Zach Steinbock's biography reads like a Hollywood screenplay.
A Naval Academy graduate joins the U.S. Navy SEALs, where he spends six years fighting for his country. He returns from war and uses his mechanical engineering training to conceptualize gear to address battlefield operational deficiencies. With the guidance of a mentor – who happens to be an IBM executive – he develops sophisticated prototypes.
His inspirational tale could have taken a different, less uplifting turn, Steinbock acknowledges, had he not reached out for help from a mentor early on. "We were winging the business side of things," he says, and hit roadblocks over product licensing, distributor rates, pricing and trademark issues.
When Steinbock heard about American Corporate Partners, a yearlong nationwide mentoring program for vets, he signed up and the connection with his mentor yielded immediate benefits. Steinbock's company, MATBOCK, began to sell some of his creations, including a dual air-and-water survival pack and a lightweight personnel evacuation kit. More products are in the pipeline.
For the one million vets projected by the Defense Department to be entering the civilian workforce in the next five years, mentoring can be a lifeline, says James Schmeling, an Air Force veteran and the managing director and co-founder of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. The process of working with a professional can help a vet adjust to a culture far different from the one he or she is accustomed to, Schmeling says.
And because practicalities like stringent uniform codes, neatly shorn heads and gym time are no longer as important in the civilian world, shifting out of the military can lead to upheaval, Schmeling and other transition specialists say.
Likewise, and perhaps more difficult to address, are the ingrained codes so inherent to the military: saluting senior officers, rigid rank and command structure, acronym ubiquity and deferential greetings such as "sir" and "ma'am." For this, ACP and other programs like the Syracuse institute are a living, breathing manual parsing out advice on successfully assimilating into civilian workplace culture.
Veterans are often hustling for the same jobs that civilians are seeking in an employment situation still fragile from the Great Recession. An annual report from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families noted that Gulf War era II veterans (post-9/11), ages 20-24, had the highest rate of unemployment of all age groups at 20.6 percent. Overall, the 2012 unemployment rate for veterans was 7 percent.
"Mentoring helps vets understand expectations, the way workplaces function, as well as information on how you interact to obtain jobs and promotions," Schmeling says.
Bill Smith, the IBM executive who is Steinbock's mentor, says he imagines a service member who joins a traditional company may feel much the way he once did on a business trip to Paris. "I didn't speak French or have any idea how Europeans conducted business," Smith says.
"I've been able to help with my skills and knowledge. But I've also been able to connect proteges with people in my network."
More than 2,000 vets have graduated from ACP since its inception in 2008, which along with other programs supports many budding entrepreneurs.
"I've always been an entrepreneur at heart," says Dawn McDaniel, an Army vet who dabbled in different careers before signing up for V-WISE, one of six educational tracks at the Syracuse institute.
An intense trifecta that includes online coursework, textbook assignments and a residency program culminates in a pitch presentation in front of business leaders and executives, an experience McDaniel says was "as scary as it was powerful."
After completing the V-WISE program, McDaniel opened Bravo Delta Consulting to help vets adapt to private industry. "I'm more successful than I ever could have imagined," she says, "and it's all because of the Syracuse program." McDaniel keeps in touch with her mentor, CJ Scarlet, a motivational speaker and business coach.
"Everything from filing paperwork, marketing materials, strategizing and networking," McDaniel says. "I feel supported."
Transitioning service members and spouses have other outlets for professional assistance, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes program. The goal of the nationwide hiring initiative, begun in March 2011, is to help veterans and military spouses find meaningful employment. USAA recently became a sponsor of the Hiring Our Heroes program and is now a member of the Chamber's Veterans Employment Advisory Council.
Noreen O'Neil, deputy director of the Military Spouse Employment program for Hiring Our Heroes, says networking is a natural extension of mentorship. "Mentoring can be done in so many different ways," she says.
Many vets and spouses also have taken advantage of online communities — posing questions and sharing answers about interview techniques, resume specifics and social media best practices, including how to utilize LinkedIn, Twitter and VetNet.
USAA Steps Up
Recently named the top military-friendly employer in the nation by G.I. Jobs magazine, USAA has founded three transition programs: Combat- 2-Claims, Boots to Suits and the Junior Military Officer Career Development Program. USAA also is helping wounded warriors transition with its inaugural Wounded Warriors Externship program. Today, one in four new USAA hires is a veteran or military spouse, and USAA is now working to meet a new internal goal that 30 percent of its new hires be veterans or military spouses.
Eric Engquist, USAA's executive director of the military transitions program, says "establishing relationships is key to success in a new environment," and USAA recognizes the need for a mentor. To that end, junior military officers are assigned a peer mentor during their immersion. The mentors are former JMOs who have successfully made the transition and work to ensure the newer JMOs adjust smoothly and can hit the ground running, Engquist says.
"We want to make sure former service members can reach in that kit bag they've been building over their lifetime in the service," Engquist says, to use "the tools appropriately at the right time."
Not everyone has a brilliant business plan in his or her back pocket. Either way, as soon as service members transition out or are in between jobs, the need for income is paramount and often falls into spouses' laps.
"Spouses have been networking before networking had a name," O'Neil says.
It's easy to see why online communities like USAA's Military Spouse Community and the Blue Star Spouse Networks — online platforms for military spouse health care workers, educators and entrepreneurs — are so popular. USAA's milspouse community is a place for spouses to get in touch and help one another. Blue Star's network is open to active-duty spouses, National Guard and Reserve, and fosters peer-to-peer mentoring.
"It's in our nature to support and help one another," O'Neil says. "Now we have a place to share resources, advice and job opportunities."
Molly Blake, a USAA member, is a freelance writer and Marine Corps spouse. She writes about issues that affect military families. Molly, her husband, anAV-8B Harrier pilot, and two daughters live in Arizona.