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Veterans face hurdle in civilian job search

Dec. 22, 2012 - 11:35AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 22, 2012 - 11:35AM  |  
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CINCINNATI — A major concern for Daniel Gentry upon leaving the Army has always been a challenge for veterans — how to convince prospective employers that combat duties like checking for land mines or repairing bombed roads lead to skills useful in civilian jobs.

Veterans say military teamwork can translate to collaboration skills in business and that command positions develop leadership abilities also valuable to companies.

"I was worried that employers might not get it," said Gentry, an Army engineer in Iraq before leaving the military in 2010.

Over the next five years, a projected 1.5 million service members will leave the military looking to start new careers, Department of Labor officials estimate, and President Barack Obama and others have called on businesses to hire veterans. But the 10 percent national unemployment rate in November for those serving in active duty at any time since 2001 highlights the difficulty. The comparable rate for non-veterans was 7.2 percent.

Federal officials, realizing veterans need more preparation for finding jobs, launched last month a revamped version of a military assistance program started in the 1990s.

The redesigned program developed by representatives from Defense, Labor, Veterans Affairs and other departments now requires that those leaving the military attend a five-day core course including a workshop on making military skills more understandable and attractive to employers. They also will get more personalized guidance to identify career goals and how to reach them. Additional offerings include tailored sessions for those planning to attend college, seek technical or skills training or start businesses.

Gentry acknowledged going on unsuccessful interviews before landing his marketing job with Procter and Gamble Co. in Cincinnati and said it's difficult to balance technical titles "with what you actually did."

"I got a level of respect for serving in the military," Gentry, 29, said. "But I could tell with a couple of employers that it (military experience) wasn't translating."

He said he focused on military-honed abilities like leadership, planning and team-building, but wasn't showing how those skills could help their organizations. But P&G, which provides career seminars and assigns mentors to help veterans with interview skills and relating their military experience to civilian jobs, determined Gentry's experiences made him a good fit for the consumer products company.

"We look in general for people who have demonstrated skills in areas like problem-solving, leadership and collaboration," said Steve Wittman, who leads P&G's military recruiting program.

He stresses that instead of listing military jobs, veterans need to relate what they accomplished with those jobs.

Veteran Nathan Johnson continues searching for a career after leaving the Army in 2010. He's also working while pursuing an alternative energy degree at a Zanesville college. He says many job applications aren't veteran-friendly, with no room for listing pertinent military experience. And he said that contact information for supervisors is "almost impossible to track down after leaving the service."

The 25-year-old combat engineer, who spent much of his tours in Iraq clearing roads of explosive devices, said that while his duties required discipline and the ability to make critical life-and-death decisions, "It's been tough to get to the interview step where I can show employers that."

Marine Corps veteran and Akron native David Smith encountered similar problems, eventually realizing that instead of just telling interviewers he was in the infantry, he should have explained how his combat role helped him develop problem-solving and leadership skills.

"A lot of us get out of the service without knowing what we want to do or even how to do interviews," said Smith, 27, now majoring in political science at the University of California-Berkeley.

Both veterans and interviewers face challenges in getting past the "'yes, sir' and 'yes, ma'am' answers service members are trained to provide," says Evan Guzman, who leads Verizon Communications' strategic military recruitment.

"It's really a question of un-training them from the military mindset," he said. "I've seen veterans so nervous they shut down and you can't see their personalities," he said, recalling one veteran who "just froze" and used a lot of military terminology.

The veteran didn't get the job, despite glowing military performance records.

Guzman says interviewers need to create a comfortable environment and ask the right questions to help veterans "sell themselves."

The multi-agency response to the president's call for improving career readiness also aims to provide help earlier in military service.

"We are still designing, doing pilots and getting feedback to make it the best program possible," Department of Defense spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said.

Sherrill Curtis, principal and creative director for Curtis Consulting Group, a New Jersey-based human resources consulting practice, said the redesigned program is a step in the right direction, but urges even more training as early as possible for veterans and civilian interviewers to help them communicate better.

"''When you get both sides that haven't been trained, that's when you run into trouble," she said.

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