Olathe & Southwest Joco

Intern program helps soldiers transition away from military life

After spending six years in the military, Sgt. Richard Karlson felt like a stranger in his own career.

When the computer whiz started looking for a job earlier this year, he was a bit alarmed. The world hadn’t stood still for the former network administrator while he proudly served his country.

The technology Karlson knew so well became obsolete, fast.

But now thanks to a new military program, his skills won’t be.

Karlson is the first one out of Fort Leavenworth to participate in the Soldier for Life program, allows soldiers to intern in their chosen career while still serving in the military.

Since this summer, Karlson has been interning at the city of Olathe’s information technology department.

Two days a week, the IT staff teaches him everything he needs to know, in all areas of computers. They give him freedom to explore on his own as well. The experience has been a life-saver, he said.

“I now feel like I have more confidence going into job interviews,” Karlson said. “I’m not as nervous about that gap in my career any more, because I’m better prepared.”

Chris Kelly, the city’s information technology director, said the IT department jumped at the chance to bring Karlson under its wing because it’s a great way to support the military and help one of its own at the same time.

“Soldier for Life is just such a great program, it’s priceless,” said Kelly. “I was never in the military, but I can imagine the trepidation Rick is going through. He’s come back to an entirely different culture.”

Since Karlson left the field in 2008, the technological landscape has drastically evolved, Kelly said.

For instance, he said, Microsoft has undergone dramatic changes. And in 2008, tablets weren’t even around. Now, everyone seems to have one.

“We didn’t even deal with mobile phones at the time,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t even a thought.”

Coming up to speed, however, is a normal part of the job.

“There is no room for boredom in this field,” Kelly said. “Even our own staff is constantly refreshing their knowledge because technology and its architecture are always evolving. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to learn, you should probably choose a different line of work.”

Studying the recent changes, particularly focusing on smartphones, has been fascinating to Karlson.

“I’m really happy I got the opportunity to work here,” he said. “The city has an array of technology I can explore. My transition into the workforce definitely wouldn’t be as easy without it.”

Without the program, Karlson would be studying all this new technology on his own, which would have been extremely time-consuming and difficult.

To be able to do it through the military has been a blessing for his family, he added.

Karlson has two grown daughters. He also has six children under the age of 9, plus another on the way.

The family man from Colorado had originally joined the military in 1993, but when he suddenly became a single father two years later, he left the service. Remarried and expanding his family, he rejoined the military in 2008 to finish his duties.

“I’m able to have a life with my family right now,” he said. “Otherwise, I’d be learning all of this technology completely on my own. This internship means I don’t have to choose between playing with my kids and studying.”

He’s also grateful that the military has his back.

“A lot of soldiers get out of the military and end up unemployed and even homeless,” he said. “A program like this can really help prevent that.”

When his internship ends in February, city staff will be sad to see him go.

“Rick is a quick learner and he invests himself in the process,” Kelly said. “He has the aptitude and he’s been a good solid fit for us. He’s blended right into the group.”

The feeling of respect is mutual. Karlson has grown fond of Olathe, and although he plans to go where a job takes him, he would definitely stay in the area, if that was a possibility.

“I’m thankful to the city of Olathe,” he said. “I don’t think they realize what a big deal this is for my family, but it’s huge.”