Published in the Pacific Coast Business Times, September 2013
After a career of facing issues of life or death every day, veterans often encounter an entirely different type of challenge when they return home to find that the skills they gained in the military are not easily marketable to the civilian business world.
In Ventura County, which is home to a larger population of veterans than most other counties in the state, a slew of nonprofits, public programs and educational institutions provide resources aimed at addressing this problem by facilitating transition into the workforce.
One of the most recent additions to this list is California Lutheran University’s new Veterans Entrepreneurship Institute, a special program within its School of Management designed to apply military expertise to the task of planning and managing a business.
CLU assistant entrepreneurship professor Neil Pizarro, who will lead the new program, said veterans are particularly well-suited for entrepreneurship because of the discipline, extreme commitment and leadership skills engrained by the military lifestyle. The problem, he said, is not that military skills are incompatible with civilian jobs, but that vets have a hard time relating exactly what these skills mean to employers with no military experience.
To bridge the gap, the program will not so much teach veterans entirely new skills as give them a new context to abilities they have already mastered, Pizarro said.
CLU’s 10-week course will begin in January and consist of weekly 3-hour workshops with the end goal that each participant will create some type of product or service. Pizarro said this product can be anything from a tangible business model to participants recreating themselves as a viable job candidate.
Another goal of the program is to give veterans a platform to experiment with different business ideas before plunging into any type of financial risk and to close in on some of the disadvantage they might have against more experienced entrepreneurs in the field.
Despite a listed of price of $995, Pizarro said each of the twenty students participating in the pilot program this year will receive full scholarships. The program will cost roughly $20,000 in total, and a little less than half of the funding will come from a grant from the Ventura County Community Fund. If everything goes well, he said the school will expand enrollment for the following year.
“It’s not like we are trying to make money on this,” Pizarro said.
Beyond the CLU program, county veteran services officer Mike McManus said the Ventura County Veterans Employment Committee and the Ventura County Military Collaborative, a consortium of about 70 different veteran organizations, offer job candidates everything from job fairs and management training to résumé tips and interview attire. Veteran entrepreneurs are also eligible for small-business financial backing at the county and state levels.
Experts credit the recent surge in revamped employment outreach programs such as these, as well as a growing economy, for the steep drop in nationwide post-9/11 veteran unemployment over the last two years from a peak of 15.2 percent in early 2011 to 7.2 percent as of July.
But despite these efforts, experts say the disconnect between employers and veterans continues to be a problem and often results in veterans taking jobs they are overqualified for.
JP Tremblay, deputy secretary of communications for the California Department of Veterans Affairs, said that because only nine percent of the California population has any type of military experience, employers tend to rely on inaccurate preconceived notions of veterans, and many of the technical nuances of a military career are lost on them.
“Trying to explain what job you did on, say, a nuclear air craft carrier to someone who has never done anything like that before; it can be challenging,” Tremblay said.
California Employment Development Department spokesperson Dan Stephens said while things like job fairs and networking events can help somewhat, the best way for veterans to definitively overcome this obstacle is to enroll in an educational program or seek out mentoring from professionals.
“The disconnect could just be the lack of world experience if the veteran joins the military right out of high school. This would really depend on the individual and their ability to absorb/learn from the opportunities they had, and if they had. But whether the veteran seeks employment or self-employment…time allocated for education and specific training (marketing, communications and business management) is always helpful,” Stephens said in an email.
However, Stephens said there are sometimes more deep-seated issues at play beyond the simple failure of communication that can complicate the issue.
These problems include long-lasting effects such as disabilities, medical issues or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pizarro and others emphasize that both job-seekers and business owners stand to benefit from added outreach and support efforts since veterans now constitute a largely untapped, but highly skilled segment of the workforce.