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Soaring Opportunities

Soaring Opportunities | Human Resource Executive Online Disciplined, skilled and ready to work, transitioning military are hearing more employers say "We Want You" to fill the talent pipeline.

Thursday, January 1, 2009
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They've been all they could be, aimed high and crossed into the blue for four, 10 or 20 years. But what happens when service men and women replace the insignias with business suits and transition out of the military and into the corporate world? Increasingly, employment opportunities happen.

According to a recent survey from Chicago-based job board CareerBuilder, nearly 20 percent of employers who were polled said that they plan to actively recruit veterans over the next 12 months. Conducted during August and September, almost 3,400 employers were surveyed.

Though long-range numbers are not available, Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources for CareerBuilder, says that, compared to five or 10 years ago, HR executives definitely appear to be more interested in hiring transitioning military.

Those who showed an interest in hiring veterans on the survey cited the team-oriented nature of veterans, built-in leadership skills and perhaps that Holy Grail of employee qualities: integrity.

As their interest increases, employers are finding more ways to enlist military talent into their corporate ranks. They may recruit at U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored job fairs on bases, they may get the word out through military employment publications or they may hire recruiters to network for them. And, according to experts, their numbers are increasing, and that's good news for both veterans and employers.

Some employers are even working directly with the DOL to further increase veterans' chances of employment when they transition from the military. Through a program called the Advisory Committee on Veterans' Employment, Training and Employer Outreach, GE, General Motors, Home Depot and Cisco Systems discuss the processes in place to assist veterans in civilian careers and advise on ways to increase their exposure to opportunities when they leave the services. In addition to the businesses, the advisory committee includes representatives from the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Susan Schieren, a member of the advisory committee who represents GE, says "we all share a mutual passion" in matching good employees with good employers. "The Department of Labor says that between 300,000 and 350,000 leave the military every year, and it's [the DOL's] job to try to help both the employer and the veterans when they're getting out."

Connecting HR with veterans hasn't always been this comparatively easy, according to those contacted for this story. Up until the DOL started focusing on fine-tuning specialized transition programs in the mid-'90s, there were few employers to whom vets could turn. The advisory committee on which Schieren serves helps to keep that focus sharpened.

Today, say some recruiting experts, transitioning military can be HR's answer to an aging workforce and a natural fit in engineering, management or the trades. Some, such as Schieren, look at officer training as a gold mine for civilian leadership.

The Officer Circuit

Schieren is a natural for the DOL's government advisory committee, because she is GE's point person for the company's military recruiting efforts. Through Schieren and her staff, GE is continuously plugged into the process of transitioning military personnel.

In addition to attending 20 to 30 military job fairs, Schieren and her staff attend four major career conferences at military-service academies -- West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. In May of each year, the largest career conference for the academies takes place in Washington and, Schieren says, her staff goes all out.

"It's tremendous. I had 45 recruiters with me last year," she says. "[The conferences] are massive, like 500 officers looking for jobs."

Those officers are the leadership candidates she's looking for, she says. As head of GE's military, sales and marketing leadership-development programs, Schieren is keenly interested in helping military returnees develop into corporate leaders for the company's U.S. workforce of about 150,000. One program that she directs for Fairfield, Conn.-based GE, called the Junior Officer Leadership Program, is a brass ring for officers who've left and been hired by GE.

This year, she says, 32 candidates are in JOLP, and she's reserved 44 slots to fill in the coming year. "It's a very competitive program to get into," says Schieren, a disabled veteran who served in the Air Force for two years in the 1970s.

Small wonder there's competition. For departing officers searching to stretch their leadership potential, JOLP offers the luxury of a two-year program that allows candidates to spend three eight-month periods working in different GE business teams: Energy, Aviation and Oil and Gas. Candidates can choose which division suits them best after their two-year stints, but most don't wait that long.

"Most of the time, I find out that they don't even need the full two years," Schieren says, adding that some find the right fit with their first assignment. For those who do work in each division, they sharpen their leadership skills and expand their network to their benefit wherever they choose to finally land at GE.

Schieren says she uses her JOLP team to also recruit enlisted veterans for GE, through one of the company's Web sites or through job fairs on military bases. Applying the it-takes-one-to-know-one philosophy, she says, who better to translate resumes of transitioning military than those who have recently served?

Circulating Opportunities

GE is not the only company setting its sights on transitioning military. In 2002, when G.I. Jobs magazine hit the streets, it was a 32-page inaugural issue with the goal of providing employment resources for transitioning military. In 2003, when the magazine published its list of the top 25 military-friendly employers, GE placed No. 3. Now, the company is No. 16 out of the top 50, and the magazine's most recent issue weighs in at 226 pages.

Rich McCormack, publisher of the Coraopolis, Pa.-based magazine, isn't surprised at the increased interest in transitioning military.

"Look at what the military gives a soldier with regards to the skill sets, the intangibles, the leadership management -- that mentality -- and [apply] that to corporate America. I think most employers would look at that as, 'I'm going to get a return on my investment pretty quickly,' " he says.

Covering a broad spectrum of industries, from energy and transportation to home-improvement stores, G.I. Jobs tries to appeal to all veterans by covering a wide range of military-friendly employers in industries such as construction, technology and energy.

McCormack -- a U.S. Navy veteran -- says employers typically use a variety of techniques to reach transitioning military. Some use the magazine to brand their companies as "military-friendly," then appear at job fairs on bases and maintain special Web sites to draw applicants.

TAP-ping Resources

For returning military, the DOL's transition programs -- the Army Career and Alumni Program and the Transition Assistance Program -- offer a valuable resource to connect returning military with prospective employers. Typically, the weeklong programs feature such essentials as resume creation, networking, job fairs and presentations by employers or military recruiters.

That's right: military recruiters -- but not the kind most of us may be familiar with. Think of this type of military recruiter as the civilian "I Want You" Uncle Sam in a Brooks Brothers suit.

Among the busier recruiting agencies is Orion International, headquartered in Raleigh, N.C. Founded in 1991 by five former junior officers, Orion has expanded to become a conglomerate, covering such industries as energy and health, as well as operating a military career expo division.

Mike Starich, who runs Orion's military division from the company's Austin, Texas, office, says his group often recruits at TAPS. Of the 120 members in his division, all of the recruiters and sales people are veterans.

Starich echoes the sentiments of others when he says that interest in hiring former military personnel will likely increase, despite the economic climate. But while he and others say that such intangibles as leadership traits and integrity are solid gold for employers, he also adds some very practical advantages to hiring veterans: They've been screened through drug tests, they've got a trade and they're an excellent antidote to an aging workforce.

"For instance, in the rail industry, or even in oil and gas, these are industries that are facing serious aging-workforce problems, and they have to recoup that," says Starich. While he says that some companies, such as GE, have learned how to build a talent pipeline from the returning military, not every company has succeeded in tackling the talent shortage arising from baby-boomer retirements.

"It's a serious problem," he says. "Transportation is one [industry], but also the energy industry, such as utilities, oil and gas."

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Another bonus for employers, says Starich, is that the military provides a great foundation in the trades.

"The military is a great source of technical talent that is basically trade-school trained," says Starich. "Electricians, mechanics, electronics technicians . . . [they're] very well-trained people across various spectrums coming out of the service."

In the 16 years since he exited the Marine Corps, Starich says he's seen a dramatic increase in employment opportunities for veterans, and he credits those changes to the rise of transition programs like ACAPS and TAPS, the work of military recruiters and America's participation in Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War lasting for six months between 1990 and '91.

"I think the general perception of the military really improved after the first Gulf War," Starich says. "It seemed to change things dramatically into a very positive [perception] in corporate America. It certainly has made my job easier."

By comparison, he says, his employment outlook was bleak when he left the service.

"The options that were afforded to me were very limited," he says. "The volume of opportunities did not even compare to what military folks have these days," says Starich.

GE's Schieren agrees that opportunities have multiplied in the recent past for both officers and enlisted personnel, but she cautions that no one should feel pressured to simply get a job. She advises transitioning military to search within themselves to find their passion, and to pursue that in the workforce.

"Look at the hobbies you have, look at the things you enjoy doing in the military," and try to apply those interests to a position beyond military life, she says.

Matt Modleski asked himself that same question when he retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2000. During his time in the service, he had fixed, flown and taught for more than 20 years. Enlisting when he was just 17, Modleski lived and breathed blue, working his way through a handful of positions in the Air Force, from mechanic to instructor pilot and eventually, as a valued member of the famed Thunderbirds, the Air Force's prestigious demonstration squadron.

When it came time to retire, the Carmel, Ind., resident started his own business, focusing on leadership training and consulting. Soon, he was hired away by medical giant Roche Diagnostics to be a regional business manager. But Modleski continued to question his core talents, and wanted to align them better with his career goals. He knew that he liked teaching and some public speaking and he also enjoyed consulting.

"These were things from my time in the service," says Modleski. "If I'm in a capacity to teach, I'm probably going to be pretty happy, and probably pretty successful, because I've learned how to teach fairly complex stuff in a way that people understand and enjoy."

Eventually, Modleski became a partner in Stovall, Grainger and Modleski, a business consulting firm headquartered in Centreville, Va. that helps clients focus on creating sales and leadership strategies.

Modleski says he's happy because he identified the characteristics that he could translate from the military to civilian life. Not all of his Air Force friends were able to make such a leap, he says, and felt compelled to pilot commercial airlines.

"Many of my friends, even, who flew fighters with me at some point, would say, 'Well, what else can I do? I'm going to the airlines because I fly,' " he says.

Modleski advises anyone in the military to "take a giant step back" and consider the talents that they use now and how they can be applied in corporate America if and when they transition.

While Modleski salutes the value of transition programs, he says the programs should concentrate more on helping veterans identify their core strengths and translate them in their resumes.

And while he thinks returning military can benefit organizations, he advises HR to learn enough about military culture to understand what a candidate can bring to the table. How many HR executives can define a platoon or a brigade? he poses. How many can converse about the tasks that accompany military life?

According to Modleski, many HR executives literally don't know what they're missing in a veteran's strengths because they can't converse about military life. He points to companies such as GE and Home Depot, which dedicate HR staff who are veterans and can easily translate a military resume.

"I think [either one is] a perfect example of a company that knows what it's hiring," he says. "There is an expertise in those organizations that really helps them [when recruiting] military personnel. If you buy into the value of how someone has been groomed and has [successfully progressed] in the military, you either find someone you can hire and you bring them in, or you outsource with a firm that you trust."

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