Corporate 100
Bridge of Skills
Connecting military veterans to civilian jobs
By Vanessa Orr
Lance Cpl. Alyssa Deputee | DVIDS

ife in uniform doesn’t always translate into relevant civilian work experience after military personnel finish their tours of duty. Fortunately, several programs and resources can help prepare for life after leaving the service.

“Not to be flip, but whether a person has served a few years or a lifetime in the military, it’s like being a teabag in water,” says Mary M. Rydesky, a professional coach who works with the federally funded Transition Assistance Program (TAP). “They’ve been imbued in the culture, and their whole identity is shaped by the expectations of the military and the community that supports them.”

Differences include some fundamental aspects that most workers take for granted. “While a civilian workplace culture is 8-to-5, in the military, the culture is 24-7,” Rydesky says. “Military personnel are brought up with expectations about the workplace, values, and performance.”

Rydesky notes that the civilian workplace tends to be “looser,” and often doesn’t have the same consequences that the military workplace does, even if the job is similar.

“If a boss tells an employee to do something and they don’t do it in the civilian workplace, what happens?” she asks. “There may not be a lot of recourse. If you do that in the military, you pay a price. That person may have to undergo counseling or find that that decision affects his or her career.”

The longer a person serves, the more entrenched the culture is. “People who have served fifteen to twenty years don’t know what they don’t know,” she says. “They expect the civilian workplace to be run on the same values and principles that they’ve followed, and they are taken aback when it is not. Even if someone has only been in a short time, they may still have trouble making the transition. They are looking for employers who respect the individual and will work to help them achieve their goals along with the company’s goals.”

Kenneth A. Hopkins Jr., contract installation manager for MKS2 Technologies and a contractor with TAP, adds that there are other issues as well, such as military personnel needing proper certifications to participate in trades.

“You can drive a truck for eighteen to twenty years in the military and not leave with a commercial driver’s license (CDL),” explains Hopkins, a US Army veteran. “In the civilian world, certain jobs require specific certifications and vocational requirements.”

Hopkins observes that military veterans and civilian employers might also experience a language barrier. “For example, if you were a squad leader of nine personnel, how does that translate to the civilian world?” he says. “There is also a lot of confusion about all of the acronyms that the military uses.”

No matter what type of position military members are trying to transition to—from lawyers, engineers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, project managers, government workers or upper management—making the change is a challenge that goes beyond skills and training acquired in uniform.

Tapping Valuable Experience
Over the last decade, the federal government has increased efforts to help transitioning service members (TSM) adjust to life after the military. TAP, for example, coincided with the 1991 Gulf War, when the government realized that homelessness and joblessness were higher in the veteran population than the general population. Congress started providing money and programs to help veterans find jobs as a result, and the program has grown from workshops and classrooms to connecting with counselors and navigators.

“Military bases now have whole teams with counseling backgrounds, training backgrounds, and in my case, community networking backgrounds, to help engage TSMs in business conversations to become more at ease in the civilian workplace culture,” says Rydesky. “This 360-degree approach is available to any service person, as well as to military families.”

Because these families move quite often, military spouses may have a difficult time in their careers, as their résumés seem to show a habit of turnover. TAP helps with job hunting, résumé writing, interviewing, and internship opportunities, among other things.

Rydesky adds that the more interaction a TSM has in programs focused on finding a job after military life, the better.

“You can’t change the mindset in one workshop; it’s a matter of time and application,” she says. “From the time a person enters the military, they should be thinking about the future; as far as the specific services I’ve mentioned, I recommend that they begin the process at least two years out from the time they will finish their tour of duty or expect to retire.”

Long lead time can be a luxury, though. “Many service members get out on short notice due to injury or something else that comes up that prevents them from staying in for as long as they wanted,” she adds. “Wherever they are, we pick them up.”

To this end, TAP has worked with USO Alaska to create a networking night once each quarter for military members in transition. Business managers and owners are invited to meet prospective job candidates in a social environment, and Rydesky says that the program has been very popular for participants on both sides of the career divide.

“The networking night provides a more comfortable atmosphere for the transitioner to hold a conversation with job providers before the words ‘résumé,’ ‘job,’ and ‘interview’ even start to come up,” she says. “It gives business owners a chance to meet-and-greet and get a sense of the person before having a job they need to fill and determining if that person can do the job.”

Placed with Partners
Transition assistance intensified in 2011 with the launch of SkillBridge. The program provides the chance for on-the-job training, job shadowing, specific industry training, apprenticeships, and internships in civilian workplaces during the last 180 days before discharge from the military. This is especially helpful to those going into the trades, as they can earn certifications before leaving the service.
Darehle Perry and Joseph Cooper working inside a V-22 Osprey
Inside a V-22 Osprey, US Marine Corps Sergeant Darehle Perry (left) and Joseph Cooper, a US Coast Guard veteran, inspect wiring while earning internship credit with SkillBridge. For Perry, the experience is a bridge into civilian helicopter repair, and Cooper secured a job maintaining C-130 cargo planes at the US Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center East in North Carolina.

Kimberly Koonce | DVIDS

“The program Troops for Transportation, for example, enables service members to get training to earn a CDL or any types of HAZMAT certifications they need,” says Hopkins. “It also serves as a pipeline to employers, bringing in carrier partners like Swift and Schneider who might hire from the graduating class. In the BMW MSTEP [Military Service Technical Education Program], Universal Technical Institute does all the training and BMW recruits from the graduating class.”

The program is not just open to veterans pursuing trade careers, though. Servicemen and women can find positions in a wide variety of fields, including healthcare, information technology (IT), accounting, project management, operations and logistics, content creation, ministry, music, and therapy and counseling, among others.

A handful of TSMs even learned the fine art of brewing thanks to placements with Zip Kombucha in Anchorage.

“While people often think that the military equals the trades, many TSMs have extensive experience in upper management, international relations, policy, finance, strategic planning, and more,” says Rydesky.

According to Hopkins, it’s a fairly simple process for both companies and military members who want to participate in SkillBridge to apply. The US Department of Defense has thousands of pre-approved companies on its SkillBridge website, where servicemembers can look for a specific type of job, or even search by location. If the company has not been pre-approved, a service member can reach out to express interest and refer the company to the SkillBridge program.

“For example, someone serving in the Army’s Human Resources Department could reach out to a potential employer like Arctic Slope Regional Corporation to see if they’d be willing to offer an internship,” says Hopkins.

In February, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development (DOLWD) officially became a SkillBridge partner. Service members can apply for DOLWD internship positions on the SkillBridge website by searching for “State of Alaska.”

DOLWD Commissioner-Designee Catherine Muñoz says, “I encourage Alaska’s industries to consider starting their own SkillBridge program.” She adds that the department is available to assist business applying with SkillBridge.

Positive Outcomes
Once an agreement for an internship, on-the-job training, or job shadowing is reached, the company signs a legal document agreeing to stipulations that include that the service member won’t work more for forty hours a week and that the job requires no out-of-pocket costs. The company also can’t use the SkillBridge participant to replace a paid employee.

The biggest advantage to the employer is that there is no cost to them, other than the time it takes to train the service member. SkillBridge participants are on nonchargeable administrative leave and are still receiving a military paycheck during that time.

“The company is not doing anything inappropriate from a human resources angle, and as the owner of a small company myself, I think it’s exciting to work with someone who is serious about working with me with the added benefit that it doesn’t adversely affect my bottom line,” says Rydesky.

According to Hopkins, the ideal outcome is that the service member completes the internship and is then offered a job by that company. In this regard, the program has been a success. In 2019, the Department of Defense reported an 85 percent hire rate, up from 83 percent the year before. The veteran unemployment rate in 2019 was 3.2 percent, according to the US Department of Labor, down from 9.9 percent in 2011 when the Skillbridge program was first authorized by Congress.

“In talking to business owners and TSMs who have been through the program at JBER [Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson], I’ve received a very high rate of positive feedback,” says Rydesky. In most cases, the company offers a position at the end of the internship, but if the participant ends up somewhere else, that could be part of the plan.

“Sometimes a service member does an internship for reasons other than to go to work for that company,” Rydesky adds. “They might want to experience a similar position in a different industry or gain some broader knowledge before going to work for a company that they’ve targeted beforehand. The person might also want to relocate.”

People Who Show Up
Hiring a veteran can benefit a business looking for the right type of employee.

“Service members bring unteachable skills to the job, like respect, courtesy, and adaptability,” says Hopkins. “They also understand the importance of wearing the proper attire, using safety gear, and being on time.”

Rydesky believes military experience imparts a “missing component” for veterans entering the civilian workforce. “They are the people who show up,” she says. “They keep their word. They are fully committed when on the job, and they don’t stop until the job is done.”

As an example, Rydesky cites a recent exchange she had with a human resources recruiter. “She had four interviews planned, which requires a certain amount of resources, money, and time,” she recalls. “Not one of the four civilians showed up. They ghosted the company. Service members are shocked when I tell them this happens!”

She adds that, while not everyone is the same, there is a much higher likelihood that an employee with a military background has internalized the values of doing a job fully, which means being there, doing the job without distraction, and getting the job done.

Crying Out for Personnel
This type of commitment is especially important in Alaska, where job openings far outnumber applicants. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Alaska’s job openings rate was 7.6 percent as of September 2023, compared to a national average of 5.7 percent.

“We’re not even talking about jobs that require technical backgrounds. No matter what the job is, from technology to IT to healthcare to restaurant cooks and Slope workers, business owners are lamenting the lack of the quality component that assures them that a new employee is going to do the job,” says Rydesky. “Businesses are crying out for good personnel.”

In addition to finding the right fit for their businesses, Rydesky says companies benefit from service members talking to others about their transition experience. If other service members are interested, they can be introduced to the owner by the person completing the internship.

“That service member is no longer an anonymous applicant, which is what the computerized method of hiring has turned us into,” says Rydesky.

While many companies and servicemen and women are taking advantage of SkillBridge and other resources, Rydesky says many more could benefit.

“It grieves me that we’ve got this gap between jobs and the workforce to fill those jobs, which affects the growth of our local and state economies,” she says. “Here is a program that is a low-risk opportunity to fill that gap for businesses small and large. We have companies in need and people who have been trained for years coming out into the workforce, and we need to match them up.”