Career Counselors Break Down Hiring Barriers
If you're having difficulty in your job search and think an extra boost might help, one option is to use a career counselor. Veterans Green Jobs has recently hired personnel to support veterans through the process of transitioning from the military to civilian careers. We interviewed three of their career counselors to get insight on what kind of assistance a counselor can provide, as well as tips for finding a job in a difficult market.
Laura Whitehead: Retired U.S. Army and Colorado Army National Guard veteran, previously stationed with the 515th Engineer Company, the 518th Engineer Company and the 41st Engineers. Spent eight years as a military recruiter for the Colorado Army National Guard, and currently works out of Denver.
Zaena Flores: Air Force veteran, with Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She is located in Colorado Springs and volunteers for the Employment Support of the Guard and Reserve and Colorado Military Veterans and Spouses.
Paul Aranda: Post-9/11 Army veteran who served for four years as a U.S. Army Infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division in Ft. Lewis, Washington. Earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from California State University, Fullerton, and as an academic counselor, has led and supported veterans in their transition into higher education. Paul volunteers for The Mission Continues and Volunteer Los Angeles.
Can you walk us through what your process is for recruiting veterans and connecting them with green jobs?
Laura Whitehead: We have been fortunate in the fact that we are able to form partnerships and collaborate with different organizations and veteran intake points to get our message out.
Currently, VGJ is part of a new national initiative called Community Blueprint Network, a national service program dedicated to serving and serving with veterans and their family members by focusing on collaboration, job readiness and community engagement. In partnership nationally with the Points of Light Foundation, the HandsOn Network and locally with VGJ, Easter Seals Colorado, Rocky Mountain Human Services and Metro Volunteers, the Community Blueprint Network Colorado(CBNC) provides reintegration, education, employment and health care referral services to military members, veterans and their families.
Our staff and AmeriCorps members are also connected with veteran service organizations, Student Veterans of America, and other educational institutions throughout the nation to get the word out to veterans about what types of “green” careers are available within partnering companies that are actively recruiting and hiring veterans. We proactively recruit veterans at job fairs within our areas of Colorado/Wyoming and California.
Once a veteran connects with our organization, we assess where s/he is in the employment process. Do they understand how to target a resume for a specific job, and do they know what type of position they are looking for? Can one of our partners assist them with support or are they career-ready?
Zaena Flores: Our career counselors participate in veteran outreach efforts by attending military briefings and career fairs, and we receive referrals from community resources. We come from a stance of empowering the veterans we meet. Once they complete our interest form, they begin to receive our newsletters with opportunities for: employment, education, and skills-building. Veterans are encouraged to contact our career counseling team to work with them one-on-one for employment opportunities or in group settings for skills-building. When a veteran determines that s/he is ready to begin applying for employment, s/he notifies a career counselor and the counselor guides the veteran through the application process. The counselor remains in contact with the veteran for several months after the veteran obtains meaningful employment to ensure that the veteran is supported throughout the transition into the civilian sector.
Paul Aranda: The focus is to identify where veterans are and go there to meet with them. We identify local work resource centers and connect with the staffs who work directly with veterans seeking employment. I often go in and give a brief 10-minute presentation on the program. I also attend various veteran community events such as career and resource fairs. Another component is to work alongside other veteran service organizations. In Los Angeles we have a great network of various nonprofit, government agencies and education programs that work directly with veterans. Through this network we can promote the various green opportunities that veterans otherwise may not hear about.
How deep are your connections with recruiters at green companies?
Laura Whitehead: We are very close to our employment partners. VGJ recently hosted a Veterans Branding & Networking event at our national headquarters office in Denver, and we had some of our employment partners out to eat good food and meet some great veterans. We have also had our employers out to other socials, and have found communicating the military story in these types of environments to be very beneficial.
Companies have questions about working with veterans and may not feel as though they have a trusted individual they can ask. We provide a safe and mutually respected line of communication with our partners to provide them an understanding of who a military veteran is. We are given permission by these companies to promote their businesses utilizing their logos and have direct access to their HR departments. This comes in handy when we need to clear up questions about a career opportunity.
Paul Aranda: Consistent communication is the key. We always identify at least one main contact that we can trust will always return our communications. This is important because many companies deal with a large number of applicants so it isn’t always easy for them to return our requests for specific feedback on a few of those applicants. Our industry liaisons do an awesome job of knocking on the corporate doors and building relationships with the key executives. By the time this relationship is handed to the counselor team, we build on that with a consistent communication strategy tailored to the needs of the company. For some, a simple phone call will work, for others, email is key. A good example is SolarCity. This is a large company that deals with many applicants across the country. At VGJ our counselors can email any recruiter we are working with in a particular location and we can include the operations manager on the message to ensure we get a response on behalf of our veteran candidates.
What skills do veterans have that would give them an advantage in this industry?
Laura Whitehead: A veteran knows how to get the job done. Every company is looking for the same qualities in employees that a current supervisor is looking for in the military. Come to work on time, wear the proper attire, and display esprit de corps. Within the green community, this goes a step further because companies are looking for employees who have a passion for supporting their community and are adapt and resilient even in harsh environments. Our partners feel an obligation to our communities to provide access to sustainable energy, ensure healthy environments for our families, and strengthen our nation’s security. Industry as a whole may be looked at as cold and impartial, but within the green sector, employers are looking for those individuals who feel passionate about their communities. It is a way of life.
Paul Aranda: On the trade side, many veterans bring a tremendous skill set. The priority for the industry is safety, and this is something all veterans understand by nature of the dangerous work they conducted in uniform. Veterans can work in any weather environment and alongside a diverse group of individuals. Employers in the industry need quality and they can be confident that having a veteran on a work crew will ensure that no corners are cut and the easy option is never the first choice. What is great about the green industry is that it allows the veteran to understand that this is more than a job. This is an opportunity to make a positive impact on the environment and improve the living conditions of those who benefit from these projects. Veterans understand that all roles, big or small, are all required to be done well for the overall mission to be accomplished. In that sense, green jobs will never be ‘just a job.’
Zaena Flores: There is a theme in the kinds of unique skill sets that set veterans apart from the competition:
- They have a generosity in their characters as evidenced by their service to their nation. When a veteran commits to serve one’s nation, it is more than a legal contract, it is an understanding that one could lose life or limb as a result of one’s service. There is no severance package in the world that could entice someone into a contract of that nature unless the person has a sincere commitment to service for something more meaningful than one’s own life.
- Veterans truly know the meaning of coexistence and demonstrate this by committing to work, live and play in vastly diverse settings in a true team-environment. From the moment service members enter basic training through their last days of service, they are surrounded by people – once strangers – whom they bond with to work toward a common goal. Beyond working, they often live in different cities, states, countries and cultures that are foreign to where they came from.
- The most recent value that has presented itself among the veteran community is passion. After having served their nations, veterans seem to be seeking meaningful career opportunities that align with who they are at their core-self and with their personal values. What this translates to is that veterans are learning to narrow their focus in their career search to apply for positions with companies they believe are going to complement who they are and what they believe, and find careers that bring meaning to their lives. Finding a new career outside of the military is an opportunity to demonstrate what they care about. When a veteran applies for a position, oftentimes it is a compliment to the company or organization because the veteran has researched the company and knows that this organization’s values align with the veteran’s values.
As you connect with veterans seeking jobs, what challenges do you see that need to be overcome, whether it’s public perception or the veteran adjusting to a civilian career?
Re-application of training: Getting retrained for similar work in the civilian sector is a real hurdle. The military can spend over $100,000 on training for its members, yet when those members enter the civilian sector, they will need to obtain new certifications and licensing, forcing them to restart their careers in an entry level position. For example, an electro hydraulic technician in the Navy leaving the military would need to be retrained to work on civilian equipment.
Military speech: As a culture, military members have a certain rhythm and vocabulary when they describe themselves after arriving at a new unit. We can call it the Military Elevator Speech. The former service member lists the unit/location assignments and positions held – all in military lingo. The uniform has all the markings of what s/he is qualified to do. But when s/he approaches a civilian organization with this type of information, the organization doesn’t understand. The civilian counterpart who is competing against the veteran for a position may have just left college and had his/her professor help write a cover letter in already-familiar civilian terms – another competitive advantage. A veteran will need to slow down and explain how s/he can help that company fill the role, using terms the hiring manager is familiar with. Describing one’s accomplishments to potential employers in terms they can understand is one of the challenges I see quite a bit.
Unrealistic expectations: Military training sets can set a veteran apart from others in the employment process, but it can also be a hindrance to adjusting to civilian life. Military members are often assigned additional duties that have no relationship to their formal training. The soldier will take on that new responsibility and get the job done. When approaching the job market, a soldier might apply for positions that may not fit his/her skill set and expect the same results as in the military. The soldier might submit 75 resumes with no call-backs. Rejection is hard to accept when, throughout a soldier’s career in the military, s/he has been considered a super trooper.
Zaena Flores: Public perception appears to be the most significant barrier to employment for veterans. The perception seems to be that today’s veterans have disabilities that may interfere with their ability to work effectively. One example of one of the potential disabilities is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) The fact is that not all veterans have PTSD, and even for those who have the diagnosis, it is not necessarily a life sentence. PTSD is a normal human reaction that SOME people develop after being subjected to an abnormal situation or trauma. Another important fact is that not all people who have experienced trauma develop PTSD. As far as adjusting to a civilian career, all career transitions are challenging. Military careers are comparable to contracted positions in the sense that once the contract has expired, the veteran is a free agent. Every new job takes some getting used to. Every company has its own job culture, and every new position one accepts will require an adjustment period.
Paul Aranda: On the flipside of the coin, veterans cannot rely on civilian recruiters to understand everything they bring to the table. The most important skill for a veteran to master is personal branding. Veterans need to carefully read job descriptions and look for the common concepts that matched their backgrounds. It may not be the same work or term, but the concept of the work may be similar. On this note, veterans should not feel this burden is on their shoulders alone. Our role as career counselors is to do just this. We look for ways to match a veteran with these job descriptions that don’t always appear to be a perfect fit.
Do you have any general advice for a veteran who might be interested in starting a green career?
Laura Whitehead: Depending on the sector (wind, solar, water…) veterans may have to look at coming into an organization at entry level. In military terms, this translates as coming into lower enlisted. Veterans should have a plan when transferring out of the military. If they are in a technical field such as electrical work, they should talk to their state officials now and find out if they can submit hours toward state certification. They should take the time to explore different types of careers to find a good fit. Before they start using their post-9/11 educational benefits, they should make sure the classes will be beneficial in the long run. If they have an overpowering fear of heights, they should not sign up for training as a solar Installer or as a wind turbine technician.
Above all, veterans should not get discouraged. When searching for a new career, there is an overwhelming amount of support within the service community, and we all want veterans to be successful. We are proud of their sacrifice. The United States service member is an American icon, but it is sometimes difficult to take off the uniform and become Clark Kent.
Paul Aranda: The key is to be open. Some companies prefer to start all new hires in one department and then have them work their way up to build a full understanding of the business operations. Many veterans are too narrow initially, so they need to be willing to take a step back and see the big picture. Veterans interested in a green career should contact a career counselor. One of the benefits of the employment program is that we can identify the full range of careers that are available with our industry partners. Maybe a veteran’s options are limited when she first leaves the military. However, if a veteran knows the full range of careers available, she can choose to enroll in a related education program or volunteer project.
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