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Veterans Bring Key Skill Assets to the Civilian Workforce

By Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations
 
With nearly 200,000 men and women transitioning out of the military each year, employers have a rich source of talent to tap that can greatly aid their organizations.
Also employers should not overlook the skills disabled veterans can bring to the workforce table, says Nathan Ainspan, an industrial psychologist based in Arlington, VA. He and colleague Walter Penk edited the recently published Returning Wars’ Wounded, Injured and Ill: A Reference Handbook, that provides useful information and resources for disabled veterans reintegrating into civilian life.
 
After months in the armed forces, much of it in combat zones, military personnel sometimes find their return to the workforce somewhat of a culture shock, says Fred Mael, an industrial organizational psychologist with Mael Consulting and Coaching in Baltimore, MD. He recently completed a study of military officers transitioning to the civilian workforce and is a longtime researcher of military issues.
 
Much of what he has learned applies to both officers and enlisted personnel leaving the service and returning to the civilian sector.
 
Because most officers are college graduates, they may find an easier path to finding jobs. National Guard members can usually return to their former positions. By contrast, enlisted soldiers who volunteered out of high school may have more difficulty in finding employment, especially during the current economic downturn.
 
Nevertheless, employers are finding that all veterans of all ranks have marketable technical and leadership skills.
 
People with a military background also possess numerous attributes, including loyalty, leadership ability, respect, integrity, duty, reliability, and working as team members, that employers value in their employees.
 
Yet, many veterans don’t see those qualities in the civilian workforce, said Mael. Rather what they often encounter is a workforce that devalues teamwork and commitment and coworkers who concentrate on themselves rather than the enterprise as a whole. “Veterans find that as somewhat of a shock,” said Mael.
 
It’s a big adjustment for men and women who have served in the military. Those who succeed realize they must learn to function within the culture of any organization they join, though it is often quite different from what they have been used to in the military, said Mael.
 
Another adjustment is that personnel in the military are with their fellow soldiers 24/7 and though they do have down-time, they are never far from their work and often are on alert. That is not the case in the civilian workforce where everyone heads to different places and lives at the end of the day. Former military personnel often miss that closeness and cannot see recreating it in the civilian work environment.
 
Mael suggested that returning veterans need to develop more balance between their work and nonwork lives and find other outlets to express their higher values of teamwork and altruism. “Become involved in volunteer work or some activity apart from the workplace,” he advised.
 
 Ainspan’s book is one of hope for the thousands of veterans who have physical and psychological ailments from their deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan. He said a Department of Defense study shows 40,000 military personnel have suffered physical injuries since the war began. In addition, some 300,000 are at risk from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and another 320,000 have experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI) incident, according to a Rand Corp. survey.
 
Ainspan, who authored a chapter describing how veterans with disabilities can find work, said that employment is now considered a key component of a disabled soldier’s recovery. Research has shown how employment can provide positive reinforcement to counter the negative feelings of “learned helplessness,” which is a condition where a person considers everything to be futile even if he or she has the ability to change the harmful circumstance.
 
“Employment can help a veteran reframe negative thoughts by demonstrating competence, providing meaning to life and social support,” he said. “And thanks to assistive technology and changes in attitudes, people with disabilities can work in more types of jobs than was thought possible in the past.”
 
The good news, says Ainspan, is that thousands of servicemen and women with all types of disabilities have found well-paying jobs they enjoy with employers who appreciate their work. “Every day thousands of people with disabilities go to work and earn their paychecks.”
 
A good example is Tammy Duckworth, who is now director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. An Iraq war veteran, she suffered severe combat wounds that cost her both of her legs and damaged her right arm.
 
Disabled veterans have the same valued attributes as their nondisabled counterparts, though they may be physically limited in the kinds of jobs they can perform and may require some kind of customized employment, according to Ainspan.
 
Nevertheless, veterans still fight battles against the stigmas managers and employers have about disabilities and military service itself. “They think veterans are too regimented and rigid,” said Ainspan, who maintains the accusation is overexaggerated and that he has found veterans to be quite flexible and able to adapt to a variety of work situations.
 
However, he added, it is encouraging that many employers have a better understanding of how to accommodate employees with disabilities and have increased the number and types of opportunities for people previously seen as “disabled,” including many who were considered “unemployable.” In fact, a number of companies have started including people with disabilities in their diversity strategies.
 
Also, there are probably more resources for all veterans, including those with disabilities, leaving military service than for any wartime period ever, said Ainspan.
 
For example, every military base has a Transition Assistance Program to help veterans find jobs and which includes workshops for military members and their spouses who are leaving the military. A number of companies are actively recruiting service members and veterans for a variety of jobs.
 
The Department of Defense, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and a large number of nonprofit groups, such as the Non-Commissioned Officer’s Association (www.ncoausa.org) provide assistance to help veterans assimilate back into civilian life and into the workplace as well as to recover from injuries.
 
For more information, contact Fred Mael at 410-764-0429 or Nathan Ainspan at 703-647-9273.