By Kristina Wong - 05/22/14 06:00 AM EDT
As veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan return to the workforce, budding initiatives are standing ready to help them find jobs in the technology industry.
Katherine Webster, founder of an initiative called Vets in Tech, said Internet jobs are a good fit for many veterans.
She said jobs in Internet technology run the gamut from sales, human resources and online community management to “hard core coding.”
Vets in Tech launched in Silicon Valley in 2012 and now has chapters around the country. Mike Ott, a former Navy lieutenant, leads the Washington, D.C., branch. He said the organization is oriented toward internet-based technology, but also has resources for those who want to work in “science technology,” like engineering.
In March, the D.C. chapter hosted an event with General Electric 3D printing operators, who demonstrated the technology and discussed 3D printing jobs.
Veterans advocates say troops are skilled in many different types of technology, making them versatile employees.
“We now have in most of our Humvees and military vehicles almost like a Facebook — a networked community that relies on your GPS position and data to connect virtually with your allies,” said Derek Bennett, chief of staff for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
In addition, veterans also have experience with operating surveillance drones, bomb-disarming robots and advanced targeting weapon systems, he said.
“Those things are pretty high-tech if you think about it,” said Bennett, a former Army captain who served two tours in Iraq as a combat arms officer.
“There’s also a whole section of the military that spend a lot of time on IT and system administration,” he added.
Veterans also have a lot of desirable work skills gained from military service — such as attention to detail, discipline and the ability to work as a team and learn on the fly, Bennett said.
“Those skills make for a really good project manager,” said Bennett, a West Point graduate and Harvard MBA who has served as a special assistant to Army Gen. David Petraeus.
Veterans also have good leadership skills, Ott said.
“At 23 years old, I was on a ship … in charge of 15 people and approximately $20-30 million worth of communications gear,” he said. “I was given a leadership challenge where no one in the civilian world would fit.”
Despite their qualifications, veterans face unique challenges in entering the civilian workforce, such as stereotypes that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD).
“PTSD is talked about a lot,” Webster said. “Unfortunately in the media a lot of what is talked about with veterans are problems.”
“There’s a stigma that persists around veterans, where employers think they’re dealing with ticking bombs,” Bennett said.
“You see things like the Fort Hood shooting, that people will peg to and point to as confirmation, when that is such an incredibly small outlier,” he said.
Another challenge is a skills gap, when there is no direct equivalent between what a service member did in the military to what he or she wants to do in the civilian world.
Ott, who studied mechanical engineering at Tufts University and was a ship nuclear reactor operator, said he didn’t want to work at a civilian nuclear power plant, which would have been the civilian equivalent to his job in the Navy.
He was more interested in technology and business, he said, so after entertaining the idea of working in technology startups in San Francisco, he applied to Deloitte through a military recruitment initiative and became a strategy and operations consultant.
“It’s not about just getting jobs, but it’s about getting a job that veterans want and are going to be interested in and where their skills are going to be transferable and useful,” he said.
Veterans also face a “language and culture gap” in translating the skills they do have in a way that employers can understand, said Bennett.
“It’s like two tribes of different languages talking past each other,” he said.
The veteran unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is higher than the civilian unemployment rate, though both have dropped in the last year.
In March 2013, the unemployment rate for civilians was 7.4 percent, but 9.2 percent for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. This March, the rate for civilians dropped to 6.7 percent and to 6.9 percent for veterans of those wars.
That rate could increase as the Afghanistan War winds down and tens of thousands more veterans return to the United States.
Over the last decade, 2.5 million have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In addition, the Army is due to go from about 510,000 active-duty soldiers down to 450,000 by 2017, and go from 350,000 National Guardsmen to 335,000, and from 195,000 Army Reservists down to 185,000.
The Marine Corps is due to cut about 20,000 troops during that period.
The challenges of leaving the military and joining the civilian world prompted Webster to start Vets in Tech.
The group hosts yearly “hackathons,” which link up vets and tech moguls like Craig Newmark from Craigslist. Webster said they are better than a career fair where veterans stand in line with a piece of paper.
At their first hackathon, 40 veterans participated. This year, more than 200 did.
She said every month, each chapter holds an event centered on education, entrepreneurship or employment. Sometimes, recruiters who were in the military themselves come and demystify the tech industry for veterans, she said.
When employers show up to a Vets in Tech meeting, they are often surprised by the high caliber of talent on hand, she said.
“They’re so disciplined, diligent, and hard working. They have great leadership skills, and work great as part of a team because they had to in the military,” said Webster.
Jobs in technology aren’t for every person leaving the military and could prove challenging for veterans without some advanced military training.
But for those with some technology experience, groups like Vets in Tech can help bridge the gap into a new career.