July 1, 2014

From Helmets to Hard Hats

When their fight overseas ends, veterans’ fight for employment at home begins. But their skills and values can make them a great fit for the metals industry.

Randall Fox had an “epiphany moment” last year on an aircraft carrier. He was at a trade association meeting in San Diego when he was invited to tour the USS Midway Museum at Navy Pier. Trekking through the big ship, he spied, next to a storage hangar, a fully equipped machine shop.

“The shop had every piece of equipment you’ve ever seen,” says Fox, executive vice president of metals service center Gray America Corp. in Dayton, Ohio. “It occurred to me that if you’re in the middle of the ocean somewhere and a hot water shaft goes out or the hydraulic system that launches your planes, you’re going to fix it—with just the resources you have onboard.”

No industrial supply company to make a quick emergency delivery. No specialist mechanics to race in. Just the resources at hand, Fox realized.

“That’s what clicked for me,” he says. “These people were going to have to work until the job got done. The boat has to keep doing what the boat is supposed to do. Where else do you find that kind of work ethic?”

It’s the kind of realization that has led many U.S. employers—including metals industry companies like Gray America and Haskins Steel Co. Inc.—to think about giving ex-servicemen and women preference for jobs in their companies. Military men and women are transitioning from the services to civilian life at a rate of more than 250,000 a year. Some do have easily marketable skills, like the ability to fashion a vital piece of equipment lickety-split from raw materials in a machine shop. But for the rest, there tends to be a can-do military mentality, hiring managers say, that also makes them particularly desirable as employees.


They Can Play on a Team

Craig Dias, vice president and general manager of Haskins Steel, sums up the basic military advantage in hiring like this: “Discipline, respect for authority, punctuality … and they can play on a team.”

If nothing else, Fox adds, speaking as a seasoned hiring manager, veterans come to the hiring office with the bare necessities. “For two to four years of their lives, they’ve gotten to work on time,” he says. “And they can pass a drug test.” Those qualities are not necessarily in great supply in the job market, Fox adds.

With the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the federal government under increasing pressure to cut the budget, the U.S. armed services are paring their ranks. The Army appears to be on the verge of taking a big hit. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently proposed reducing the size of the active-duty Army from its current 522,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000, making it the smallest U.S. Army since 1940. The Marines would shrink from its current 190,000 to 182,000. The Army National Guard and Army Reserves would lose a combined 30,000, the Air Force about 11,000 and the Navy about 300.


Tough Time to Find a Job

With the economy still lethargic, it’s not an ideal time for these servicemen and women to land in the civilian job market. You don’t want to find yourself suddenly unemployed right now, particularly if you’re young.

Says Rosye B. Cloud, senior employment adviser for the Veterans Benefits Administration: “If you look at veterans from all eras, they actually tend to do better than the general population [in terms of unemployment statistics]. But the post-9/11 veterans have experienced a lot more of a volatile job market with the economy taking a bit of a sluggish turn. We do find that those younger veterans, especially those under 24, are having a little bit more of a difficult time transitioning into competitive employment.”

In fact, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans is currently 9%, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, more than 2 points higher than the national rate, while veterans in general are at 6.6%, just above the national rate of 6.3%.

The post-9/11 crowd is a diverse labor pool, and its members often struggle against pernicious preconceptions. In fact, most don’t have post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 15% of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will suffer from PTSD; in comparison, between 7 and 8% of the general population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Employers naturally need to be aware of these statistics in hiring. But there are any number of government and industry programs to help in this sorting-out process.

In any case, veterans don’t want a handout based on their valiant service to their nation. They bring more to the job than an understanding of the chain of command—though many have to be advised to drop the rigid “yes, sir” and “no, sir” before going into a job interview.

“Employers have a generally positive view of the returning veteran,” says retired Army Col. Terri Coles, deputy director of the Military Officers Association of America’s career transition center. “The nation as a whole wants to do what it can to put veterans back to work. But there’s often a disconnect on how to do it.”


Hiring Our Heroes

In fact, there’s a wide range of U.S. Veterans Affairs and private programs to match veterans with jobs, including programs for veterans with service-related disabilities. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation runs the widely praised Hiring Our Heroes program, which, among other things, organizes job fairs around the country, helping more than 20,000 veterans and their spouses find jobs in its first two years of operation. And the labor departments of most states have veterans assistance programs with job placement components. Veterans groups say that the veterans assistance programs operating in the United States are, in fact, almost too many to list.

Because of this, finding the perfect candidate can be frustrating. Notes one VA booklet, “there are so many resources that employers can become confused and overwhelmed when determining where to go, whom to talk to, and whether resources are reputable.” The booklet advises employers to use those programs listed in the official “Guide to Hiring Veterans” from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

For metals industry employers, there are even programs like Helmets to Hardhats, a construction industry program that finds jobs for veterans with blue-collar skills like welding, pipefitting and machining. Gray America’s Fox found the Veterans Administration transition center at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base particularly helpful. “They scrubbed our applicants to make sure they were job-ready,” Fox says.


But veterans with the kinds of skills metals companies want also have other options. “By far the majority of veterans are able to transition directly into employment,” notes Cloud. Those include journeymen with manufacturing skills that metal industries are looking for, who generally have no problems walking into jobs right after leaving the military.

Gray America has yet to score one of those aircraft carrier machinists that Fox talks about, but it has a new human resources director and a new head of logistics in the company’s trucking subsidiary, both of whom are veterans. Brian Thigpen, the logistics man for Gray America subsidiary Scarlet & Gray Corp., a Dayton, Ohio-based trucking company that hauls general freight and metal sheet, was a 19 Delta Cavalry Scout in Afghanistan before he left the Army in 2011.

“I actually got my logistics experience before I was in the service,” Thigpen says. “I worked as a logistics analyst for a manufacturer—route planning, lane optimization, getting trucks to and from their destination. Before that, I was a trucker.” But the combat experience gave him plenty of what jobs programs sometimes refer to as “soft skills.”

“Instead of responding to combat over there, you’re handling the daily changes—things that pop up,” Thigpen says. “You have to respond very quickly to different situations.”



Where 18-Year-Olds Work on Multimillion-Dollar Equipment

Pauline Olon, an 11-year Air Force veteran, is Gray America’s new head of human resources. Fox says Olon is even more gung-ho about veteran hiring than he is. “The military teaches you a lot of values,” says Olon, who worked in administrative jobs for the Air Force in New Mexico and on Okinawa (“performance reviews, decorations, orders … things like that”) in the 1980s and ’90s. “It teaches you to trust people to do a good job. Where else would you find an 18-year-old working on multimillion-dollar equipment?”

Dias estimates that about half of Haskin’s new hires in the past two years have come from the military.

These include Teresa Bergan, a 20-year Navy veteran who is Haskins’ human resources administrator. Bergan was a communications and information technology specialist in the Navy. But she eventually discovered that IT was not her thing. “Loved the technology, hated working on systems,” she says. She switched to HR, getting her bachelor’s in the discipline from Ashford University, and she’s currently a master’s candidate at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

In a small company like Haskins, however, she’s frequently called upon to help with IT jobs. “Everybody does a lot of multitasking here,” she says.

The military provided her not only with IT and organizational skills, she says, but also with an ability to be tenacious. “I can take a job and run with it,” she says.


Confusion for Vets

For the veterans themselves, stepping out of a regimented workplace with clearly defined career paths into a free-for-all civilian job market can be confusing and frustrating. For example, the skills veterans acquired in the service are often dismissed by employers, because they don’t come with a state-issued license or certified civilian experience.

Daniel Yochelson came out of the Marines as a top-echelon armorer. He was trained to service and repair anything from M9 combat pistols to rocket launchers, machine guns and mortars. He did a stint in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, traveling from outpost to outpost, dodging IEDs and servicing Marine weapons, then served as an armorer stateside, including some machine shop experience.

When Yochelson was released in 2012, after four years of service, he tried to find work as a gunsmith or a machinist. He made the rounds of gun stores, which usually have at least one gunsmith on staff, and gunsmith contractors, as well as machine shops, but he hit a brick wall. “They don’t even look at you if you can’t show exactly what kind of work you’ve done at what shop for a specific length of time,” says Yochelson, who is now a student at Montgomery College in Maryland.

“One of the things about going into the military was to acquire a skill,” Yochelson says. “A big reason to join was to gain job experience and hopefully those credentials.” He is now pursuing a mechanical engineering degree, paid for by GI Bill funds.

Until recently, veterans with skills that required certification, like emergency medical technicians, often found their military experience discounted by employers. But under prodding from Joining Forces, the White House veterans initiative headed by first lady Michelle Obama and the vice president’s wife, Jill Biden, 44 states have now addressed the certification problems with new laws ensuring that veterans be given full credit for their military training and experience in applying for occupational licenses.

Even without licensed applicants, many employers are now willing to take a more discerning look at veterans’ skill sets. Big companies like Walmart, CarMax, UPS, Caterpillar and Sikorsky Aircraft have instituted military hiring recruitment and training programs.

“It’s the patriotic thing to do, the right thing to do,” says Dias of Haskins Steel. “You start there.”

Haskins’ parent company, Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co., the largest metals service center in North America, is testing the waters for a veterans hiring program, possibly in association with other companies in the industry, says Brenda Miyamoto, the company’s vice president for corporate initiatives.


An Answer to an Aging Workforce

“It’s also about building our emerging workforce,” Miyamoto says. “Everyone in our industry is aware of the challenges of an aging workforce.”

More than a third of Reliance’s employees are over 50. “That’s probably pretty representative of the rest of the industry,” she says.

Reliance is being realistic about the effort such a program might entail. “I don’t think in general that there’s a huge pool of veteran applicants who have the specific shop experience we need,” says Miyamoto, whose company has more than 50 subsidiaries with a wide variety of specialized hiring needs. So, like other companies, Reliance and its subsidiaries are prepared to pitch in with in-house training, with the idea that a freshly released veteran comes with “a set of core competencies that we’ll be able to leverage into jobs,” Miyamoto says.

Not that there aren’t plenty of veterans with skills. Darrell Roberts, executive director of Helmets to Hardhats, says his program helps about 20,000 veterans a year in finding jobs. But many of those, even with ostensibly marketable skills acquired in the military, often choose other career paths. “They say, ‘I’ve been in Afghanistan or California for four years, moving dirt, running wire, welding, whatever, and I don’t want to do it anymore,’” he says. Those who stick with it are often frustrated by the lackluster economy. “To market your skill, there has to be work [available in the first place],” Roberts says.

And despite the efforts of veteran-friendly companies, he adds, job applicants still have difficulty explaining how their military work can apply to civilian jobs.

Transitioning veterans may not all enter the job market smoothly with the specific skills that employers are looking for, but they can come prepared.

Old-timers from World War II used to talk about the battle-weary serviceman’s kiss-off as “a handshake and a bus ticket back to Omaha,” says Shawn Conlon, head of the Marine Corps’ Personal and Professional Development Branch. “But in the modern world, there’s a lot more attention paid to the transition process.”


Help With the Transition

If anything, the new veterans are showered with aid to enter civilian life, thanks to the Department of Defense-mandated Transition Assistance Program, or TAP. Most come out with an arsenal of benefits, trades and life skills.

TAP is a cooperative federal effort involving the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Labor, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Education and the Office of Personnel Management. The resources of all of the departments have been made generally available to transitioning service members, but the details can be seen in concentrated doses during the seminars that departing service members are required to attend.

During a five-day course designed to make newly minted veterans, among other things, “career ready,” they get an intensive introduction to everything from financial planning, benefits packages and job-hunting resources to psychological services, fashion tips and résumé writing.

At a recent TAP session at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in southeast Washington, D.C., 35 Navy and Air Force officers listened intently as retired Col. Terri Coles talked about how to market oneself in the civilian job market. A dynamic speaker, Coles cut to the chase.

Sure, employers are impressed when somebody tells them, “I stay on the job until the mission is completed.”

“But what employers really want to hear is, ‘How can you make me money?’ or ‘How can you save me money?’” Coles says.

Veterans coming out of the military often experience a kind of culture shock, Coles says. “Military service does not necessarily lead to instant civilian career success,” she says. “The biggest thing required is patience.”

“This transition stuff is not for the faint of heart,” she adds. “Some anxiety is normal.”

After five days of this sort of focused lecturing, many will participate in specialized sessions, like those for veterans who plan to use GI benefits to pursue higher education (all tuition and fees covered at state schools and up to $19,198 a year at private or foreign schools) or start a business.

The middle-level officers to whom all of this is directed sop it up—even if they’ve heard much of it before.

Says Air Force Col. Brandon Jaeger, “Sometimes it’s 90% of the session that doesn’t apply to you, but then there’s the 10% that’s directly relevant. I haven’t been in a session yet that was 0% relevant.”

Some graduates of the TAP are surprised by the useful information they get out of it, says Heather Hagan, public affairs officer at Marine headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. “We have a lot of success stories,” she says.

For example, former Marine Gunnery Sgt. Stephen Bixby, who went through TAP in Quantico, talks about learning what to wear for an interview as a mechanic. “I learned that I would wear business casual,” he says. “You want to be a professional, not overdressed. Twelve years ago, I would have worn a suit for the mechanic job.”

While veterans are acquiring career advancement skills, some employers are learning the ins and outs of finding qualified job candidates from the ranks of veterans.

Fox says Gray America is not done with its veterans hiring, but he can afford to be selective. “We want to put the right people in the right jobs,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that just because you’re a veteran you automatically get a job with us.”

The process of finding the perfect candidate can be just as rigorous and laborious as it always was, Fox says. But the payoff—stocking your workplace with the military can-do mentality—is worthwhile, he insists.

 “In the private sector, we don’t like to deal with hard problems,” Fox says. “In the military, they don’t get to dodge the hard problem.”

Edmund Newton is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, formerly of the L.A. Times, Newsday and the New York Post, as well as the former managing editor of New Times-Broward Palm Beach. He has written for, among others, The New York Times, Time, People, Daily News Sunday Magazine, Black Enterprise, Ladies’ Home Journal, Essence and Audubon.