Honoring veterans with employment opportunities

Tired of being rejected by employers claiming to be veteran-friendly, Army veteran Rishi Soneja decided to take matters into his own hands. After earning a degree in nutrition and food studies, he started his own mobile pizza catering business last year and is working on launching Food Hub Market, a platform that connects consumers to local food producers.

Last week, Soneja, 30, was in the audience at a startup pitch event aimed at former military members. Organized by a group called Vets in Tech and held at Google’s New York City campus, the event featured several entrepreneurial veterans eager for tips on how to grow their businesses.

Founded in 2012, Vets in Tech helps transitioning military members, veterans and their spouses reintegrate. It connects them with resources and programs related to education, entrepreneurship and employment in the technology sector. They hold career events with partners, such as Paypal, that help veterans understand how to land interviews and get hired. There are also training programs that teach skills, like web development and cyber security, that make veterans more attractive to technology companies.

Veterans have leadership ability and skill sets that allow them to problem solve quickly under pressure, but businesses don’t immediately look at these skills, according to Soneja. He said a large part of the reason that prospective employers passed him over for well-paying jobs was that he lacked a business education and the accompanying skills and experience. “Businesses hire the marketable skills that they need, so if you’re a veteran and you don’t have marketable skills, you’re not going to get hired [even though a lot of businesses say] ‘We hire veterans.’”

“Our focus is on getting veterans more integrated into the technology ecosystem because their skills gained in the military are specifically valuable and applicable to technology companies,” said Donald Coolidge, USMC Veteran and NYC chapter director of Vets in Tech. “Technology companies are now very aware of the value veterans bring to their company and are actively looking to hire veterans.”

The unemployment rate for veterans hit a historic low of 3.5 percent in 2018, due in no small part to Vets in Tech and the more than 45,000 other nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping veterans and their families.

One obstacle facing veterans is employer bias. While there are nice sentiments in society, such as “veterans are heroes”, there are also perceptions that a lot of veterans suffer from mental health conditions or have deployment or combat-related issues that could be a liability in the workplace, according to Lindsay L. Rodman, executive vice president of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and a Marine Corps veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom. Since its founding in 2004, IAVA has connected more than 1.2 million veterans nationwide to resources and support.

Ron Burton is a Navy veteran and Florida director of Troops to Teachers, a program established in 1993 to help military members and veterans transition into classroom careers. Burton said there are far more schools open to hiring veterans now than when the program first started in the ’90s. “Back then…there were some administrators who weren’t sure of what a military member would bring to the table,” he said.

“Panel of investors hear a startup pitch idea from a veteran at the “Vets in Tech” event.” (Photo courtesy of Donald Coolidge)

Rodman said that veterans are often both overqualified and underqualified for the positions. “They’re completely overqualified because the type of leadership experience and managerial experience that you get in the military is completely unmatched by what you might get in the civilian sector,” she said. At the same time, the civilian work environment is not identical to the military work environment, so there are some skills that veterans need to learn.

Through his experience building technology companies and as a veteran himself, Coolidge said he has learned that hiring veterans is good for culture and good for business.

Burton’s experience has been that veterans and members of the military are a good fit in the classroom. “They’ve got a platoon – except it’s a classroom of kids – and they’ve got to get them trained,” he said. As of 2014, Troops to Teachers has helped 1,153 military members and veterans get hired in Florida. Burton credits the quality of the people entering the program with its success. A study showed that students of Troops to Teachers teachers performed better in reading and math than those of traditional teachers with comparable classroom experiences.

He also noted that the retention rate for military personnel going into education is higher than typical teachers. “With Troops to Teachers, we have somewhere in the seventy percentile range of retention after five years, so they stay in the classroom,” he said. In comparison, studies show that 44 percent of new teachers leave within five years.

The IAVA works on a broader scale to ensure that there are supports in place to help veterans succeed economically and has a rapid response referral program that connects veterans to resources when they are in need. The group also promotes veteran employment to corporations and holds them accountable.

“For example, if a corporation says, ‘We love veterans and we want to take care of them, so we pledge that we are going to hire a thousand veterans tomorrow,’ [IAVA] is going to make sure they hire a thousand veterans,” said Rodman.

Earlier this month, the CEO of Starbucks announced that the company had met an initial goal of hiring 25,000 veterans and their spouses and pledged to hire an additional 5,000 veterans annually.

Troops to Teachers is accepting applications for its fall class of fellows through Nov. 19. The group also hosts frequent informational events around the country, as do the local chapters of Vets in Tech.


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