Hire a vet? IT says yes

Highly skilled, highly disciplined and highly adaptive, veterans are upping the ante on IT staffs nationwide

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Jimmy Lamz
Jimmy Lamz

Jimmy Lamz

Military experience: U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 2005. U.S. Navy, 2005-2011; surface warfare officer, served as first lieutenant on a cruiser and as navigator on a frigate, both out of Mayport Naval Station; deployed to the Horn of Africa, Persian Gulf and the western coast of South America.

Civilian role: Member of the sales and marketing development program at Siemens Energy Inc., Jackson, Miss.

After 10 years in the Navy, Jimmy Lamz was ready for a change. With a wife and two young children, he didn't want to deploy again. Yet the economy was in shambles and, as a soldier, he had no experience with unemployment. Unlike civilian job-changers, who can wait for the hiring market to improve before leaving their current employers, U.S. Navy personnel are required to indicate nearly a year out that they plan to ask for a discharge.

"Once you say you're going to get out, you're out," Lamz says. "It's a gut-wrenching decision to have to make."

Lamz set to work trying to translate a decade's worth of highly skilled military experience into layman's terms, which was "kind of a scary," he says. "Some skills translate [easily] and some don't." Then, at a career fair, he made contact with Orion International, a recruiting firm that specializes in military placements, and Orion put him in touch with Siemens Corp., which has a well-established veterans hiring program. Problem solved.

Lamz graduated from the Naval Academy in 2005 with a degree in IT, but the course of study was heavy on engineering as well, something Lamz admits he was not particularly gung-ho about at the time. "I took thermodynamics, electrical engineering, [calculus] and physics alongside more computer-science-type courses like networking and other IT-type classes," he recalls. "I thought of the engineering as 'nice to have' -- I never guessed in a million years that I'd wind up working for an engineering company, and that I'd be working in sales."

The fit makes sense, though, he says. In the Navy, he gained experience working with the gas turbines that turn ships' propellers, for example. In his first three months at Siemens, he assessed markets for gas turbines in South America, looking at both economic fundamentals and technical requirements.

Culturally, Lamz is discovering what many a civilian IT employee already knows: In corporate settings, procedures aren't always clearly defined, and goals aren't always definitively set. That's a big change from the military, Lamz says, where "there's a structured procedure for everything from greasing a bearing to getting a haircut."

Beyond that, it took a little work to exorcise certain phrases from his vocabulary. "A senior person would say, 'Call me Joe,'" Lamz relates with a laugh, "and I'd say, 'Can't I call you Joe Sir?'"

Nicholas Riggins
Nicholas Riggins

Nicholas Riggins

Military experience: U.S. Air Force, 2001-2008, traffic management officer in the Logistics troop; stationed at Andrews Air Force Base (home of Air Force One) and Cannon Air Force Base, Clovis, N.M.; supervised cargo moving processes and personal property moving processes.

Civilian role: Veterans vocational evaluator, Operation Independence at Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont, Charlotte, N.C. (a position funded by Microsoft)

Nicholas Riggins was sitting in an interview at Goodwill Industries, discussing a possible role coaching and mentoring returning veterans on their job skills, when word came through that Microsoft had committed to funding the program as part of its Elevate America's Veterans initiative. "That was a good piece of timing on my part," Riggins says with a laugh.

Things hadn't always worked out so serendipitously for him after he left the Air Force. "I got out in August of 2008. My plan was to find a job and raise my family. I started working my network right away, but I kept hearing, 'I would hire you but you need that degree.' So I was unemployed for a year, going to school full time." Riggins eventually earned a dual MBA and master's degree in organizational leadership.

U.S. Air Force veteran Nicholas Riggins discusses the difficulties encountered by returning veterans searching for jobs. Credit: Microsoft Corp.

As for his technical knowledge, he says, "I got it all while I was in the Air Force. I was raised in rural America. I didn't have access to the level of technology that I experienced in the Air Force." Like a lot of veterans he now coaches, Riggins initially wasn't aware of just how many of the tech skills he picked up in the military were applicable in business.

"Intermediate SQL-type querying -- something we did all the time -- I had no idea how valuable it was," Riggins recalls. "Access, Excel, high-level database work and presentations -- those are valuable to employers." He now conveys that message to the newly discharged soldiers he counsels. And beyond tech expertise, ex-military personnel have management and leadership skills and "a personal desire to improve the organization that they're working for."

That doesn't apply just to officers, Riggins is quick to point out: "Every military person is trained this way."

As for the future, Riggins says he would like to see programs like the White House's Joining Forces initiative promote the idea of providing veterans with business-approved certifications before they separate from the military. "Program management" on the military side equates directly with "project management" in the private sector, Riggins explains, so why not discharge a soldier with that coveted PMP certification already under his or her belt?

Translating military skills into business terms

Part of the White House's initiative to spur the private sector to hire 100,000 veterans by the end of 2013 is an array of services -- including Careers4Vets from AT&T, Elevate America's Veterans from Microsoft and US Military Pipeline from Futures Inc. -- that help veterans translate their military job codes and skills into terms that can be understood by corporate recruiters.

US Military Pipeline
US Military Pipeline helps veterans translate military roles into terms that can be understood by businesses.

The process works both ways, vets say. Rawlings, the former Army captain, admits that private-sector hiring managers probably wouldn't know without coaching that her FA 53 officer designation means she is an expert in network security.

By the same token, upon his discharge from the Navy, Jimmy Lamz was perplexed by corporate job titles that sound similar but actually vary widely in terms of responsibilities from company to company. "There is sales and inside sales and field sales," he observes. Then there's the kind of sales he's involved with at Siemens, which is more along the lines of technical field service support, he says.

Either way, says AT&T recruiter Rachel Book, the goal is to demystify the military résumé and the veteran's experience for recruiters and hiring managers. A "classic challenge is helping recruiters to get the candidate beyond a yes-sir/no-sir interview," she says. "We encourage behavioral interviewing to help draw them out, saying, 'Give me an example of time when you...'"

Norton, the Army reservist and longtime AT&T employee, recalls that he once attended a career fair where he spoke with a young veteran who described his experience as "served in the Navy, worked on Seahawk, honorably discharged, now in college." Only after Norton pressed him did the sailor share the kind of details that a hiring manager would find attractive: He had supervised a staff of 10 mechanics responsible for five helicopters that cost $20 million each, and he was then working toward a degree in applied mathematics at a well-respected college.

"There's a big difference there," Norton says. "You accrue some amazing attributes through your military service; you just can't always put a name on them."

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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