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From Soldier to Civilian


by Stephany Shings Below, Communications Manager

SIOP Member Project Aims at Helping Transition Ex-Military Personnel to Civilian Jobs

Although unemployment can affect any worker, those returning from military service can find transitioning to the civilian workforce especially difficult. A new effort by SIOP members, called the Military Transition Project, aims at helping members of the military translate their skills and abilities so they can utilize their experiences and expertise in the corporate world.

The U.S. military is currently experiencing its largest demobilization in history. The conclusion of the war in Iraq and deescalation of fighting in Afghanistan combined with budgetary downsizing of the armed forces is pushing tens of thousands of service members out of the military. Most of these individuals will look for civilian employment, but their prospects do not look good: Veterans of the military are experiencing an unemployment rate higher than their civilian counterparts. The unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001—a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans—was 12.1% in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the jobless rate for all veterans was 8.3%.

Part of the reason for this unemployment is the difficulty they have translating their military experiences into competencies that civilian employers can understand, explained SIOP Member Nathan Ainspan, senior personnel psychologist for the U.S. Army, and leader of the Military Transition Project. Further, military personnel often lack an understanding of the civilian job search process and organizations’ hiring processes. SIOP members are uniquely positioned to provide help in these areas, Ainspan explained.

He is currently seeking SIOP members to help with a short-term pilot program to conduct a proof-of-concept effort for this type of project. The project team includes co-chairs Megan Leasher (Macy's), Jessica Gallus (Army Research Institute), Michael Keeney (Aptima) and Michael ("Dr. Woody") Woodward (Doctorwoody.com) and they are working closely with divisions 18 and 19 of the American Psychological Association as well.

During the program, volunteers will be paired with veterans and will advise them on how to translate their military experience to concepts that are relevant to the civilian workforce. The lessons learned from this pilot, Ainspan explained, will be used to scale up the project to include more SIOP volunteers.

If you would like to volunteer for the pilot program, please send a resume and a brief statement of interest to Nathan Ainspan at sioptransition@ainspan.com.

Ainspan said this type of project comes at an important time.

“Thousands of veterans are having a difficult time finding employment,” he explained. "Most of these individuals are used to having a sense of purpose in their lives so the lack of a job is hitting them hard. We are seeing more veterans dying by suicide than dying on the battlefield and hypothesize that the depression caused by unemployment is a root cause of suicide. We’re not just going to help the brave men and women who volunteered to put their lives on the line to protect ours but we may even help to save their lives.”

The project began a few months ago when Ainspan raised the idea to (then-President) Adrienne Colella for ways that SIOP could help transition ex-military members into the civilian workforce, he explained.

“I wanted to use my I-O skills to make an impact,” he adds. “I had led job searching workshops and coaching sessions before and wanted to do these with veterans. Then I realized that rather than working alone with a handful of veterans I could work with other I-O psychologists through SIOP and have a much larger impact on hundreds of service members and their families.”

Ainspan explained that his background in the military and disabilities began in 2003, when he began working at the Department of Labor with the Office of Disability Employment Policy.

“It was there that I started to look into research on the psychosocial benefits of employment on disabilities and even as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder,” he explained. “It was also there that I started to meet wounded veterans and was just impressed with the skills that they could bring to the private sector. I realized the skills and benefits they could bring to employers and what many employers were missing by not hiring veterans and people with disabilities. I started to do seminars at SIOP about the advantages of hiring veterans and people with disabilities can have to employees.”

He also felt SIOP members would be uniquely qualified to work with returning veterans.

“I realized that the skill we have is the one that is sorely needed out there,” he explained. “One of the hardest problems that veterans have with getting civilian jobs is describing their qualities and skills in KSA’s (knowledge, skills and abilities) or competencies that an HR person or recruiter will understand. As I-O psychologists this is second nature to us. We can help the veterans with one of their biggest problems with skills that we almost take for granted.”

As professionals, SIOP members are trained to see beyond the labels of tasks that occur in a type of job to look at the human requirements, added SIOP President Doug Reynolds, who encouraged Ainspan to submit his proposal to the SIOP Executive Board.

“I-Os are trained to look at jobs in terms of behavioral characteristics,” he added. “So they can be excellent translators of military experience into civilian language because they are used to thinking about jobs in very human, behavioral terms.”

At the time Reynolds heard about Ainspan’s idea, he said he was working on his presidential objectives for the coming year.

“This program fit nicely with other things that I wanted to fold into my agenda for the coming year, seeing SIOP support more programs for public interest benefit,” Reynolds said. “It’s good timing. This is an issue of national attention, and President Obama has an initiative related to it. This is an opportunity for SIOP to help with an issue of national importance. Plus, it creates another avenue for SIOP to be more visible by supporting work like this.”

Ainspan explained many of the problems veterans encounter in their job searches deal with differences between the military culture and corporate culture. Despite their strong work ethic and specific technical skills, returning veterans face unique challenges in their transition to civilian work.

“A lot of times it might be the culture,” he explained. “In the military there is a pronounced hierarchy and that’s not the case in many organizations. Also, in the military you live and work closely with people with whom you share the same language, traits, and outlook. Just think of what a corporate environment can be like with people from a wide range of backgrounds.

Other issues can be less obvious.

“Frequently military personnel talk in acronyms that civilian recruiters will not understand” Ainspan explained. “They also can become guilty of what I call the ‘just and only’ monster, where they will say ‘I was just a blank or only a blank,’ not realizing all of the skills that were involved in that the tasks they performed in service. Leaving the military and going to work in the civilian world can be like visiting a different country with its own culture and language.

On the employer’s side, some employers may have fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the military, Ainspan explained. Some companies might not understand the way someone from the military might think or how well they fit in, for example. Sometimes veterans may be seen as too rigid in a culture that is very flexible. There are also issues for those who are disabled, Ainspan added. With posttraumatic stress disorder, for example, the employer may be hesitant or not think it’s possible for someone to do a specific task.

But overall, Ainspan added, service members possess a wide variety of skills that may be beneficial to employers, such as dedication to mission, loyalty, extensive training and character traits, showing up, respecting authority, and getting a job done without complaints.

“Those are things that virtually any company is looking for in its people,” he said.

Ainspan explained that the current task is to gather a few SIOP volunteers to work with 20 service members to make sure the model works and that the training is understandable, and to work out the details for how the project will operate. He has contacts with the VA and other veterans service organizations to connect with veterans who would be good candidates for the program.

Although other organizations have offered benefits to returning military members, Ainspan said he wants to stress to potential clients and SIOP volunteers that the project is not part of the VA or Department of Defense.

“Some veterans have negative feelings toward government agencies so one advantage SIOP’s program has is that we are not affiliated with the government. We are completely independent and we will call it like it is to do what we can to help the veterans. We have the flexibility that we are not tied to any specific model, program, or agency. We’re just there to work with to the veteran and provide guidance based on our research, our understanding of work, and our experience in practice. ”

Ainspan said he and his team are encouraging SIOP members to volunteer even if they have no experience with the military or coaching. The training will provide volunteers with a basic understanding of the military. Volunteers do not need a lot of years of experience working in personnel selection, he said, though they do need a good understanding of competencies and related topics.

“We’re going to try to teach our volunteers to interact with the service member and how to make the connection to them,” he added. “If they are geographically in the same area we would encourage face-to-face meetings, but if not email and phone should work fine.”

Reynolds said he is confident SIOP members will step up to the plate to help with this project.

“I have noticed that SIOP members tend to be involved in projects like this at a much higher rate than people assume, he said. “We put a question on the last member survey to get some data about how many SIOP members are involved in a project for public interest or humanitarian causes and we found that 25% of the respondents said that they had. So that provides a little more evidence that there is a fair amount of activity going on.”
However, he said, as an organization, SIOP can do more to support or encourage those kind of efforts. He hopes this project will give the Society the chance to do just that, while also increasing visibility of what I-O psychologists can do for society.
Ainspan plans to conduct the pilot project over the next few months.
“For me, I just think it is exciting, because this ties into the outreach of what I-Os do and the value they bring,” he added. “This is so clear that we can have an impact and a major purpose on the lives of veterans and their families I believe that we as I/O psychologists have a unique opportunity to use the skills we all have to have a positive impact on the our fellow citizens who volunteered to serve, help their families, repay them with our gratitude, and help our nation address one of the most serious problems it is facing with unemployed and under-utilized veterans.”

Contact Nathan Ainspan at sioptransition@ainspan.com for more information, or to volunteer for the Military Transition Project.