Employers recruiting veterans before they leave military

Transition to civilian employment can be challenging, vet says

George Ford
Published: March 30 2014 | 6:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:19 am in

Marc Ayala, a U.S. Air Force C-130 pilot and navigator for eight years, was living in Little Rock, Ark., when he learned about a job fair for defense contractors in Dallas.

"I flew down there on my own dime," said Ayala, now manager of fixed wing solution sales for Rockwell Collins Government Systems. "I primarily wanted to talk with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which wound up having the booths to the right and left of Rockwell Collins.

"I really didn't know anything about Rockwell Collins other than I recognized the name from somewhere. When I started talking with the guys from our Richardson, Texas, facility, I realized that there was all kinds of equipment on my C-130 that had been made by Rockwell Collins."

Ayala joined Rockwell Collins in 2007 as an engineer working on equipment for the Chinook CH-47F helicopter used by the U.S. Army.

"As I gained more experience in rotary wing aircraft, the company realized that my experience as a C-130 pilot benefited them more on the fixed wing side of the business," Ayala said. "I started going to a lot of the meetings with army pilots where they would tell us how we could improve a system and we would build the change into the next software upgrade."

Ayala's approach to seeking post-service employment matches Rockwell Collins's recruiting philosophy.

"We want to meet a service member before they transition out, if at all possible," said Tim Carson, manager of veterans initiatives, Office of Diversity at Rockwell Collins. "There are transition assistance points — TAPs — and we're trying to get more engaged with those services that are provided by the military.

"We're also working with the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve because there are a number of service members who are underemployed. We are actively engaging our employees who are members of the Guard and Reserve to find the talent."

Carson, a former member of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne, said making the transition to civilian employment can be challenging when a service member's credentials, education and experience are not accepted by civilian employers.

"I spent a number of years in the military and I ran the x-ray department for a combat hospital," Carson said. "I managed 50 people and $50 million worth of equipment.

"When I got out, civilian employers said they applauded me for that, but I would need to go back to school and get civilian credentials. When you consider the nation's investment in my education and how it's just thrown out the window ... ."

Mary O'Keefe, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, said that situation is changing as states recognize the need for reciprocity.

"We need to make sure that certifications transfer, so if you're certified to be a nurse somewhere else, you are certified here," O'Keefe said. "Twenty-six states have already done that, and Iowa needs to get on that quickly.

"Colleges and universities also need to provide credit for training and experience gained while people are serving in the military. As part of the (state's) Home Base Iowa initiative, Gov. Branstad is asking the (organization's) education committee to make sure there is consistent credit for what service members have already learned."

Home Base Iowa, launched on Dec. 17, 2013, is a not-for-profit, private-public partnership that seeks to recruit veterans and active duty service members for private-sector job opportunities in Iowa. The Iowa Business Council, an organization comprised of major Iowa employers and the three Regents universities, has set a goal of hiring 2,500 veterans over the next five years.

Employers such as Alliant Energy, MidAmerican Energy and Rockwell Collins are finding that hiring veterans is mutually beneficial and not just a matter of "doing the right thing" or being viewed as patriotic.

"In many cases, they have been our end users and they are our best critics," Rockwell Collins's Carson said. "They are able to tell us how it worked in the field and what the next generation or evolution of that product should be."

Ayala said there also is instant credibility when someone has served in a similar role in the military.

"Army pilots are a pretty tight-knit group," Ayala said. "I remember in one of my first meetings, an engineer stood up and told the pilots what they should do. They just raked him over the coals.

"I stood up and tried to rescue the situation, and one of the pilots stood up and said, 'Hey, who the *%*# are you?' I said, 'My name is Marc and I flew C-130s in the Air Force.'

"At that point, someone said, 'Let's hear what he has to say,' and although I said the same things that the engineer said, they accepted it from me."

As with many Iowa employers, Alliant Energy, Deere & Co. and MidAmerican Energy are facing the retirement of baby boomers. Hiring veterans to fill positions is becoming mission critical, officials there said.

"Our work force is aging, especially on the operations side of the business," said Ryan Stensland, senior communications program manager at Alliant Energy. "We know that we can't walk into a restaurant and pick out five linemen.

"The more that we can be involved with programs like Home Base Iowa and Troops to Energy Jobs, the better chance we have to cycle in former military personnel who can become apprenticed journeymen" and attain similar credentials.

Stensland said 10 percent of Alliant Energy's work force identify themselves as veterans. He expects that percentage to grow as the company seeks to replace key operations personnel in future years.

At MidAmerican Energy, approximately 8 percent of new hires in 2013 identified themselves as veterans, and the utility's total employee population for veterans was 7 percent in 2013.

"We look to recruit veterans into virtually every position we have, with the most common areas being engineering, maintenance, skilled trades, management and general business positions," said Lori Rinkert, MidAmerican Energy human resources manager.

"Historically we have found the veterans we have hired to be well-trained, leaders who are dedicated and committed to whatever challenges they face on the job."

Eric Hodson, a Deere spokesman, said the company recruits active and non-active military personnel and has for many years.

"Deere’s recruiting efforts include but are not limited to online job boards, virtual career fairs and career fairs at locations across the country," Hodson said. "Deere has found that employees with military backgrounds are well-educated, highly skilled and are a good fit for positions within the company."

Ayala said active duty military need to take advantage of free transition services before they end their tour of duty. He also recommends checking various online job boards and attending seminars and workshops to learn how to interview and write a resume to make it resonate with civilian employers.

"I think people tend to get overwhelmed with the job search," Ayala said. "I don't think many of them realize how qualified they are for the jobs we have available. Part of that is on us because we don't write a job description that necessarily equates to the military jargon for that same activity.

"You're typically not going to find a job description that says, 'Need a C-130 pilot.' It might be titled 'Sales manager,' but I wouldn't know to look for a job description with that title."

O'Keefe said Home Base Iowa committees are working to address similar disconnects.

"One veteran told me he was responding to a young human-resources recruiter for a company and he had 'USMC' on his resume," O'Keefe said. "The recruiter had no idea that 'USMC' meant United States Marine Corps.

"The veteran was astounded, but there really is a gap between military and civilian job descriptions."

O'Keefe said Home Base Iowa also is focusing on pursuing military personnel with the skills that Iowa employers will need in future years.

"When we look at high demand jobs, we know that we're going to need utility workers, engineering, building trades, information technology, network systems engineers, software engineers and service technicians," she said. "There's two bases in Virginia that specialize in network systems, so we likely will look at recruiting people there.

"We will look at recruiting couples where both spouses are in the military. That way, we're not only filling work force needs, but also growing our population."

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