Former Marine fights to connect veterans with IT jobs

One consulting firm's hiring program aims to place U.S. military veterans in IT engagements.

The transition to corporate life can be challenging for military veterans. Companies aren't used to hiring veterans, whose resumes are unlikely to make it past their keyword-filtering software. Veterans aren't used to articulating their military experience in business terms, nor are they accustomed to typical workplace culture and communication. Far too often, uniquely skilled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan hear the same disheartening message -- that they’d make great security guards.

Nick Swaggert, a former infantry officer with the U.S. Marine Corps, sees untapped talent in these returning soldiers, and he’s committed to helping them find career opportunities in the tech world. Swaggert is Veterans Program Director at Genesis10, an outsourcing firm that provides IT consulting and talent management services. His job is to recruit veterans, help them translate their military experience to relevant corporate experience, and find a place for veterans to work at Genesis10's clients.

Swaggert knows firsthand what it’s like to see a military career reduced to the output of a military skills translator (software that’s designed to match military skills, experience and training to civilian career opportunities).

“I was in the Marine Corps infantry. Backpack and guns type of thing. So what does it say for me? I can be a security guard,” Swaggert says of the typical automated skills translator. “Someone in the infantry probably pulled a trigger less than 0.1% of the time. They probably spent a lot of their time in logistics, leadership, setting up communications assets, organizing supply chains. These are all things we did, but my job says I pulled a trigger.”

In reality, the infantry experience varies widely for today’s service men and women – including Swaggert, who was sent to the Syrian border, 300 miles from the nearest base. “I needed to make sure that the supply chain -- helicopters were flying us supplies -- was optimized. When you live in a space the size of a conference room table, or you're on a vehicle, there's not a lot of room for error in terms of too much or too little supplies,” he recalls. “I needed to learn how to set up a satellite radio, to send digital pictures of smugglers we were catching back to the base. Using a very high-tech radio and a rugged laptop in a sandstorm, I learned to problem-solve communications assets. That doesn't come across in a translator."

When Swaggert left the Marine Corps, he found a new mission: helping veterans find civilian jobs that make use of their myriad talents.

"I got out in 2010. I was told time and time again, 'Nick, you seem like a really great guy, but you just don't have the experience that we're looking for.' That's what led me to go and get my master's degree and become passionate about it. This is a huge opportunity. There's a huge miss here in communication. Someone needs to be out there, proselytizing."

Genesis of an idea

Swaggert also understands what it’s like to be an enlisted person and an officer -- a rare perspective for veterans of the typically stratified U.S. military. He enlisted in the Marines right out of high school. He was later selected for an officer training program, which allowed him to get a college degree while in the Marines.

After getting his degree, Swaggert was commissioned as an officer in 2005. He wanted to be an infantry officer, even though a friend advised him to pursue a more hirable assignment in communications or logistics. “I said ‘no way, that's not going to happen. I'm going to go serve my country on the front lines.’ Then I came home, and like many other people, saw that doesn't help me.”

Even with a college degree, his path to a corporate career wasn't always smooth.

Swaggert applied and was rejected for a corporate program that’s designed to train and certify military veterans in computer networking. "My ASVAB -- Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery -- it's like the military SAT. It shows how well you can learn new jobs. I scored in the 96th percentile of all service members. They don't look at that, though. They just say, 'well, he was in the infantry, he can shoot guns. There's no way he could possibly learn network stuff.' This is exactly why people can't get jobs."

When young, college-educated officers leave the military, they’re often recruited through junior military officer (JMO) training programs at companies such as Deloitte, PwC, General Electric and PepsiCo. Companies compete to hire these service members, many of whom got their college degrees, served four years in the military, and are set to enter the business world at a young age having amassed significant leadership experience. “They have their degrees, the path is laid out for them, and they’re heavily recruited,” Swaggert says.

It’s a different world for enlisted men and women, most of whom leave the military without a college degree. Even if they get their degrees after serving in the military, it can be hard to find work. “An officer goes to college for four years, then serves for four years. An enlisted guy serves four years, then goes to college for four years. After eight years they're fairly equivalent, but one group is highly employed and the other group is heavily underemployed,” Swaggert says.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate for military veterans who served after 9/11 was 9% in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's down from 9.9% the year before, but well above the overall unemployment rate for civilians, which was 7.2% during the same period. The numbers are particularly bleak for the youngest veterans, aged 18-24, who posted a jobless rate of 21.4%.

“Being an officer, you gain a tremendous amount of experience and have tremendous leadership opportunities. The other group has been given similar, but not as extensive, experience. That's where we think there's a business opportunity,” Swaggert says.

At Genesis10, employees see the value of U.S. military experience in the corporate world. It’s a view that comes from the top. Harley Lippman is the CEO and owner of the $185 million privately-held firm, which is based in New York. Lippman participated in a program that brings groups of U.S. service-disabled veterans to Israel, and when he saw how well Israel treats its veterans – with comprehensive health services and job assistance, for example -- Lippman was inspired to launch his company’s program on Veterans Day in 2011. Swaggert joined the effort in mid-2013. “Harley is a visionary, and he saw that there's a huge opportunity to tap into this untapped talent vein,” Swaggert says.

The firm is realistic about placing former soldiers. Some of the roles Genesis10 envisions U.S. military veterans helping fill include project manager, business analyst, testing analyst, storage administrators, database administrators, network engineers, midrange server specialists, and problem and incident management positions.

“We have clients who need Java developers with 10 years of experience. I'm not pretending Joe Smith off the street is going to do that,” Swaggert says. “But there are needs such as entry-level data entry, business analyst, quality assurance -- stuff veterans will do really well, very process-oriented roles. Veterans are very detail-oriented. We have checklists for everything we do. If you don't dot an 'i' or cross a 't' an artillery round lands on your location.”

Part of Genesis10’s strategy is to connect veterans with companies that want to hire returning soldiers but are unsure how to go about it.

One hurdle is that many companies don’t know how to find veterans. It’s not enough to post typical job descriptions on veteran-focused job boards or at military recruiting fairs. "That doesn't mean anything to a veteran. You're not recruiting by job code -- everyone in the military has a job code. You're not recruiting by rank -- rank equals experience," Swaggert says. “You have to tailor that.”

He’s understanding of the conundrum for hiring managers. "On the company side, I don't blame them,” Swaggert says. “Hiring managers don't have experience hiring veterans. We are such a small fraction of the population. You can't expect them to know and understand.”

Another part of Genesis10’s strategy is to prepare veterans for workplace culture, not only by tweaking resumes but also through interview coaching and soft-skills development. Communication is a key element.

"Veterans have different communications styles. In the military, we call it BLUF -- it's an acronym that stands for 'bottom line up front.' You state the bottom line. In the military, you walk up to someone at their desk, or wherever, and you just tell them what you want,” Swaggert says. Civilians communicate differently, and veterans need to learn to deal with the differences.

Veterans also need to learn how to interview. In the military, higher-ups look at soldiers’ service records to determine who moves up the ranks. “That interviewing skill just completely atrophies -- if it was ever there in the first place and most likely it wasn't,” Swaggert says.

For companies that are open to hiring veterans, Genesis10 can smooth the process. The company understands that there’s risk associated with trying new hiring approaches. "We've built a program to try to mitigate that risk,” Swaggert says. "We flat out say in our presentation, 'we are here to mitigate the risk of hiring a veteran.'"

Still, it’s not always an easy sell. "There's a reason why veterans don't get hired. If it were easy it would already have been done. You have to invest time and effort. I wish I could say it's just rewriting a resume. But it's not.”

The most challenging part of Swaggert’s job is trying to find companies that are willing to hire veterans.

“My number one job is not to find veterans. I could stroll down to the nearest base, or post a job online looking for U.S. Military veterans. The hard part is walking into the companies. I've talked to a lot of CIOs, a lot of VPs, saying, 'do you guys want to hire veterans?' They all say yes, and they say, ‘well how do we do it?’ We talk about selection, training, mentoring, and onboarding and getting them to commit to that kind of investment.”

Success is hearing “’yes, I'm going to force my people to hire someone who's a little bit different.’”

Swaggert joined the Reserves to stay connected to the military, and as a commanding officer in the Reserves, he flies monthly to Ohio. “The Marine Corps is very important to me. It will always be very important to me,” Swaggert says. “I'm not wearing a uniform every day, but I’m definitely doing military-related things daily.”

“There are plenty of people like me, who joined the military during a time of war, who are really smart people who said, 'I want to serve on the front lines, because that's what this country needs.'"

Now that they’re home, he wants to help them find work.


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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