Job fair reveals vets’ struggles to return to civilian workforce
Although they risked their lives serving the country in the United States Military, many returning veterans face the challenge of transitioning their military skills to the civilian job market.
“Hiring Our Heroes,” a campaign from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, aims to help with workshops and job fairs hosted throughout the country, including one at the National Guard Armory in Warwick last Friday.
Just over 100 veterans, active-duty service members and military spouses attended the Job Fair to meet with 47 employers such as Collette Vacations, CVS Caremark, BankRI and Southwest Airlines, in hopes of finding a job. About a dozen participants came early that morning to take advantage of a special workshop with Brooke Stepanek, a business analyst with Accenture, a management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.
Stepanek, who volunteered to help with these Hiring Our Heroes workshops through Accenture’s partnership with the Department of Commerce, spoke with the veterans about finding ways to self-assess themselves, determine the career they would like, networking, preparing for interviews, writing resumes and other important skills when looking for a job. She also spoke about finding a way to present their military skills as an asset in a civilian career.
Throughout the workshop, a number of the veterans shared their personal struggles of finding a job either after retiring from service or in-between deployments. Although each had a different story, they all shared the common sentiment that the transition back to civilian life has its struggles.
“I hate to say it, but sometimes the military works for you; sometimes it works against you,” said Deb Neylon, who works in IT and logistics and is a resident of Cranston. She plans to retire in December and is preparing to start over after beginning her career in the Army over 20 years ago. “It’s a little intimidating to go into a civilian life.”
While speaking to the group, Neylon brought up her two deployments, one in Iraq and one in Kuwait. She was a truck driver in Iraq and said it is hard for soldiers to relate those skills to the civilian job world. For the last 14 years she has been working in information technology.
“I’d like to stay with information technology if I can,” said Neylon, adding that the interview process is something she has not had to go through since 2000. She hopes her ability to be comfortable with networking will help.
“I’ve made a lot of contacts in the military,” she said. “I have networking skills.”
She hoped those skills would come in handy during her first “Hiring Our Heroes” job fair. She found Stepanek’s advice on resumes and interviewing helpful, but seeing a number of retired veterans with new careers was even more encouraging.
“I see them starting over and it shows me that it can be done,” said Neylon.
Keith Riendeau, 27, of Riverside is facing a different issue. He has been a member of the infantry for the National Guard for 10 years, working his way up to Squad Leader. He hopes to stay in the Guard another 10 years to earn retirement but is having trouble finding a job that will pay well and be understanding of upcoming deployments with his unit. He is also struggling to translate his infantry skills such as sniper school into any career besides law enforcement or security, which he has tried for but been unsuccessful with.
“My job history is so scattered, it looks like I can’t hold a job,” explained Riendeau. He also said that he doesn’t know if he will be able to find the same pride working in the corporate environment that he would wearing a uniform. “I have a big difficulty finding pride in something not wearing a flag.”
But Riendeau knows he will eventually get out of the National Guard and need to find a way to fit his specialized infantry skills into a civilian career. He also pointed out that being in the infantry gives you skills in a variety of areas but doesn’t give you an expertise in any. He said most of his unit is in the same boat, falling back on careers in police, fire and security.
Riendeau benefited from some one-on-one advice from Stepanek regarding how to present his skills and background on a resume. “It’s a good step,” said Riendeau about attending the job fair. “The hardest thing I’ve had to figure out is what to do after separating from the Guard.”
But for now, Riendeau will stay in the National Guard to earn his retirement.
“It’s kind of a family thing,” he explained. “And it’s one retirement to get.”
Warwick resident Oscar Martinez was at the fair looking to start over for the second time. Retiring from the Navy after 21 years, Martinez worked in corporate HR until 90 days ago. This was his first experience with “Hiring Our Heroes” but he had attended other military job fairs in the past few months.
“I benefit from the energy you get from people like yourself. We all have a sense of camaraderie,” explained Martinez.
As he searches for jobs once again, Martinez said part of the struggle is having to change his resume regularly to suit a particular recruiter targeting a specific skill. But he also finds companies are not always honest with their desire to hire veterans.
“Some companies are saying open to heroes, but are they really looking for veterans,” he asked.
At his last job, Martinez was the only veteran in the department; something he said was an asset. Because of his military training, Martinez was often able to bring a unique perspective to the table that no one else would think of.
“It’s a win-win,” he said.
Martinez is also hoping to broaden his appeal to employers by completing a degree in computer information systems. He hopes combining the degree with his military experience, HR background and people skills will make him more appealing to future employers.
“I know there’s an opportunity,” he said, adding that one of the greatest benefits of military job fairs is the chance to network with both employers and fellow veterans.
Another group served by the Hiring Our Heroes job fair was military spouses. Vanesha Corpening’s husband is in the Army, and the two recently relocated to Portsmouth. She learned about the job fair online; she said she had been to other military job fairs and finds them very informative.
“They are helpful. I learn different things every time,” said Corpening.
Bill Meyer of the Rhode Island Committee of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) explained that the job fair is just another tool to support soldiers making the transition to civilian life.
“There’s a real challenge for them of transitioning those military skills and capabilities and make them of interest to a civilian employer,” said Meyer, adding that many skills would be incredibly attractive to an employer if presented correctly. “It’s their own ability to present that.”
Stepanek had only words of encouragement for the veterans in her workshop, saying the military experience is a brand that translates to leadership, teamwork, discipline, loyalty, communications, problem solving and more.
“As a recruiter, I want to hear from you,” she said. “You are your best advocate.”