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Workzone: Returning vets are seeing new options

Serving in the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit in the early 1990s, Brian Marzka was part of a special operations crew tasked with counterterrorism missions that sometimes left the members outnumbered with only weapons and their collective wits on their side.

Nearly two decades later as a sales representative for a Pittsburgh office furniture company, Mr. Marzka was part of a team of individual players who were ready — and sometimes anxious — to poach potential clients from his portfolio.

“Office politics was easily the hardest thing I had to deal with during my 18 years in the civilian workforce. It’s not necessarily done from a standpoint of honesty and integrity,” said Mr. Marzka, who is now president and CEO of his own office furniture company Natural Office Solutions in Carnegie.

Transitioning from a unit of one with a targeted mission to a company of hundreds with diverging goals is only one hurdle faced by returning servicemen looking to re-enter the civilian workforce. A lack of networking resources, handling an emphasis on personal accomplishments outside of groups, and even going from the desert sun to an air-conditioned cubicle can be jarring in ways that prevent some of the nation’s hardest workers from landing jobs after they’re relieved from duty.

With veterans deployed since September 2001 bearing a 9 percent unemployment rate in 2013, compared to a high of 7.9 percent in January and a low of 6.7 percent in December for the overall population, addressing the disconnect between what veterans offer and what civilian employers need is critical, said Lida Citroen, reputation manager and author of “Your Next Mission: A Personal Branding Guide for the Military-to-Civilian Transition.”

“I want to teach veterans to crack open their personal brand and take an individual approach to their stories. It’s about getting men and women who are so used to working together to remind themselves that they are human beings with passions and dreams, and to tap into that. We need to get them to say, ‘Who do I want to be for the rest of my life?’ ” she said.

After helping more than 200 veterans over the past five years, Mrs. Citroen said job seekers have asked about everything from explaining vital skills without discussing classified assignments to making small talk over the water cooler.

The need for a crash course in the civilian workforce hasn’t been lost on the federal government, which has revamped its Transition Assistance Program to include discussing career options, providing some skills training and connecting veterans and their families into a job database as early as a year before they are released from duty.

In April, the departments of Veteran Affairs, Defense, Labor and Education and the Office of Personnel Management launched the Veterans Employment Center, a one-stop job searching shop that links private sector employers hoping to hire former service members with veterans on the job hunt.

In only two months, the site has already attracted 102,781 unique users and added 1.2 million jobs to its database. More than 700 employers are registered to hire from the database, and 116 of those have made a commitment to hire 131,336 veterans, according to Rosye Cloud, Veterans Benefits Administration senior adviser for veterans employment.

For Mr. Marzka and other veterans, creating opportunities through small business is becoming an increasingly viable option, according to Ray Vargo, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Small Business Development Center.

Mr. Vargo said the center waives fees for veterans seeking to take its classes on the mechanics of starting a business or business plan development. He estimated around 15 percent of clients that come through the center in an average year are veterans, but said it’s mostly due to an inherent sense of leadership rather than being locked out of the civilian workforce.

Noting that 95 percent of transitioning service members from 2012-13 found jobs in the civilian workforce within 22 weeks, Mrs. Cloud said veterans want to make a living but also seek out jobs that help them make an impact, whether its with an existing employer or on their own.

“Veterans want to work, they want to connect to companies and to the employment opportunities out there; they are always seeking opportunities to add value and serve the country, just in a in a different way,” she said.
 

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