These days Brandon Bear, a 32-year-old veteran of the Iraq surge, reports to work at a gleaming glass-and-stone office building in downtown Manhattan, Kan.
He manages 45 to 50 projects for Civic Plus, a company that builds websites for municipalities in North America and Australia. The daylight-flooded, open plan office has a hip Google-esque vibe with Skittles-colored walls, a cappuccino bar, kegerator, massage chairs and a nap pod — a far cry from Army-issue cubicles at Fort Riley or base camp in Iraq.
But getting the job was nearly as daunting as anything Bear endured in the Army — and it makes him one of the lucky ones.
Of 2.3 million post-9/11 veterans — a number that will balloon to 4 million over the coming 10 years — 9 percent are unemployed, according to a March 2014 report from Bureau of Labor Statistics. Joblessness for Bear’s generation of vets has been consistently 2 percent higher than the national average and higher than for Vietnam vets or vets from the first Gulf War.
As the largest drawdown in forces since Vietnam grinds on, experts worry our most recent warrior class could become a welfare class if military leaders and private business owners don’t break down the barriers veterans face when competing for civilian jobs.
Ten miles down the road from Manhattan, Fort Riley is discharging 200 to 300 soldiers a month.
“There’s a lot at stake. For every vet that doesn’t transition, we all pay their unemployment and social services,” says Art DeGroat, director of military and veterans affairs for Kansas State University. The college is the first in the country to create an office dedicated to serving military students and the military population of its state.
“The military does a great job at training men and women to be the best soldiers in the world, but once they leave the military, they are really, really obsolete,” DeGroat says.
Worse yet: They don’t know it.
A jarring transition
Three years ago, shortly after leaving active duty, Bear was sitting across a table from of a panel of three interviewers, struggling to maintain his composure.
For months, the tall, handsome Ranger School graduate had been sending out resumes from his computer into the void, or so it seemed.
The lack of response had been demoralizing, but this was worse — getting crushed in an interview for an entry-level parole officer job in Junction City. His inquisitors were firing off questions about corrections-specific communication techniques.
“I told them I didn’t know what they were talking about and pulled out a notebook and started taking notes until they were done grilling me,” Bear recalls.
When he left the building, he remembers throwing his hands in the air and thinking, “What next?”
Bear toyed with the idea of becoming a full-time cage fighter. He had been the all-Army champion twice and had won four straight pro matches since getting out.
“It was easier to do that than go stand in front of a panel and answer questions about myself,” he says.
The problem, DeGroat contends, is that the game has changed.
For 30 years prior to 2000, the main employers of veterans had been defense-related companies that provided products and services to the military. Veterans’ skills were directly applicable to those jobs.
Today, the employers are tech companies and financial services providers.
Last year DeGroat, a former Army lieutenant colonel, wrote a report on reintegration of post-9/11 vets. The report, which was read by Pentagon leaders and top academics around the country, outlined the economic and sociological obstacles facing vets. DeGroat criticized the Army’s mandatory transition program, and labeled as ineffective the legions of nonprofit organizations promising to connect vets to jobs.
“It’s depressing,” Bear says. “The Army tells you you are this great person and you have all these cool skills and everybody is going to want you. And then you find out nobody wants you.”
Adding salt to the wound is a stark wage gap.
The men and women who served in America’s longest war are coming home to discover a military-civilian pay gap of 30 percent on average, DeGroat says.
In late 2013, after a three-year full-time posting with the National Guard that had come through following the disastrous Junction City interview, Bear was job-hunting again. DeGroat, who had taken Bear under his wing, had a lead on a midlevel job at a specialty food manufacturer in Manhattan that paid $29,000.
Bear had earned about $80,000 as an Army captain and the same in the full-time Guard job.
Bear has a family to support. He left the service so he could share custody of a daughter in Manhattan, then married and had two more children.
“I did the math. If I took a job making $29,000 and I had a mortgage to pay and a car payment and my wife and three kids to support … I can’t live on that,” Bear says.
Bear was an officer, but even a junior enlisted soldier at the E-4 specialist rank, the lowest rank a soldier would likely be exiting with after four years, makes $45,179 to $46,300 per year, according to the Army. Most entry-level civilian positions for workers without experience is $22,000 to $28,000.
That gap creates an economic incentive for soldiers to draw unemployment and file disability claims. Fifty percent of post-9/11 veterans are drawing between 30 percent and 50 percent VA disability compensation — $5,805 to $11,522 per year for an E-4 vet with a spouse and child.
In Kansas, the maximum unemployment compensation for ex-service members is $21,840 (in Missouri, it is $16,640). So the average soldier who draws 30 percent to 50 percent disability can get $31,000 to $33,000 combined unemployment and disability in Kansas for 99 weeks (when unemployment compensation runs out), or more than an entry-level job would pay.
Relying on that system can only drain the country of resources and employable citizens. That may be a reason why the unemployment compensation benefit expired Jan. 1 and bills introduced to extend it have not passed. It’s also why DeGroat is using Manhattan, the fastest-growing city in Kansas, as a laboratory to develop a mentoring network that connects new vets from Fort Riley to vets who have successfully transitioned into civilian jobs.
A head-to-toe transformation
At an early coaching session with DeGroat at a local coffeehouse, Bear showed up wearing nice jeans and a shirt “you would wear to a nightclub,” DeGroat recalls.
DeGroat told Bear he needed a suit and gave him a copy of Brooks Brothers’ “Guide to Being a Gentleman” to help him crack the code on what kind of attire is appropriate and when.
Veterans often struggle with the subtle differences between dressing for an interview, a normal workday, “casual Fridays” and after-hours socializing.
Bear studied the book and went to a store DeGroat recommended.
“Spending the money on that suit was scary. My wife asked, ‘What are you doing spending this much money on a suit?’ And the suit is just part of it. Then you need a white shirt, and shoes and socks and a tie. It could end up costing you $500 to $1,000 to get dressed for an interview,” Bear says.
And looking the part is just the start.
Bear remembers laboring over countless rewrites of his Army-coached resume. Everyone he showed it to agreed that at three pages, it was too long and too riddled with military jargon. But he wasn’t sure which parts to cut, which words to replace.
At his church, Bear found the right person to receive his resume: Katrina Lewison, who manages project managers at Civic Plus. Lewison, a former Army captain as well, also had a rocky transition.
After an unsuccessful first job that lasted less than a year, Lewison turned to DeGroat because he had mentored her husband, also a former captain. After she started at Civic Plus, she found that coaching the other vets on staff gave her the sense of service that she had been missing since leaving the Army.
“I think if you are a vet who has made a successful trans you have an obligation to help fellow former service members to make that transition as well,” she says.
Lewison understood Bear’s struggle but pulled no punches in private coaching sessions at her home, telling him, “You’ve got to step up your game.”
She gave him documents on how to prep for interviews. She told him he needed a 30-second elevator speech to sell himself. “You have to be able to do it without flinching,” she said.
Later, Lewison invited Bear back for a mock interview.
“That went horribly,” Bear recalls.
He had prepared by focusing on his military accomplishments. Asked to tell his personal story and how his skills would benefit Civic Plus, Bear froze. Lewison told him he was not ready.
“She said, ‘It’s not enough that you tell them you deployed with a unit. You have to tell them how you planned for that process, how you resourced it, how you executed it and how at the end you made it better.’ I didn’t do that,” he says.
Deflated, Bear went home and studied some more, trying harder to understand what a project manager position at Civic Plus required. He practiced his elevator speech in front of a mirror. He asked his wife to ask him questions.
His struggle was typical, DeGroat says, because military culture always places the unit above the individual, whereas self-promotion is required to land a civilian job.
It’s not just a matter of style but of substance. Especially for combat veterans, whose skills and experience do not line up with what employers seek.
“How do you say in a civilian interview that you went to an M-4 range and 90 percent of your soldiers shot expert?” Bear says. “Who cares about that in the civilian world? It sounds like you were out playing around with weapons.”
The Army, which gets billed for soldiers’ unemployment, is working to improve its transition assistance program.
Col. Adam Rocke, special assistant to the chief of staff of the Army at the Pentagon and director of the Army’s “Soldier for Life” program, says the Army has increased the number of transition counselors from 225 to 700 to allow more one-to-one contact.
In addition, responding to criticism that counselors were ex-military personnel with scant knowledge of the civilian world, Rocke says the Army now requires counselors to have civilian work experience.
The Army also has changed its resume coaching, Rocke says. “That was a deficiency we identified and have worked to improve. We have learned a lot from industry about resume writing.”
DeGroat welcomes the improvements but says some of the expertise required, such as knowledge of private sector hiring practices and resocialization theory, lies outside the Army’s core competencies.
On the job
After Bear got the job in July with the help of Lewison’s coaching, he discovered fitting into the ultra-casual culture at Civic Plus was another mission into uncharted territory.
“If I see (Civic Plus owner) Ward Morgan in the hall, I’ll say, ‘hi,’ but I’m not going to say, ‘Hey, Ward. I’ve been thinking, and I don’t think your strategic goals are what they should be. I think you should do something else.’ I’m not comfortable doing that,” Bear says.
“But people keep telling me if I want to get ahead, I need to communicate that with directors and other departments, and put my ideas in front of them,” he says.
That difficulty in ignoring hierarchy is typical for vets and can hinder advancement. Bear, like many vets, is also uncomfortable asking for help when he needs it.
“In the Army people are not running around asking for help. It’s more like, ‘You should know how to do this so figure it out.’ Asking for help in the military feels like showing incompetence,” he explains.
On the flip side, it’s also hard to learn how to work independently, says Shane Pope, another veteran working as a project manager at Civic Plus.
“(In) the military there is always somebody over you to manage you,” Pope says. “In this job I have 40 or 50 projects to manage, and they trust me to make decisions. It took me a while to get over wanting to back-brief people.”
Bear is also still adjusting to the very different communications style.
“In the military you don’t worry about hurting people’s feelings. Here you need to think about what you say, when you say it and how you say it. I had to make a conscious effort not to cut to the chase. I had been told by my mentors, ‘You cannot do that,’ but it’s been difficult,” Bear says.
Military culture dictates that a good solution today is better than perfect solution tomorrow, says Rich Crowley, a vet who works on some of DeGroat’s projects as a contractor. “Brandon’s immediate problem-solving approach is so different that all his experience at managing programs in the military isn’t only irrelevant, it is almost counterproductive,” Crowley says.
If Bear makes it two years at Civic Plus, he will have beaten the odds.
Statistics show a majority of vets do not succeed in their first job after active duty. DeGroat believes the key to preventing those failures, which damage the vet’s confidence and make employers gun-shy about hiring vets, is mentoring vets before they go out on interviews so the vet can get a job that is a good fit.
DeGroat works with commanders at Fort Riley to identify promising exiting soldiers. After screening and coaching the candidates, he hosts off-base events to connect them with large companies — including Cargill, Garmin, Westar Energy and Edward Jones — that have a history of recruiting at K-State.
Despite the gulf in culture and skills between vets and civilian workplaces, DeGroat says veterans bring three valuable qualities to any job: integrity, interpersonal skills and a fierce work ethic. For employers willing to invest in them, the payoff can be large.
A sound investment
Edward Jones, the financial services firm out of St. Louis, knows this.
The company has been hiring veterans as financial advisers for more than 30 years.
“You have to have integrity for someone to trust you with their money, and you have to have great interpersonal skills to be able to deal with all kinds of clients,” says Mike Mohr, military talent acquisition manager for Edward Jones and a vet himself. “Vets are very polite and formal and hardworking. It is a good fit for us.”
The firm estimates it spends up to $100,000 per veteran on training, money that it believes is well spent.
“Out of 12,000 advisers nationwide, 12 percent are veterans and they perform extremely well for us,” Mohr says.
At Civic Plus, human resources director Tara Greskoviak says her company has 14 veterans on its staff of 190.
“It’s not so much that we prioritize hiring vets, it’s that we don’t discriminate against them,” Greskoviak says. “You have to open your mind and look at it deeper. Give them a few minutes of your time to talk about what they have done. Try to figure out how the tasks they oversaw in the military might transfer — managing equipment is like managing a budget or a project.”
Most of the vets at Civic Plus are project managers, Greskoviak said, and that has been a good fit because they manage stress well.
Company owner Morgan said he is aware that most vets coming out of Fort Riley were transplanted there and might not stay long.
“We just took the tack that if we get two years out of a military spouse or a veteran who then realized this just isn’t the area for them, we had two great years from them,” he says.
But Greskoviak says so far retention rates for vets have been about the same as for nonvets.
DeGroat challenges companies that have hired vets to go further. “I ask them, ‘How many vets in your company are empowered to go find five more veterans?’”
For instance, veterans now in civilian jobs can help recruiters by distilling those five-page resumes from military applicants, DeGroat says.
“Only the top 2 percent in the military go to Ranger School like Brandon Bear did,” he says. “But if you don’t know what Ranger School is, you wouldn’t recognize that this guy’s a 2 percenter. You might just think he’s wearing the wrong stuff, saying the wrong stuff and ‘yes, ma’aming’ you to death.”
The key to picking vets who will work out, research indicates, is looking for the same character traits that have been shown to be universal predictors of success: optimism, persistence and self-discipline.
“Brandon Bear has all of those. He doesn’t know how to fail, he just needs coaching,” DeGroat says.
And his story is proof that with the right resources, vets have much to contribute. They can shine as working warriors.
Where to go for help
Vets in Kansas looking for job placement and resume assistance can go to Kansasworks, kansasworks.com, or call the workforce centers at 913-279-2600 in Kansas City, Kan., or 785-350-4920 in Manhattan. Vets in any state can call U.S. Dept of Labor Veteran's Employment and Training Service at 785-783-8264.