COMMUNITY ROUNDTABLE: Trying to plug veterans into the right jobs

A lot is reported these days about workforce issues, and the struggle to get qualified workers into the many open jobs in Ohio and the region. Less is written about efforts under way to plug military veterans into those jobs — along with the successes and challenges they experience. We recently invited leaders from four organizations that work closely with veterans to talk with our editors about the work they’re doing to help ex-military men and women move into the next phase of their careers. This is an edited, condensed version of our roundtable conversation. — Ron Rollins

Q: Talk about workforce development and post-military careers. What are your organizations doing there?

Cassie Barlow: So, the Aerospace Professional Development Center was set up by the state to work with the aerospace community to help find people work, and we've been on it the last three years that I've been there. There are about 200 different employers in the industry in this region, and we help them fill their workforce demands. It goes without saying that in aerospace and the defense industry, veterans are a huge asset. We start working with them while they're still in the military and start looking for a position outside the fenceline, encouraging them to stay in the Dayton region and we help them make the transition – working with them on their resumes, interviewing skills and making the transition outside.

A lot of assistance is needed, because a veteran has never had to search for a job before, or do a resume before, or go through the interview process. Veterans also tend to undersell themselves all the time, and not even recognize all the wonderful skills they have, or the amazing things they’re able to do because of their time in the military. We work with a wide range of people, from aircraft mechanics to Ph.D. engineers – all those jobs are available in our region. And nine times out of 10, the veteran will be easier to place, because he or she already has the skills and also the security clearance. Our work is starting to get some word of mouth, so we’re hearing from veterans from all over the world who are reaching out to use about the services we offer and the jobs here.

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We work with all branches, but also with fairly large groups across the region, including Ohio Means Jobs, Jobs and Family Services, all those wrap-around services that veterans need – not just jobs, but also security and housing needs, health issues, maybe PTSD issues. We had a big network come together last year, the Greater Miami Valley MyVeteran Community – we were one of 50 cities across the country asked by the secretary of the VA to start this community engagement board that is completely community led, working with non-profits here that have interest in veterans to come together for one purpose – to support veterans in the region.

We’ve had resource fairs for veterans at Wright State the last two years, and we also are working with United Way of the Miami Valley on a Veterans Link 2-1-1 line, a 24/7 referral service for veterans where they can pick up the phone, dial 2-1-1 get another veteran on the line who has a really robust database who can help them with whatever issue they have and connect them to the right service. This will be one of a kind, not one anywhere else in the country – but in Dayton, once again, we’re blazing a trail.

Glenn Costie: And it will overlay our 16-county catchment area, so a veteran in Lima would be able to use it and get to services.

Q: How many are you serving at the Dayton VA?

Costie: We've seen a steady increase – we started with 35,000 when I got here in 2011 and now we're up to 40,000. I think it's a good thing. It's hard to get scientific data, but we think there about 60,000 we could serve in our area, which is basically Middletown to Lima, Richmond to Springfield. If you're out there and we aren't serving you, please contact the VA and we will.

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Kenneth Marcum: When the recession hit, our office and Ohio Job and Family Services had veterans in their 60s who were coming in to see us for the very first time. They'd had good jobs with GM, Ford and then those were gone, so their benefits were gone. We've seen a great rise in veterans who needed services and assistance and weren't aware of what was available to them. We'll get them whatever it takes to get them back to work.

Q: Dan, any statewide issues?

Dan Semsel: The Dayton region has a real advantage – there are 830,000 veterans in Ohio, and 230,000 of them live in the greater Miami Valley. Montgomery County is fourth, Hamilton County is third, and the I-75 corridor between them provides a unique opportunity – a manufacturing and logistics boom, it's a robust area, and like the others our office is working to connect veterans and their families with jobs and resources. Starting last October, we have three regional workforce consultants covering different areas around the state, trying to provide direct links the employer base to the veterans population. I talk to chambers, individual employers, and I try to teach them about military culture.

Q: For instance?

Semsel: Well, there are challenges when you look at a veteran's resume, if you don't have any military background yourself. You've heard the saying that England and America are allies separated by a common language? It's like that – the military is loaded with common acronyms for everything, and it's a regimented, gated culture – the people who spend years in it don't have great job-seeking skills. But if I can teach an employer the difference between a private first class and a sergeant first class, they can understand who they're dealing with and what this person can do.

Q: How do veterans from the recent era of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan differ from veterans of the Vietnam era?

Semsel: With current veterans we've given great exposure to issues of PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and my office does a lot of myth-busting about PTSD for employers. Not everyone comes back with it or with symptoms – 1 in 5 is the statistic, I think. But the employer often has that perception of it, that every veteran is coming back home with issues. Compared to Vietnam veterans, we don't see that as much – but now, most of them are aging out of the workforce, in their 60s and 70s. But we try to break stereotypes.

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Marcum: It's two-fold. Yes, there was a certain Vietnam stigma as well, but what they went through when they returned home has paved the way for the way we now welcome our veterans home – because we as a society don't want to see that happen again, what happened to the Vietnam vets. We don't want to repeat history, and now we welcome them home. I think employers are very much interested in talking with our veterans, and want to see them get into the workforce. We don't see people fall back on their disability.

Semsel: And PTSD isn't just something you see in the veteran population. The general population has about a 10 percent rate that people aren't aware of – from things like experiencing violent crime, accidents, significant or substantial weather events – I bet you'd have seen a lot after the Xenia tornado in '74, for instance. You're going to find a substantial part of the population dealing with PTSD issues outside the military – Iraq and Afghanistan are highlighted, but it's really much bigger.

Costie: These days, we have citizen warriors who are deployed over and over again, and now we're seeing how that works itself out.

Marcum: And you may have had your job saved by law while you were deployed, but when you come back now that job no longer exists.

Costie: The Vietnam War is 50 years old now, and there's been a lot of trying to earn their trust back – they came back with a lot of mistrust of government. The VA has been having fairs, programs to reach out to them. But like Ken said, the recession was a most vulnerable time, when many were looking for options to keep their health care when their benefits disappeared.

Marcum: In Clark County during the recession, we went from seeing 110 veterans a week to 600 – that's just one county.

Q: Other issues with Vietnam era vets? Cancer, etc.?

Marcum: Well, generally as you age, problems occur – but yes, they can accelerate because you were around Agent Orange. We have a lot of claims we hadn't had before.

Costie: That's from Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Veterans Affairs secretary, trying to see what could be done about it. Before you had to prove that you'd been in battle if you claimed you'd been exposed to it – but now with a pen stroke, if you served in theater during this time in this locale, you can have the benefit.

Marcum: Right – so, say you were in the Navy the thinking went, you were blue water – you weren't around any Agent Orange. But say I was a corpsman on a ship, and I'm dealing with people who were saturated with the stuff. Not get it? Now it's seen and understood that those were legitimate cases. Heck, at Rickenbacker air base in Columbus, there was equipment with it.

Q: Back to workforce development, do big plants and companies participate in your efforts at a level you’d like?

Costie: I think so. Those companies that devote some work time to veterans issues, I think they find it successful. Veterans are great to hire – they come with leadership skills, from officer to enlisted levels, they're able to work in teams.

Semsel: Some companies have veterans resource groups, who really walk the talk. They provide a forum to educate a group on employee benefits available to them, to focus on camaraderie, and membership in it can bring a sense of belonging, mission, team.

Barlow: Universities are doing the same thing with veterans resource teams – it helps to have a place to gather with peers, get together, tell war stories, be a resource to each other – often a more mature student. It's really valuable to them, and has helped with retention and graduation rates.

Q: What challenges do veterans face on the job?

Semsel: Mostly, it's just getting in the door. As I said before, veterans and the rest of the world are separated by a common language. If they get in the door, they do very well. But the catch is that if you have 60 resumes and a veteran's resume is full of acronymns you don't recognize, and functions and training you're not familiar with, it may end up in Pile B. Remember that after a 25-year military career, you don't have the job seeking skills you need for the private sector. My resume was just a list of addresses. My first interview felt like I was asking a girl to prom – lots of sweating. And a veteran will sit there and stare straight into your eyes – it's their regular course of action. Some people may not understand it.

Marcum: Our approach is that all service members have a disability – namely, they've been gone for 20 years, in service. So they've missed certain education, getting the right contacts. A disadvantage, if you will.

Barlow: This is the reason why we spend so much time on transition between inside the fence and out. It's not just the resume and individual skills, it's a culture. We tell veterans, don't underestimate the right cultural fit – you've been living in the same culture for, say, 27 years – and you don't think about asking about culture when you're looking at a job because we often don't know what corporate culture is. You need to ask first about the culture, and if it's not a good fit for you, that matters. Another part of the transition is that you may not be going into a 20-year job, you may be going into a two-year job. It's easier for Millennials to understand that. There's a huge generational difference between veterans – older veterans aren't as tech-savvy as Millennials, and they may also think: What's my next career? We may have to help them see they don't need to be looking for that.

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Semsel: In the service, your job is to take orders. It's a very radical mind shift from that to where if you're not happy in a job, you tell the boss that in two weeks you're hanging up the company hat and finding something else.

Q: Are there more jobs than veterans, or vice versa?

Barlow: More jobs than veterans – it's just such a great market now.

Q: What about entrepreneurship for this cohort?

Barlow: Depends on the person. I think Millennials have more of the entrepreneurial spirit – they sense that now you can choose different tracks – the job track, the entrepreneur track, create my own business.

Semsel: There's such a strong research and development capacity here around Wright-Patterson that you don't see at many other bases, and we see people with unique skill sets who would fit into that entrepreneurial skill set. I think that's a regional advantage we should capitalize on.

Barlow: That's why we're working so hard through veteran networks to find some who did not grow up in Ohio, and talk to them about the great opportunities in our region and get them to move here. We have a lot of opportunities, and veterans are extremely employable. There's also the workforce gap we see in manufacturing, logistics and the supply chain – you know veterans are going to walk in drug-free, in the right clothing, on time and safe. Many employers in our region are interviewing hundreds of people to find somebody who can pass a drug test. I guarantee, the veteran you talk to on the phone will be drug-free. At our job center, we're looking for ways to reach out and attract them here.

Roundtable participants

Cassie Barlow, director of the Center for Workforce Development at the Aerospace Professional Development Center at Wright State University.

Glenn Costie, CEO and medical center director at the Dayton VA Medical Center.

Kenneth Marcum, state adjutant for Disabled American Veterans, Department of Ohio.

Dan Semsel, workforce consultant, Ohio Department of Veterans Services.

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