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Vets in the News

The New York Times
June 18, 2006
Ex-Soldiers Are Recruited Again (and Eagerly) for Civilian Jobs

A confluence of events — media coverage of the Iraq war, a patriotic desire to support the troops and corporate America's struggle to fill jobs and groom leaders — has hiring managers tapping one of the nation's most diverse and well-trained talent pools: the 220,000 men and women who leave military service each year.

Job boards for former military personnel are expanding rapidly — is growing about 50 percent a year and RecruitMilitary about 35 percent a year. Sales at VetJobs, which charges employers to post jobs on its Web site, are up 200 percent over last year. The Destiny Group, which operates more than 100 veteran-specific career sites, reports a 250 percent increase in its business over the last year.

Extensive coverage of the war, recruiters say, has created a largely positive perception of the military. "They aren't a bunch of grunts sitting in the woods smoking, with all kinds of things on their helmets," said Bill Gaul, Destiny's president, referring to Vietnam-era images. "Now what you see are people working on computers and technical equipment. They look good. I don't have to work hard to convince people anymore of the value of someone with military experience."

Employers are also attracted to the group's diversity. According to Defense Department figures, about 18 percent of active-duty personnel are African-American, 9 percent are Hispanic and about 15 percent are women.

When Adria Cobeaga, an Army engineer, started her job search in April, it yielded results almost immediately. She interviewed with 11 companies, and 9 asked her to come for a second interview. Ms. Cobeaga, who returned from Iraq last summer, will begin her job as a project manager with the Hensel Phelps Construction Company in San Diego in mid-July, right after she is discharged.

While in Iraq, Ms. Cobeaga rarely knew what her team would be building from one day to the next. "You just had to know enough to get people where they needed to be and manage them," she said. "The people at Hensel seemed to like that flexibility."

In January, William Harrison, a West Point alumnus and former field artillery officer, began a job as an operating supervisor at the Bronx-Westchester office of Con Edison. In the Army, he performed maintenance on the computerized control system in Bradley fire support vehicles. Both Ms. Cobeaga and Mr. Harrison, as junior military officers, are in what recruiters call the sweet spot — they have technical training, a college degree and leadership experience that makes them highly desirable candidates in the corporate world.

Young people making the transition out of the military are grouped into two categories by recruiters, enlisted personnel and junior military officers. Officers are seen as a good fit for nearly any midlevel management position. Enlisted men and women have usually trained to be mechanics, electricians or electronics specialists; in the civilian world, they work for construction, high-tech or manufacturing companies, said Bryan Zawikowski, general manager of Lucas Group Military, a division of the recruiting firm Lucas Group.

Manufacturing jobs are seen as an especially good fit. The 2005 Skills Gap study from the National Association of Manufacturers and RecruitMilitary shows critical shortages in a number of jobs, including machinists, electricians, engineers and programmers.

Those skills are in high supply in the military, said Drew Myers, chief executive of RecruitMilitary, as are character traits like leadership, integrity and respectfulness.

Those qualities, employers say, are what really set former soldiers apart from other job candidates. It's not unusual for Marine sergeants or Army platoon leaders in their early 20's, for example, to be responsible for 15 to 100 people. Mr. Harrison, who is 25 and now at Con Ed, was a platoon leader in the Army, responsible for about 30 people.

And those small-unit leadership skills translate well to business. Each Starbucks store, for example, is essentially a small unit, said Bob Ravener, the company's vice president for human resources for the eastern United States, and a former Navy officer. "We can teach people the Starbucks business, but we can't train them to be leaders, or have integrity and honesty," he said. "And I know firsthand the military gives you that."

The chief executive of Home Depot, Robert L. Nardelli, has been reaching out to veterans since the 1980's, when he pioneered an officer hiring program while at General Electric. He began a similar program at Home Depot in 2002, and now 50 percent of those hired for the store leadership program are junior military officers.

"They hit the ground running," said Dennis Donovan, the executive vice president for human resources at Home Depot. "They go into a store where we have a couple of hundred people, and they have the maturity to manage."

In September 2004, Home Depot solidified its veteran recruiting with the introduction of Operation Career Front, a coordinated effort with Veterans Affairs, the Defense Department and the Labor Department to recruit those coming out of the military. The human resources staff at Home Depot are also specially trained to recruit veterans; 16,000 were hired in 2004 and 17,000 in 2005.

One hurdle facing those leaving the service is how to explain on a civilian resume what they did in the military. There are about 7,900 military occupational specialties but about 40,000 civilian ones, so translating from one to the other isn't easy.

Christopher Michel, founder and chairman of the job board, advised job seekers to drop military jargon from cover letters and rйsumйs and research civilian terms to use in describing what they did in the service.

Another, more complicated hurdle for some is overcoming combat stress disorders, which can make the transition to civilian life difficult. About 30 percent of those returning from Iraq have sought help for mental health problems from Veterans Affairs and 15 percent have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Judy Caden, director of vocational rehabilitation and employment at Veterans Affairs, said veterans who suffered physical or psychological injuries often needed help evaluating job choices and developing workplace coping mechanisms and communication skills.

Fortunately for these veterans, Ms. Caden said, their military experience is still considered a desirable attribute. "You have an environment today where employers really want them to be successful," she said.