John Toth is a former Army Lieutenant Colonel who served with the 101st airborne and 82nd airborne. He currently serves as a senior director of veterans programs at Veteran Green Jobs, and talks about the mission of Veteran Green Jobs and how veterans can overcome the obstalces they face in the civilian job market.
Can you talk a bit about your military experience?
I commissioned as an officer through ROTC. I spent 21 years in the army as an infantry officer. I spent time with the 82nd airborne division and the 101st airborne division; I did a tour in Korea, a tour in Egypt. I spent two years in the pentagon and I was actually there during 9/11. I did a year-long combat tour in Iraq with the 101st. I ended my career as a professor of military science at the University of Colorado, Boulder and that’s how I ended up here in Denver.
What made you decide to enter the civilian workforce?
The army wasn’t going to promote me. I was a Lieutenant Colonel as an infantry officer, and if you’re not a battalion commander, you’re never going to get promoted to full Colonel. I was passed over, I was on the alternate list for four years hoping to get a battalion command and I never did. The realization was that the Army was not going to move me up, and I had a one and a half year old son and I had another son on the way, and I decided that it was time for me to focus on putting down some roots in Colorado and raising two kids. I’d done my time in Iraq with 21 years in the Army, so I felt comfortable getting out at that point.
Can you talk about Veteran Green Jobs and their mission?
Our mission is to connect veterans with jobs that support the environment and our communities, and that’s essentially connecting them with green jobs. We have several programs, and our veterans program has two sub-programs. One is the employment program and that’s really our main focus. That’s where we connect veterans through a variety of ways: either through our website, through social media, through working at transition programs on military bases, and through craigslist. They partner with us and go through one-on-one counseling with one of our career counselors.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have an industry liaison that goes out and tries to find companies that want to hire veterans. Once we find a company that wants to hire a veteran we partner with them and they let us know what they’ve got available, and we find veterans that kind of fit the mold and we connect the two. As we go through that, we do things like resume writing, interview preps, things to get them ready and make them more competitive in the job market. If we need to, we recommend education or training programs to make them more competitive for those jobs.
The other program we have is our outdoor conservation program and that’s where we’re partnered with five conservation corps in the west and southwest in about eight different states. We find veterans and they go to the conservation corps for seasonal jobs where they’re taught how to be wildland firefighters. They’re chainsaw certified, red card certified to be wildland firefighters, and once they’re done going through the conservation corps training programs, we try to push them on to the BLM and the forest service. It’s a really great career opportunity – you still get to go outside. For a lot of military people that’s something that we’re used to and we’re happy to continue to do that.
What kind of struggles do you see veterans facing in the job search process?
One of the things I think is a barrier to a veteran finding employment is the online application process. I was unemployed for about nine months after I got out, and I had problems working through that process. There were several jobs I knew I was a perfect fit for and I was lucky enough to receive a rejection email from the government agency or the company I was trying to get to. I realized that if I didn’t’ have eighteen out of twenty keywords in my application, I couldn’t get to the next step. I had twenty years in the army, I was confident, I knew that if I walked into any of those interviews I’d have a really good chance of getting it.
What we try to do is develop a personal relationship with the companies that we’re partnered with in terms of their HR department to one, understand what their needs and requirements are, and then to be able to break down that barrier and give somebody a call and say, “hey, I’ve got a veteran that would be perfect for your company, you just need to give him a shot. Will you take a look at their resume?” It’s all about relationships out there, and we try to develop relationships with the veterans we serve and the companies we support.
Can you talk about how you’re doing in reaching the 2013 goal of placing 300 veterans in full time jobs?
We’re doing pretty well. Right now we’re at 204 seasonal jobs, and about 85 permanent jobs -- we’re pushing really hard. Of course the outdoor conservation program is in full swing, so we’re doing full recruiting for that. We’ve also opened an office out in Los Angeles thanks to a grant from the Call of Duty Endowment, so we have a career counselor out there as well as an industry liaison finding the industry jobs. We’ll have 15 career fairs in the next 45 days, so we’re definitely moving in the right direction.
How is the Call of Duty Endowment going to affect your programs?
One of the requirements for the Call of Duty Endowment was to expand our operations somewhere else, and we had already been looking at California. There are 100,000 unemployed veterans out in California, and probably 40% of those are post-9/11 veterans. When you talk about green industry and the job opportunities that are out there, they exist. For us, when the Call of Duty Endowment talked to us about a grant and expanding our operations, it was kind of the logical next step for us and we were very excited about having that happen. It’s also very nice to have a foundation that’s seen what we’ve been doing, we’ve been partnered with the Call of Duty Endowment for a few years now, and they’ve seen the results that we’ve had and they’ve got faith in us for the future.
Can you comment on the value of veterans in the industry?
There are so many things that veterans bring to the workplace. You think that it would be common sense given what they’ve done in their military career, they’re team players. Every day in the military we talk about safety, they’re completely safety oriented. They’re mission focused and results oriented, that’s what we do. When you’re told to take a hill, that becomes your mission and we figure out a way to get it done. They’re disciplined – they show up for work on time in the right uniform ready to go, they’re used to working in tough conditions so they’re resilient. They’re also service minded; they want to give back. Veterans are looking for their next career, and they’re working for companies that have the same values that we have in the military.
What do you think the future holds for green jobs in general?
I think for us, green jobs are pretty broadly defined. We work with a bunch of different industries like the solar industry and the wind industry, and IT is very green. I think there’s plenty of green jobs out there, we just need to get connected with veterans and with the companies that have them that want to hire veterans. A lot of companies talk a good game, but in the end they don’t have any system set up to support and attract veterans when they get on the job to make them successful. Solar City is a great company out of California that’s really done a lot to recruit and support veterans. We’ve had a great relationship with them, we’ve gotten a lot of veterans hired through them. They talk the talk and walk the walk and get things done. When we talk about partnering with industry, we want to help those companies set up systems to make veterans successful. The transition isn’t easy, but I can be done.
Do you have any parting words of wisdom for veterans trying to find a job?
It can be tough. You have to be resilient: don’t give up. People in the military don’t sell themselves well sometimes. We’re always taught to give credit to other people and go to bat for the people that work under us and focus on them. Sometimes a veteran has to learn how to promote themselves. You have to figure out how to translate your military skills to something that is marketable to an employer. What exactly is that employer looking for in the job that they’re offering, and how do you communicate to that employer that you’re going to be effective and an asset to that company? That’s a lot of what our counselors do at Veteran Green Jobs -- try to get veterans down that road to make that transition so that when they walk into a room for an interview and sit down with a company for a few hours, they unstring what you’re going to bring and why they should hire you.