by Petula Dvorak
Eye contact. That, and a firm handshake, gets you the job, right? But for a lot of veterans, that’s the snag they hit in their civilian job search.
They’ve stared down enemies, carried hundreds of pounds of gear in the desert sun, run complex computer programs and saved lives.
Yet making eye contact with a superior is something that goes against everything that was ingrained in them during their years in the military.
And it’s just one of many things they have to unlearn to be able to function in the civilian business world.
The unemployment rate of veterans who are 18 to 24 years old is a national shame. More than 20 percent can’t find work. That’s 5 percentage points higher than the civilian unemployment rate for that age group.
Veterans have technical training, discipline, a monster work ethic and a ferocious dedication to teamwork. But they are often disadvantaged in the job market.
The same machine that churns out soldiers also grinds up people. There’s post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and record rates of depression and suicide, for starters.
The military culture — the stuff about eye contact — is part of it, too.
“I have someone working for me here who still can’t look his superiors in the eye,” said Lee Bowes, chief executive of America Works, a welfare-to-work program that also focuses on veterans, specifically those who have hit rock bottom and are homeless.
“Work in and of itself helps socialize, normalize. There is value in that — it diminishes a lot of the issues they face,” Bowes said.
One 32-year-old veteran was staying at the men’s shelter on New York Avenue when he heard about America Works. He was suffering from PTSD and alcohol abuse and had already done a stint in jail. His construction job became the one thing in his life that gave him self-respect, a goal, a center.
“I started as a laborer. But it was work. And I needed work,” he told me.
A year later, he’s the foreman of a group at Knight Connections, a veteran-owned company that does government contract work in construction, landscaping and other labor. He’s been hiring veterans whenever he can.
That’s what it was like after World War II: Veterans welcomed their comrades into the business world, and the transition was seamless for many. But today, most of upper management is a generation that has never seen combat, and it’s not so easy to see the value and skills that military training can generate.
Places like America Works find companies and try to match them with vets. It recently got a big contract with a document warehouse in Hyattsville, Md. that needed big teams of workers who can function well together. Bingo!
They hired 20 and are looking at 100 or so more resumes, said Jennifer Tiller, site director of the Washington office of America Works.
Work like that is a no-brainer for soldiers used to moving equipment in Fallujah.
But for less-physical jobs, agencies such as America Works help with education, development and office culture.
It’s no surprise, given what we’ve seen in the news lately, that workplace sexual harassment is a big hurdle to overcome.
“That’s part of the culture — this is a problem we’re finding. And part of our tutorials are making sure they understand respect, professionalism in the workplace,” Tiller said.
One of the women who works in the office with Tiller is a veteran.
She often hears horror stories about harassment and abuse from former military women: “They talk about how they survived all that.”
If you’re a business owner, make a pledge this Memorial Day to hire a veteran. Get in touch with America Works (www.americaworks.com) and say you’ve got a position for someone who has a monster work ethic, steel discipline and dedication to teamwork.
Even if he or she won’t look you in the eye.
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