Minding the gap: Despite successful military careers, veterans lag their civilian counterparts in finding long-term employment after leaving military service.
Minding the gap: Despite successful military careers, veterans lag their civilian counterparts in finding long-term employment after leaving military service.

(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series addressing factors, needs and solutions surrounding veteran unemployment in Colorado Springs.)

Currently, there are 21 million military veterans in the United States, a number that’s grown by 2.8 million since 2011, according to studies by Syracuse University.

These former military members often struggle to answer career questions: How do technical and leadership skills translate in the civilian world? Which job is the best fit?

Some people are more adept at answering those questions — and others are left struggling with how to fit into civilian careers.

A 2013-2014 veteran job retention survey published by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University found former officers typically stay longer in their first post-military jobs than enlisted personnel.

It also concluded that officer respondents were 1.6 times more likely than enlisted respondents to still be in their first job since leaving the service.

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“I think former officers who were in the military for a long time are probably pursuing a different job class than younger enlisted veterans,” said Ed Herlik, a retired Air Force veteran and lead analyst for the Market Info Group. “I think officers have a better idea of what they want to do after the military, have a larger network and are able to transition into contract positions similar to what they were doing in the military.”

According to a 2015 survey put together by the University of Chicago and Center for Talent and Innovation, 64 percent of veterans said they felt a greater sense of meaning and purpose in the military than in their current jobs — another factor leading to unemployment and frequent job-hopping.

“I think one issue you see is civilian work cultures not having the same camaraderie and teamwork as a military unit or department,” Herlik said. “That’s why matching veterans’ personalities to the right work culture is so important.”

The top reasons that veterans leave their first post-military job were lack of career development and advancement, quality of work, and new employment opportunity, according to the Syracuse University report.

Language gaps

There are gaps in the language between the military and civilian work worlds that mean some people get left behind.

Keyword filters used during the civilian hiring process sometimes exclude veterans from moving forward, Herlik said.

“Their skills aren’t recognized in the system and their resumés get tossed aside,” he said. “It’s a problem that is widely recognized and shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Although nearly half the city’s economy is defense-related, based on figures from the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, only a fraction of transitioning service members continue to live in Colorado Springs, Herlik said.

“We have talent leaving that would probably stay if there were more job opportunities such as assembly work,” he said.

Obstacles to work

So why is it harder at least initially for veterans to find jobs compared to civilians?

Their biggest obstacle is finding opportunities that match their military training and experience, according to the Syracuse University report.

“It’s harder for them because of language — taking their skills acquired in the military and translating them into civilian terms,” Herlik said.

“Although transition courses can help some, the problem is that they teach veterans how to pass as civilians, rather than be the real employee. It’s not about converting veterans — rather, matching them to the right culture.”

According to Herlik, veterans and employers need to focus on both job culture and networking to close the employment gap.

His nonprofit, Veteran Employment Team Success, aims to measure human cultures with honest human input to get as close to the truth on what any group culture really is.

The organization then runs the math to define how well an individual will fit into any group.

“Not enough data is being captured,” he said. “The sample sizes of the studies are too small. Therefore the results can give us a reasonable hint to the truth, but is not conclusive. I’m confident with the cultural testing my nonprofit is doing that we can change that.”

Success for some

Aleut Management Services has maintenance contracts with Peterson Air Force Base and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Damian Guerin, vice president of human resources for the company, said Aleut is successful at hiring and retaining veterans.

“Some facilities require a level of clearance for access, so we’ll recruit military veterans who have the knowledge and expertise around facilities maintenance and they know how the government works,” he said. “We’ll hire them in those trades and for management positions.”

Guerin said he’s connected with local veterans at events such as the annual Colorado Springs Military Veteran’s Employment Expo.

“We’ll help them tighten their resumés and interviewing skills,” he said. “It’s services and events like the expo that transitioning veterans need.”

Although Aleut has hired some veterans, it’s not an automatic process.

“We don’t usually do entry-level hiring,” he said. “Individuals coming directly out of the military who’ve spent a short amount of time in the service aren’t usually hired because they don’t have enough experience in the trade.

“For example, if our company was pursuing a contract for a military base looking for someone to maintain their air conditioning system and required the contractor to have at least five years of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) experience, we need to find someone who meets those requirements in order to get the contract.”