Civilian training programs tackle veteran underemployment

Helping vets by matching transferable skills to highly sought-after jobs
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 3, 2019. Hiring among U.S. military veterans has improved dramatically over the past few years. In June, the jobless rate dropped to 3.2 percent, but lurking beneath the headline number are two truths: 1) a vet may have a job, but they are underemployed or 2) they have given up looking at all. More than 9.2 million veterans are employed, but the labor participation rate is just 49.2 percent, compared to 62.9 percent for the civilian population. This means 9.6 million men and women who served in the military aren’t employed or looking for work. And of those that are working, one in three say they are underemployed and haven’t found meaningful work. Among the hurdles for veterans is the continuing difficulty in translating military skills into skills that civilian employers can understand and appreciate. There is a lot of movement to eliminate that barrier through programs that are helping make the transition into the civilian workforce smoother.

Eliminating the barriers

“There is tremendous support from the American population for the veteran community and appreciation of what it’s done. There are 46,000 different VSOs — veteran service organizations — trying to address various aspects of needs that veterans have, whether it’s mental health, all the way to career transitions. They’re doing a lot of good work,” explains Matt Driskill, founder of the Milken Institute’s Military Leadership Circle. The Military Leadership Circle is one of them. It allows mid-career military officers to participate in various events for education and development. Driskill says he’s particularly encouraged by the momentum of new initiatives designed to help veterans become business owners. “The good part is that people are more and more creating specific programs that allow veterans to transition into sectors in the economy. No longer are veterans simply just transitioning from what they did in the military into traditional defense jobs and so forth.” Driskill credits the growing recognition for this population and the transferable skills it brings to the private sector.

Identifying transferable skills

Manufacturing and technology are industries that have already identified valuable transferable skills. In 2013, Microsoft launched the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy (MSSA) at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state to train veterans for careers in technology through an 18-week program. Upon completion, graduates can gain interviews for full-time jobs at Microsoft or one of its hiring partners in cloud development, server and cloud administration, cybersecurity administration, and database and business intelligence administration. Former U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Anthony Seo served for 12 years before entering the MSSA and now works as a software engineer for Windows. “So much of what I did as a Marine applies to my job here at Microsoft. As a counterintelligence specialist, I deployed to some not-so-great locations in Afghanistan, where I had to think on my feet and figure things out quickly. I was constantly problem-solving. If you weren’t able to solve the problems, you weren’t able to do your job, and if you weren’t able to do your job, people’s lives were on the line. So, you figured out how to get rid of obstacles that were in your way,” Seo tells WorkingNation. “I still have that same mindset here at Microsoft, and I think that my co-workers appreciate it. They’ve commented that I might not know how to do a certain task or know the answer at that exact moment, but I won’t stop until I do. Whether it’s going through textbooks or finding the right person to help answer my question or searching the Internet, I’m going to keep working through it until I figure it out. That’s the kind of mindset a lot of military folks bring to Microsoft,” Seo adds. More than 90 percent of MSSA participants stick with the program and graduate, landing jobs with an average salary of more than $75,000 a year. “Every way you look at this, this thing is working,” says a Microsoft spokesperson. MSSA is a national program with 14 locations across the country and expects to graduate 1,000 students per year.

Meeting the needs of ‘new collar’ jobs

IBM launched a similar program in 2017 in Raleigh, North Carolina, that it calls an apprenticeship to meet the needs of “new collar” jobs. It grew twice as fast as expected in the first year, according to a company spokesperson, and has since expanded to West Virginia, Missouri, and Louisiana. “IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty believes that AI will change 100 percent of jobs over the next decade. Not only will it change jobs, but it will also create new jobs in the technology field and in areas we haven’t even dreamt of yet. While only a minority of jobs will disappear, the majority of roles that remain will require people to work with some form of AI and this will require skills training on a large scale,” according to an IBM spokesperson. The company says attributes such as dependability, adaptability, strong work ethic, comfort with training and practice, and problem-solving skills make veterans an easy match for apprenticeships, which lead to careers in app and software development, cybersecurity, high-tech system administration. So far, more than 200 graduates of the program now work for IBM and the company expects to add 450 more apprenticeships over the next five years. “We see new-collar programs as an investment that pays dividends for economic development, for STEM careers, and also for IBM as we hire apprentices who will be making a long-term contribution to our company. And if we want to get serious about closing America’s high-tech skills gap and boosting economic opportunity for American families, we need a national push to create many, many more of these 21st-century skills training programs,” says the spokesperson.

From Battlefields to Ballfields

Another example demonstrates how active-duty experience with leadership and teamwork are valued in another arena where both are emphasized for success — sports officiating. Former vice president of officiating for the NFL and current rules expert for Fox Sports, Mike Pereira, says he realized how veterans’ skills mirror those of officials during a driving trip to Oregon in 2016. That led to the formation of Battlefields to Ballfields (B2B), a non-profit that provides former military members an opportunity to integrate back into their communities through officiating and scholarships. “Our mission at B2B is two-fold. We want to help U.S. Armed Forces return home and provide them an opportunity to serve again by becoming a sports official, helping to guide the future of our young people who are involved in sports,” says Pereira. “Our foundation also connects the dots between veterans, youth, and the community. Through our first three years, we have enrolled over 200 veterans to take part.” B2B pays for uniforms, dues, equipment training materials, and insurance. It also provides each trainee a mentor who will guide them as they move up the officiating ladder. Currently, those enrolled in the program are officiating at the high school level across the country in football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey. Some are graduating to the college level, according to B2B. “The goal is for each B2B official to rise to very best of his or her ability. It would be sensational to one day have a B2B graduate in each of the four major pro sports leagues and PGA,” says B2B spokesman Doug Kelly. Success to B2B is “giving our veterans the opportunity to transition back into civilian life in a profession that is similar to what they experienced in the military and with skills that are ‘transitional,’” Kelly adds. With options like these, Driskill is optimistic for the unemployed veterans who are still seeking training and a post-military career path. While he appreciates opportunities and initiatives popping up in new industries, he says to properly and fully serve the military and veteran workforce, there needs to be better integration with veteran service organizations, companies, and the military and veteran community itself. “Sometimes it’s a little disparate, and it’s not necessarily in a coherent strategy. I think that’s the negative. That’s where we still have some work to do.” Victoria Lim is a California-based, award-winning journalist. Editor’s Note: This article was updated on July 5 to reflect the June employment numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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