Laid-off sailors say job firm hired by Navy a waste of time, money
When the Navy announced last year that it would eliminate the jobs of 3,000 enlisted sailors, it did something unprecedented - it turned to the private sector to help them find jobs.
The Navy paid Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based placement firm, $5 million to provide career coaches, job leads, resume help and other services to the affected sailors, who spent seven to 15 years in uniform.
That's the equivalent of $1,666 per sailor.
It was a waste of money, say at least a half-dozen members of the service who worked with Challenger - and a waste of their time.
"If I hadn't contacted them, I think I would have been farther along than I am now," said George McKay, 34, of Chesapeake, a Navy veteran of nearly 15 years whose job as an electronics maintenance supervisor ended Saturday in the ERB - Enlisted Retention Board - reductions.
McKay, who is looking for a job, said the resume and interview workshops provided by the Navy's Fleet and Family Support Program "were a lot more beneficial than what Challenger offered."
At one point, McKay said, his contact at Challenger said she'd call him back in two weeks. He didn't hear from her for three months. The job postings Challenger sent, McKay said, were the same as those he got from the Navy or found on usajobs.gov. And his rewritten resume came back to him "so full of stuff that was completely pointless" - including pistol- and rifle-shooting awards - "it was driving me crazy."
McKay said he knows a handful of others who dealt with Challenger.
All of them, he said, had negative experiences. "We all sat around laughing about the resume."
Five ex-sailors offered similar critiques in recent interviews. However, three other Navy personnel whose names were provided by Challenger spokesman James Pedderson offered a positive take on the company's assistance.
Omari Moultrie, an eight-year veteran with the Navy, started a job last month as an electronics technician with Northrop Grumman Corp., one of the companies that Challenger told him had openings.
Moultrie said he benefited from Challenger's help polishing his resume and preparing for interviews.
"I knew that a few people were unhappy," said Moultrie, 26, of Virginia Beach. "But I had great rapport with my job coach. I think if you didn't meet them halfway or do your part, there was only so much they could do."
Capt. Kate Janac, the Navy's transitional assistance coordinator at the Pentagon, said Challenger "worked with us as partners to make this the best product we could provide the sailors." Janac said 2,150 sailors used the services. "Several hundred" reported finding new jobs, she said, though she thinks the actual number is much higher.
Pedderson, in an email, called it "an unprecedented effort" for the firm and the Navy. "We, along with the Navy, continually addressed issues and made adjustments as the process evolved."
Part of the problem, he wrote, was the early misconception "that CGC is a headhunter or a placement service, and we are not." The firm has helped sailors hone their interviewing skills and resumes and informed them of suitable job openings, "but it was up to them to pursue."
Eric Clevinger, a former aviation electronics technician, said, however, that Challenger officials early on "said they would... find us jobs. So, yes, we were under the assumption that they were a placement/headhunter service."
Clevinger said he tried unsuccessfully to get help from Challenger. Emails often went without response. Phone appointments would be missed or delayed. The coach repeatedly got Clevinger's name wrong, calling him "Lee," and spent more time promoting his success in placing people in presidential administrations than strategizing with Clevinger on his job hunt.
Like McKay, Clevinger thought the resume Challenger wrote for him was bloated and ineffective. "I'm still hearing stories from people that just got their resume back from CGC after waiting months for it," he said. "The Navy made a huge mistake in using them."
He said he stopped contacting Challenger and instead went to a local office of Bradley-Morris Inc., a placement firm that, unlike Challenger, specializes in finding work for exiting military personnel. With Bradley-Morris' free help, Clevinger said, he went on 15 interviews, compared with none from Challenger, and landed a job.
He moved last month from Chesapeake to Northern Virginia to start work as a manufacturing technician.
Tim Best, senior vice president with Bradley-Morris in Norfolk, said the firm has worked with a "ton" of candidates who were forced out as a result of the retention board, though it doesn't track the number.
Best said he's not familiar with Challenger's work. "When people come to us, they don't say, 'Hey, so-and-so hasn't been able to help me,' " Best said. "It's more like, 'I need your help,' and we take it from there."
Challenger, founded in the mid-1960s, describes itself on its website as "the nation's first, oldest and premier outplacement consulting organization," helping "executives, middle managers and long-term or highly valued employees."
Its CEO, John Challenger, is often quoted in newspapers and on radio, and the company releases a steady stream of news releases on subjects ranging from seasonal hiring estimates to the cost to businesses of fantasy-football distraction. (Challenger pegged it at $6.5 billion.)
It had not worked before with active-duty military members, but it bid for the $5 million contract "to help these sailors, who voluntarily served our country, navigate this difficult transition," Pedderson said. The Navy chose Challenger over about four other bidders, Janac said, based in part on its experience and the services it offered.
Nearly all of the interactions with sailors have been over the phone, they said. But Challenger has held workshops and job fairs locally.
Jaret Barber, a 13-year Navy veteran who said his "job coach" has been a big help, thinks more of his colleagues should have taken advantage of the workshops. When Barber, 31, of Norfolk attended a session, "I thought it would be jam-packed, but I was the only person who showed up for the class."
Others offered different complaints about attendance. Jeremy Snipes, 40, of Virginia Beach and Adam Worden, 31, of Chesapeake said the job fairs have featured only three or four companies.
Snipes, an aviation electronics technician whose last day was Saturday, said the number of job listings has increased since June. But Jacob Wiley, 30, said most of the listings he received had nothing to do with his field - welding. Wiley and his family moved last month from Norfolk to Rochester, N.Y., where he found a job through Craigslist.
Most of the 3,000 sailors cut under ERB left the Navy as of Saturday. Because the Navy can provide placement services only to active-duty personnel, Janac said, the help from Challenger will end for them. Their last day to contact coaches will be Friday, Pedderson said. They won't be able to access a website designed by Challenger for the sailors after Sept. 19.
Challenger will continue its services for those yet to leave, Janac said.
The ERB reductions stung many of those targeted, confounding their belief in their job security and the quality of their work.
"I thought I was safe," said Worden, an aviation structural mechanic with more than 11 years in the Navy. "I'm not the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I was important there. I did a job nobody else could do."
Their frustration with Challenger's services - and its $5 million fee - has fueled the bitterness. Clevinger said the Navy should have spent it on its own transition programs or with a company such as Bradley-Morris with a track record of placing military personnel.
Snipes said, "If they're giving money away, why can't they give me some of it?"