Vets for hire: A new generation of soldiers returns to the workforce

Steve Robinson, emerging media manager at Core Creative Inc., a Milwaukee-based advertising agency, joined the Army National Guard in 1999 because he saw the military as an opportunity to learn new skills and broaden his horizons.

“I wanted to round out my experiences,” Robinson said. “I saw it as an opportunity to grow and push myself in new ways.”

Robinson is one of the 1.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have returned to the United States since the conflicts began, according to the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America.

The United States will pull out all 45,000 troops remaining in Iraq by Dec. 31 and plans a drawdown in Afghanistan by 2014.

A new generation of soldiers is returning home and will be looking to transfer the skills they have learned in the military to the local workforce in a dismal economy.

The unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans is 12.1 percent, and the Obama administration is making job retraining programs for veterans a key priority.

Learning to adapt

Robinson was deployed to Iraq in 2005 with the Kenosha-based 1st Battalion, 126th Field Artillery. He trained for a field artillery mechanic role in the Army National Guard, but learned a short time before deployment that his unit instead needed him to help with equipment logistics. He learned a new job in a month and a half – a task that taught him adaptability.

Before he left, Robinson was working as an IT consultant. Since technology evolves so quickly, it was difficult to maintain his skills and keep track of all he had missed during his year-long deployment.

“While overseas, I was really inspired by the locals and the locals’ ability to persevere,” Robinson said. “I decided that since I couldn’t come back to my job as it was that I would try to start a business.”

His company, Frogneck Web Solutions, offered IT support and eventually web development services for advertising agencies. One of Frogneck’s clients was Core Creative.

When Frogneck was sold in March 2010, Core hired Robinson as a full-time emerging media manager. He manages web development and web strategy for clients.

Because of his military training, Robinson said he became a much more decisive leader with skills in documentation and a familiarity with diversity that he could apply to the civilian world.

“A lot of the leadership roles have still served me well,” he said. “(But) I’d probably get in trouble if I told them to do push-ups.”

While he’s now on a clear career path, Robinson said he initially struggled with the transition from military to civilian life in everything from vocabulary to career goals.

“When I first got back, I was lost,” he said. “I was coming back to a position where I wasn’t sure what I could do for a job.”

His was a plight shared by many comrades still returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Defining a generation

The new generation of veterans is both similar to previous generations of veterans and vastly different from those before them, according Dr. Rohan de Silva, a sociologist and professor at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

“The World War II generation was most of the population,” so they could relate to each others’ experiences, he said. “Low-skilled labor and high-paying jobs were abundant.”

There was a great deal of economic growth and industrialization in the nation when World War II veterans made the transition back to civilian life, de Silva said.

Korean War veterans also returned to an economy that was expanding in the 1950s.

Vietnam War veterans came back to a population that often scapegoated them for an unpopular war. While the veteran proportion of the population was small, many of those who served in Vietnam were drafted to duty.

The economy also was inflationary when Vietnam veterans returned, so they could get back to work quickly, de Silva said.

The U.S. population has been much more receptive to the return of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but most civilians are unfamiliar with the soldiers’ collective experiences – and the skills they have learned in service.

“They’re coming back to a population that can’t relate to what they’ve been through but is supportive and friendly,” de Silva said. “There aren’t low-skilled, high-paying jobs (available). They have to retool, they have to get training.”

De Silva says he has seen many veterans enrolling at MATC to get the training that will give them an edge in today’s labor market. Veterans in his courses have set themselves apart with the skills they have already learned in the military.

Veteran students are less likely to complain than the average student, have a greater experience with diversity of cultures and are good at working under harsh conditions, he said.

“Pretty soon, we’re going to see this wave of very employable people,” de Silva said. “Veterans will be very desirable to employers as we’re coming out of the recession.”

Employers need to remember that not all veterans are disabled or are having trouble adjusting, and many are thriving in today’s workforce, de Silva said.

“We’re focusing too much on the minority of veterans who come back with serious issues,” he said. “The majority of them adapted to some extraordinary situations.”

Transitioning from combat

Harrison White has been an auditor at New Berlin-based costume and party supply distributor BuySeasons Inc. for about a year. He returned from a tour around the Middle East with the Marine Corps in late 2007 and is working to adjust to a civilian job.

“When you’re over there, you have to be alert, and you’re in an aggressive state of mind,” White said. “I’ve got to remember that I’m here and not over there.”

White, a specialist, still has nightmares about what he saw in the military, but he said there were good memories and experiences too.

White joined the Marines in 2001 to add direction to his life after he dropped out of high school. Now, he hopes to start a family military tradition.

“When I was young growing up, I didn’t have any older male role models,” he said. “I feel like I made a good decision.”

His military experience was the main reason he was hired at BuySeasons, and the teamwork he learned has been a benefit on the job. White takes care of his team at work and puts others before himself, said David Karst, vice president of human resources for the firm.

“I try to motivate the people that work with me and around me,” White said.

Curt Hafemeister, who works in shipping and receiving at Mequon metal fabrication company General MetalWorks Corp. (GenMet), also was a Marine recently deployed to the Middle East.

Hafemeister served in the Marine Corps from December 2006 to November 2010 and was deployed to Iraq from August 2007 to March 2008, where he drove resupply trucks.

Hafemeister’s life changed while he was gone. He became a father.

Despite a much different family life, his job at GenMet has provided a comfortable routine and involves the truck driving skills he learned in the Marines.

“It’s easier actually having a schedule,” instead of waking up wondering what each day would bring, Hafemeister said.

Eric Isbister, chief executive officer of GenMet, said the company welcomes veterans such as Hafemeister because they have the work ethic necessary to succeed.

“What works best here is people that think, people that will be on time, people that lead teams,” Isbister said.

Some veterans of combat continue to serve in the military while transitioning back to life after deployment.

Steve Staedler, a senior account executive at Brookfield-based LePoidevin Marketing, served four years of active Air Force duty and then joined the Air Force Reserve 440th Airlift Wing in 1995.

Sixteen years later, he’s a master sergeant and has been deployed twice, most recently in 2006 to Qatar. He performs public affairs work for the Air Force, trains for one weekend a month and completes two weeks of active duty each year.

“It’s a good part-time job, you still get the benefits of the military, you still get to serve your country, but do it in a part-time role,” Staedler said.

Juggling responsibilities

Ann Peru Knabe is a Pentagon reservist who will soon depart for her fourth deployment in seven years. She also teaches public relations courses full-time at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and is working on a Ph.D. at Marquette University while juggling her family life.

Knabe, a lieutenant colonel, enlisted in the Air Force in 1986 and now serves as public affairs officer and social media strategist for the secretary of the Air Force-Public Affairs at the Pentagon.

She flies to Washington, D.C., for her reserve weekends, which also takes up a portion of her Fridays.

Barbara Penington, the Communication Department chair at the UW-Whitewater, has worked around Knabe’s schedule by assuring her classes take place in the middle of the week.

When Knabe is deployed, Penington usually hires part-time employees to teach some of Knabe’s classes, and Knabe sometimes teaches an online course remotely.

“Once or twice, it’s even been getting a brand new person that we have to train,” Penington said. “There’s a lot of sharing, and Ann is so willing to help the people who will be taking over for her.”

Knabe’s public affairs work in the Air Force can easily be applied to her public relations courses at UW-Whitewater.

“She brings in examples from her experiences in the field,” Penington said. “It’s just a really neat thing because then the students can see how the skills she’s teaching them in class really do connect to the outside world.”

Major Lisa Hubbard has been in the military for 20 years as a reservist in the Army Nurse Corps’s Milwaukee-based 452nd Combat Support Hospital. She also is a nurse practitioner in the emergency department at Wheaton Franciscan St. Joseph Hospital in Milwaukee.

Hubbard was deployed February 2003 to February 2004 to Afghanistan, where she provided medical care in a combat zone at Bagram Air Base.

While she was still providing emergency nursing care, the work environment was unlike what she had experienced in Milwaukee, Hubbard said. The injuries were more severe and she also kept a gun with her at work.

“In a combat zone, we carry M-16s. We don’t do that here,” she said. “It was trauma amputations, gunshot wounds, burns – it was trauma all the time.”

It was difficult to return to civilian life, but it helped that her department director held her position open for the entire year she was gone, Hubbard said.

With her experiences in the Army Nurse Corps and at Wheaton Franciscan, Hubbard also has worked in leadership roles as a nurse educator and patient care supervisor.

“My Army leadership skills help me in my civilian world and my civilian leadership skills help me in the Army world,” Hubbard said.

Those military skills are valuable to Wheaton Franciscan, which is why the company has recently started to focus on veteran recruitment, said Lisa Krueger, a recruiter for the company. Wheaton Franciscan is hosting its first veteran-focused job fair on Nov. 16 to fill several hundred positions.

“We want to capture that great wealth of experience and knowledge they gained in the military to bring that into our organization,” Krueger said.

Leadership and training

Knowledge gained in the military can even guide a career path for veterans returning to civilian life.

Veteran Dan Freschi has parlayed his leadership training into a position as a management development consultant at Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc.

He was part of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program while enrolled at Sacramento State, where he took basic officer leadership courses and trained others on leadership.

Freschi began active duty when he graduated in 2000 and served in the military for eight years, completing his service as a senior captain in 2008.

It was in the Army that Freschi developed a passion for leadership and team development. He earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership in 2004.

“When I was in my (master’s) program, I really got to understand the theory and the process of how humans interact. I got to apply that right away by being a leader in the military,” he said.

Freschi was deployed from September 2005 to September 2006 in Iraq, where he served as primary logistics officer and planned nighttime combat operations. He learned to focus on the mission, put the organization first and make decisions quickly.

Now, he trains Baird’s managers those same skills so they can improve their leadership and avoid “analysis paralysis” in decision-making.

“I get the opportunity to really put Baird first and help them think about putting Baird first as a leader,” Freschi said. “We always have to aspire to be better than we are, especially as a leader.”

Tiffany Guske, director of talent and development at Baird, said Freschi has helped build a strong leadership development program at the company since he started there in 2010. Teams of 10 to 15 company leaders meet with Freschi about five times over the course of six months in a peer mentorship program that encourages skills such as talent development, motivation, driving results and inspiring trust.

“I think that it’s been just a very conscious effort on his part to always take that military experience and translate it into corporate terms,” she said.

Freschi also started his own business last year, Edge Coaching and Consulting, to provide leadership coaching to a wider audience and generate income while he was looking for work in an unstable economy.

“The military has really allowed me to overcome anything that adversity has thrown my way – the ability to be very adaptable and flexible given the environment,” Freschi said. “I don’t stop thinking about possibilities, what I can do.”

Assets in the workforce

Veterans can prove to be great employees for companies looking to hire, but employers sometimes misunderstand what the veterans are going through, according to Marcea Weiss, author of “Leaving the Military; Your Deployment Guide to Corporate America.”

Veterans work hard, have discipline and can accomplish tasks under harsh conditions, skills that can be assets to any employer, Weiss said.

She encourages employers to make an effort to understand the veteran and his or her experiences, and explain what’s expected of them in the corporate world to assist with their reintegration.

“They signed up for that 24/7 lifestyle to protect the country, and it’s a big transition to make that shift,” she said. “It’s just a whole different mindset.

Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) is a military program aimed at helping employers understand veterans and what they have to offer.

Andrew Moschea, brewery vice president at MillerCoors LLC in Milwaukee and Mark Petrarca, senior vice president of human resources and public affairs at Milwukee-based A.O Smith Corp., recently participated in a “Boss Lift” program through ESGR.

About 100 of MillerCoors’ 750 Milwaukee brewery employees are veterans, Moschea said, and the company recently started a Veterans Employee Network Group to provide support and understanding of veterans at the company.

“It is a constituency that we try to target for hiring,” Moschea said. “They clearly know how to work and win in teams.”

Both Moschea and Petrarca said the Boss Lift provided a hands-on experience of what veterans and reservists are trained to do and how it can be applied to their companies.

“I walked out of there with a very strong perspective and opinion of the men and women of the military,” Petrarca said. “They actually come to us already skilled in many of the areas we would have to build otherwise.”

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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