed specifically for military officers. This program allows veterans to work in three eight-month rotations with different GE businesses to receive both on-the-job and formal classroom training before choosing a permanent position.
Among organizations that have hired military veterans, the performance feedback is extraordinary, according to SHRM. In its “Employing Military Personnel” survey, roughly 97 percent of HR professionals said military veterans bring a strong sense of responsibility to their workforce.
“We’re seeing 300,000 veterans returning home every year and entering the civilian sector,” said System One’s Canella. “This is a learning process for everyone. We’re doing a good job, but we can do a better job. The biggest issue is being more understanding of the veteran population, reaching out to them and giving them opportunities.”
AT&T Dials Up Veteran Support
In September 2010, AT&T teamed with Alorica Inc., a customer management, sales and marketing firm, to provide a customer care program staffed entirely by veterans with disabilities. The initiative was established by AloriCares, a division of Alorica that recruits, trains and hires disabled veterans to provide customer and technical support services.
AloriCares approached AT&T with the idea of creating an initiative that would allow disabled veterans to provide customer care for AT&T business customers, telecommute from dedicated workspaces within their homes, earn a good wage and regain their independence.
The program was introduced to AT&T as a pilot, with 60 veterans transitioning in by April 2011. Satisfaction with the current lineup of veterans is so high, the company is considering extending the program.
Maria Roscia, executive director of AT&T Call Center, Customer Care Small Business Mobility, said, “50 of those veterans work as front-line customer service representatives; 10 employees work in supervisory, operational and support functions as management support to the 50 front-line veterans.”
More than 95 percent of the veterans were hired through military channels including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, AloriCares’ strongest supporters, according to George Atchison, executive director of disabled veteran affairs for AloriCares.
“Last December I held a debriefing session in which the Department of Defense, Department of Labor and Department of Veterans Affairs had representatives,” Atchison said. “We went over the screening processes, the types of candidates we were looking for and the issues we needed to avoid. These organizations become a part of our organization and mission. They prescreen based on our predetermined requirements.
“By the time we receive the candidates there’s already been a weeding-out process. We work closely with the Wounded Warrior Project and Army Career and Alumni Program because they deal directly with disabled veterans. They know the issues involved with them and place the veterans in a way that benefits both those individuals and the organizations they work with.”
The veterans in the program receive training from Alorica and AT&T that emphasizes support and coaching to ensure the employees are well prepared for their new roles. The AloriCares team is responsible for the day-to-day management and development of the veteran staff, and AT&T provides all of the tools.
“We have the same level of expectations for these employees servicing our customers that we would have for any other employee in the AT&T workforce,” Roscia said. “We just think that every person deserves the opportunity to show what they can do and be successful, and it’s our responsibility to provide that opportunity.”
Of the current staff, more than 60 percent of the veterans have some form of combat-related trauma. AloriCares and AT&T have been able to meet employees’ special requirements by developing individual solutions for each disability on a case-by-case basis.
“We’ve created a playbook based on the current 60 employees to serve as a model for the future,” Atchison said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time a new employee joins because we probably already have a strategy to ease an employee with that exact disability into their work.”
Some veterans have had difficulty transitioning to a flexible, work-from-home arrangement, which is foreign to their military backgrounds. Some also have difficulty relating to civilian callers who may exaggerate the emergency and suffering associated with their broken equipment. However, AloriCares and AT&T professionals work alongside fellow military veterans to ease these obstacles.
“We’ve brought something from the military into the civilian community with this job,” Atchison said. “We’ve brought family values. In the military, you’ve always got somebody there to help you with an issue, who has your back or will watch your sticks. Military veterans lose that immediately on entering civilian life and develop a sense of isolation. We’re bringing that community back.”
Role in Military: Aviation mechanic, U. S. Navy
Current Title: Surveyor at Utility Partners of America (UPA) since January 2011
What was your role in the military?
I joined the military right out of high school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was 18 years old when I went in and served from 1989–93. I was an aviation structural mechanic on various types of aircraft from F-14, F-18 to A-6, A-7. I specialized in hydraulics and was on the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy. I did two tours in Iraq and had a chance to be in Bahrain during some of the toughest times. I didn’t know that soon after I got onboard the Kennedy, I was going to be shipped to Iraq — it was my first time out to sea. All I ever dreamed of doing was working on and flying an aircraft.
I fell off an SH-60 helicopter onboard the flight deck. I injured my shoulder and was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, for surgery. At that point I was hoping I would get a chance to come home because of my injuries, but they sent me right back to the war.
Shortly after returning home, the military referred me to social security disability. I went in front of a disability judge who said that due to my surgeries and mental condition, I would not have to be evaluated ever again. They said this would be my permanent condition. I accepted an $840 check a month for over 10 years. I thought that was it. That’s what I have to live off of.
Just two weeks before I got sent to Iraq, I got married. When I came home, the marriage was over. That was a whole other part of my life that took a downhill spiral. The PTSD and nightmares I still have set me to the point where I didn’t know what to do. I tried to check into the VA hospital but every time I went, I was diagnosed with something new and I began to accept the labels someone else would give me. They said I would never be able to have a job and categorized me as having disability for life.
Explain your job search.
When I got out of the military, I tried to pursue aviation with Auburn University and Tuskegee Airport in Alabama. I had someone approach me and ask why I hadn’t gone to California to pursue my dream. I decided to take charge, and I came out here for a fresh start. That’s what my intention was, to finish this goal. It wasn’t that I had a fear of failing. After being labeled so many things, I had a fear of succeeding. I had a fear of making it in life and being somebody.
I had decided I was done living. I had a drug addiction for 10 years, and my body was really messed up. I was walking on Venice Beach one day and realized I had a blister on my foot. It was similar to one I remembered having in Frankfurt, and I remembered always being told to pop these blisters. I popped it and almost instantly my ankle was swollen. I found out it was necrotizing fasciitis — flesh-eating bacteria. I went to the hospital in Los Angeles, and they immediately sent the chief surgeon from UCLA. I was in the hospital for 28 days. I’ve had eight operations since then on my leg and back surgery on top of that. I have a titanium plate in my back, which is a primary reason no one would talk to me as far as work goes.
I had to learn to walk again. I had a nurse come to my house twice a day. I was in a deep depression. My new wife had to work two jobs just to pay our rent. I couldn’t contribute whatsoever. I’ve been in five mental institutions for my PTSD. It’s not what I did while in the military, it’s what I’ve seen while in the military that ruined me. I kept asking myself, will I ever be normal again physically, mentally or spiritually?
In LA I went to Westwood College of Aviation Technology with my GI Bill. I came one class from getting my degree in aviation maintenance, and I reinjured my back and had a titanium rod put in my lower back.
I wouldn’t tell anyone any of these things, especially any job I applied to. I finally decided that before I could do anything, I would have to get clean off the drugs and alcohol. I went to a program in LA called the Dream Center — it changed my life dramatically. I finally felt hope. I realized I didn’t have to put on a label the government kept putting on me as a veteran.
I did get jobs working at Blockbuster Video and Office Depot temporarily. I couldn’t hold either job down because of my PTSD, depression and being on my foot for long periods of time.
I applied to so many different airline companies before my ankle problem, and it was sad because they would usually come to our school and recruit you before you graduated. As soon as word got out that I needed back surgery, no one ever talked to me again. My dream was shattered.
How did you integrate into the civilian workforce?
I got sober at the LA Dream Center six years ago. My best friend Joel worked there, and another friend, Justin, started a Dream Center in New York. Justin had been in touch with Alyse Zwick, Miss New York 2009, and she had asked him if he knew of any veterans who were having a hard time finding employment. He mentioned this to Joel, who recommended me.
Alyse called me and referred me to put in an application at UPA. As soon as I walked in the door, I expected to be given an extensive application and never hear back again. I’m used to that. That’s been my whole life. But when I came here, the people were truly amazing. The project manager has a son in Afghanistan; he understands the military as a civilian. Immediately there was a connection. I finally felt that I was welcome. I have been given the chance to be somebody. I haven’t been taken full-time yet. I want to stay and travel with the company. I make more a week now than I did a month from the disability check I lived on for so many years.
UPA has water and electric meters. I survey the condition of them at different homes and businesses. I take pictures of them and clean the dirt around them so someone can come in and install a new one.
Occasionally I still have pain in my foot. UPA has said to let them know anytime I have pain, and they’ll give me activities that take me off my feet. I still have flashbacks. I haven’t talked to anyone I’ve served with. After seeing all the psychiatrists that told me all of these negative things that I am, I didn’t want anything to do with the military. I don’t want anything from the government — I want what I have now.
Role in Military: Sergeant First Class, U.S. Army
Current Title: Member, board of directors for GallantFew, a nonprofit network that helps veterans find employment and mentors; consultant for defense industry companies
What was your role in the military?
I first got my introduction to the military when I was a junior in high school. My brother was already in the National Guard; I looked up to him and decided I wanted to give it a shot. After my junior year, I attended basic training, came back and finished my senior year of high school before going to advanced training after graduation. I became active duty in 1996 and was stationed everywhere and did everything. I’ve been in Korea, Iraq, Fort Lewis, Fort Campbell, Fort Benning and Fort Drum. I’ve held every position from rifleman to platoon sergeant. I worked at the Army Ranger School to put ranger students through school, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more than that. It’s the premier leadership program for the army and an honor to be a part of.
I deployed to Iraq with the 10th Mountain Infantry Division out of Fort Drum, New York, in August 2006. When we got to Iraq, we were in the Sunni Triangle, south of the Baghdad province, often referred to as the “Triangle of Death.” We’d hear 20–30 engagements per day, whether that’d be gunfire in the distance, a mortar attack, artillery attack, IEDs going off. It might not be happening to you, but you could always hear it.
On Feb. 27, 2007, I was on my first tour, serving with Fort Drum’s 2nd Brigade, and my unit was conducting a road clinic mission to find IEDs. We had just started and were an hour and a half into the mission. We had just cleared a dead-end street, and although we’d typically never come back up a street, we had no other option. When we came back, we got hit by a roadside bomb. I had a gunner, medic, driver and myself in the vehicle, and I remember hearing the explosion, and before I could say anything or do anything, I was tossed from the vehicle and slammed into the ground.
One of the first things we’re taught to do when we’re in contact is to do a battlefield assessment. I stopped trying to roll, looked up, and all I could see was my vehicle. As I stood up to find my guys, I realized I was on fire. I removed my vest and attempted to roll, but my muscles had locked. I couldn’t move anymore. I was facedown on the ground being burned alive. There’s no way to explain what that felt like. I haven’t been able to find the right words yet.
We train so much in the military that it becomes muscle memory; everybody knows what they have to do. Even with being hurt, I still felt like I had to do my job. I was giving out orders and commands, trying to get someone on medical, getting the helicopter to come in. Had I not given a single order, my guys were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing.
I lost both of my hands due to the fire, can’t see out of my left eye, and I have joint damage in my elbows and knees. I have a limited range of motion and 85 percent total body burns.
Explain your job search.
While at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, a lot of nonprofit and community-related programs would engage soldiers to integrate them back to community life. For me, after spending 14 years in the Army and living a very routine life when I knew exactly when I was going to eat, when I was going to sleep, knowing everything, to now knowing nothing — it was tough. It’s still very hard.
From April 2010 to February 2011, I had nine surgeries, and I still have a lot left. I can’t work a 9–5 job because I have to fly to UCLA’s plastic surgery department in California for my surgeries, and I’m there for weeks at a time. I can’t take off work; no company would allow that. I decided to start consulting for different tactical communications companies; this allows me to work whenever I have time to. I help find new customers for companies and do other odd jobs they might need. There’s a company in Washington, D.C., called Calibre. They’ve been asked to do some surveys and different assessments for the warrior transition units by the Secretary of Defense.
They’ve brought me in to help fine-tune the assessment. It’s two days worth of work, which is perfect for me — it’s all I can do. I also speak at different functions. I spoke at the 2010 Defense Forum; I’m speaking for Cessna Aircraft this spring.
I hear about consultancy opportunities through word of mouth. I have some friends at the Pentagon who know me and sometimes refer me. It’s much better than solely depending on my disability check from the military.
How did you integrate into the civilian workforce?
There are so many great organizations out there, and they try to help veterans by giving them assistance. Soldiers become dependent on that. They get used to somebody always doing stuff for them and stop doing things for themselves.
One of the things I loved about being in the military is how proactive you were in your own career. You had to take initiative constantly in order to progress. When people are giving you all of the help you need, you almost lose that part of you. You don’t become proactive anymore, but you have to be. I always remind myself of that.
There’s no way you can continue to be successful if you don’t stay proactive. You have to do your part. You can’t wait for opportunities to come to you — they won’t. You have to search them down.