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Next assignment: Civilian life
People exiting the military have special skills and special needs.
The Kansas City Star

Al Risden was in the Marine Corps from 1975 to 1998, and spent the last five years of his hitch taking information technology classes to prepare for work after the military.

“I retired from the military on a Friday and went to work on Monday,” Risden said of his quick shift to a contracting company in a job supporting a network operating system.

John Linstra came back from a yearlong tour with the National Guard in Iraq and is preparing to use the educational benefits from his military service to go back to school.

“I’ve taken a paycheck job as a security officer, but I’m hoping to start a master’s program in January to return to teaching,” said Linstra, who taught before he joined the Guard.

Rich Graham, in the Army Reserve, was laid off from Sprint Corp. in 2002, and has been mobilized a couple of times since then, the last in 2005 in Iraq.

“I have an MBA and top-secret government clearance, but it seems like nobody is interested in bringing me on if I have another possible mobilization coming up,” said Graham, who’s been job hunting since he came home from Iraq earlier this year.

Three Kansas City area men. Three different stories about the transition from military to civilian work life.

Their stories are echoed about 250,000 times a year, as U.S. servicemen and women leave the military. Add to those numbers about 150,000 “trailing spouses” who also face career adjustments, and the re-entry challenges loom large.

Whether they’re career military, such as like Risden, or members of the Guard and reserves, such as like Linstra and Graham, or enlisted personnel who leave after a few years, veterans have both special privileges and special needs in their job transitions.

Some come out with the education, leadership experience and skills that make employers drool.

Others find that their military skill — say, driving a tank — is a difficult résumé attribute to sell in civilian life.

“There are two groups of people exiting the military,” said Mark Bender, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who previously oversaw an Army career transition program at Fort Leavenworth.

“There are the retirees who are receiving a pretty nice retired-officer check and who are coming out with years of skills and supervisory experience, and there are the young soldiers who are coming out without a retiree paycheck, maybe without the education levels, and maybe scarred up from the conflict.”

Both groups have re-entry pluses and minuses.

“Career officers have plenty of assets, an unbelievable amount of experience, but the age thing, if you’re a 45-year-old male, can be a big hang-up,” Bender said.

Younger personnel often have experience, adaptability and a sense of duty beyond their civilian age group peers, he said, but lack the networking structure and resume credentials that translate easily into civilian life.

Recognizing that transitions can be tough, the military branches all offer their personnel formal civilian work/life training.

At Fort Leavenworth, for example, the Army Career and Alumni Program this past fall had 20 service members in attendance at an intensive three-day transition workshop and skills evaluation session. It also had 70 employers set up booths at a job fair, attended by more than 190 exiting military personnel and spouses.

“Most of them, regardless of length of service or age, have never looked for a job,” said Alejandro Devora, a retired Marine officer who now manages the transition program. “We help them know their strengths and weaknesses, help them with their résumés and job-hunting techniques, and give them information about companies.

“Our job is to bring as much to them as possible while they’re still in service.”

Active recruiters

Some area employers say service men and women usually have characteristics they want in employees.

Home Depot, BNSF Railway, Sprint Nextel, and Yellow Transportation are among those recognized by the military as active recruiters.

“We’ve learned from experience that there are lots of parallels between the military and our work,” said BNSF’s Steve Forsberg. “We’re both 24/7 environments. Many of our jobs are outdoors, a physical environment, mission-focused. And, really, the railway industry is one long relay chain, like the military.”

About 1,000 of BNSF’s new hires this year — 20 percent of its total new hires — are veterans, Forsberg said.

Similarly, veterans are recruited at Yellow partly because of their agreeableness to 24-hour coverage and shift work, said John Derry, vice president-human resources.

“We also find people who have the specific skill sets of operating heavy equipment, both driving and taking care of it,” Derry said. “They seem to have a higher degree of stick-to-it-iveness, not as high a turnover, and they don’t mind being away from home as much, because they’re used to it.”

Ron Nicholl, Sprint’s program manager for military recruiting, said about 6,000 Sprint employees are ex-military, hired because of their technical and problem-solving skills and “their can-do attitude.”

He said many veterans are accustomed to thinking on their feet and constantly learning new things, attributes prized in the fast-paced telecommunications industry.

Home Depot likes soldiers’ familiarity with a hierarchical work structure and continuous training, said Donald Sullivan, who heads the retailers’ Operation Career Front in the Kansas City-Fort Leavenworth area.

Sullivan e-mails job openings to Devora at the military post to make sure they’re seen by qualified candidates.

Deep pool of talent

Bender, the former job transition official at Fort Leavenworth who now writes books, said some civilian employers hold outdated notions that military personnel are “order takers” and don’t think well on their own.

In fact, he said, veterans may be better at outside-the-box thinking than their nonmilitary peers, partly because crisis situations demand it. He’d put members of the officer corps among “the most creative people on earth.”

For whatever reason, many civilian industries are stepping up their military recruitments, and it’s increasingly easy for employers and job hunters to make a match.

The Manufacturing Institute of the National Association of Manufacturers, for example, last month announced a partnership with RecruitMilitary, a veterans hiring service, to provide manufacturers with a database of more than 90,000 job candidates with military backgrounds.

“Veterans offer a deep pool of talent that can help manufacturers overcome a serious shortage of skilled workers,” said Jerry Jasinowski, president of the institute.

At a meeting this Thursday of the Employment Practices Network of Kansas City, several hundred human resource professionals will hear Christopher Phelps, a Marine who’s working in the telecommunications industry, speak on “Leadership Under Pressure: What the U.S. Military and Corporate American Have in Common.”

It’s no surprise that the online world is full of matchmaker sites for veterans and employers.

At, founder and chairman Chris Michel said the Monster-affiliated Web site helps about 700,000 service people and their spouses a month search for civilian work.

“One of the things about military service is that it’s a bit isolating,” Michel said. “All the people you know are military people. You don’t know people in outside professions and you haven’t seen other jobs up close.

“Many think that what they did in the military doesn’t appear to have a direct correlation to the civilian world, so our site can help them research the transferability of skills. Type in your military job title in our military occupational specialty decoder and it spits out civilian corollaries.”

At, managing editor John Dowling said the goal is the same: “Look at transferable skills. That helps the job hunter and the employer.”

Dowling said veterans’ experience with computers, lots of other high-tech equipment, logistics, finance, purchasing, public relations and communications are all sought-after traits on the civilian side.

“Look, the military is a microcosm of society,” Dowling said. “You’re going to find all kinds of personalities, different abilities, individualism, some good at taking orders, some not. Those are all reasons to find the right fit for any employer and employee.”

Michel, his colleague Tom Aiello, and Dowling all agreed that employers who hire veterans solely out of a sense of patriotism may be a bit misguided.

“Hiring a veteran is good business and not goodwill,” Aiello said, noting that the likelihood of veterans being drug-free and security-cleared is a good hiring foundation.

Dowling also pointed out that veterans frequently are getting “sticker shock” when they transition from the military to civilian work.

“They may not get the same pay and same entitlements,” Dowling said. “They suddenly have to pay for their housing, for insurance, taxes … for a lot that was provided to them in the military. The bottom line is that they may earn less than what they made in uniform, and they may not have the discounted child care, the commissary prices they had on base.”

Good financial counseling can help ease that sticker shock, he said. And, Michel noted, salary offers will go up if veterans take advantage of the subsidized education offered them.

Michel noted that the Servicemembers’ Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, and the Reserve Educational Assistance Program, plus scholarships available only to veterans all exist to help in the transition to civilian careers. Go to for a resource on available financial assistance.

Finally, Michel advised service personnel to “start your job search early, before you get out. Use multiple sources. All job searches are difficult, but you have a lot of tools available.”

Toni Cardarella contributed to this report.

To reach Diane Stafford, call (816) 234-4359 or send e-mail to Read her archived columns and Workspace blog at