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Student Veterans Face Tough Employment Market

USF Student Veteran Workshop. Photo: Bobbie O'Brien
USF Student Veteran Workshop. Photo: Bobbie O'Brien

Despite the improving economy, finding a job or establishing a career remains a challenge and will be especially so for the million or more military service members expected to transition to civilian life in the next few years.

So, the University of South Florida Office of Veteran Services created the Veterans Employment Project, thanks to a grant from the JP Morgan & Chase Company, to prepare USF student veterans for the competitive civilian market.

Russ Barnes, a retired Air Force colonel with 27 years of service, designed the program. More than 30 student veterans applied, but he he needs to keep the sessions small to provide one-on-one help.

So, he prioritized the applicants with a survey. Those who scored 10 out of 10 as “urgent” that they find a job in the next three months were accepted first.

“We want to solve that right now,” Barnes said. “They’re urgent. We want to get them right now.”

The employment project he created is not the typical workshop. Barnes turns things upside down. Instead of starting with resume writing, he ends with it. He begins by focusing the veterans on their passion, their ideal career or job.

Then, he guides them working backward, identifying their industry of interest, researching companies, and then honing their resume to fit the job description.

By the end of day one, Barnes had the six student veterans in his August session signed up on Linked In. They had to join a professional group in their area of interest, researched companies and made personal connections with people working in their desired profession.

Joshua Gleaton spent more than four years in the Army as a forward observer. The former sergeant is completing a degree in criminology as he works with students at the USF Office of Veteran Services.

“These guys are veterans, they have military experience, there’s still an enormous amount of competition in the work field,” Gleaton said.

His goal is to have a career as a state game warden or work in criminal forensics for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Gleaton said the mock interview process helped him the most.

“One question that caught me off guard is ‘What is my biggest weakness?’ because you don’t want to sound like you have a weakness,” Gleaton said. “You try to turn that into that into a positive answer. “

To prepare the student veterans for interviews, Barnes brought in Crista Shaw, a disability and employment specialist and author of “Passport to Education.”

After introducing herself on day four, Shaw, who volunteered to come, started with a couple of questions the veterans may encounter during a job interview.

“Has anybody here been fired from a job, two, three, my hand is up too,” Shaw said, putting them at ease. “I’ve been fired from a job. Let me tell you how to answer this question. “

Shaw did role playing with Franklin Castillo, a Marine going for his MBA. She worked with him on how to shorten his answer and bring the question back around to the present and positives he learned from being dismissed.

“If you leave with one thing today, I would tell you wherever you go you’re in an interview and if you can just be yourself, relax and be yourself,” Shaw advised.

Castillo is one of the student veterans who marked in his survey that it is urgent he find a job in the next three months. He wants to work for a commercial bank in anti-money laundering and fighting fraud.

“I came here with a preconceived notion, now as we’ve gone through the week, I’m so desirous to put this to work,” Castillo said.

Barnes said the employment workshop works both ways. Helping veterans adjust to the civilian job market and assisting employers by dispelling common myths about military veterans.

“Some of the misconceptions: in the military they always tell you what to do. They tell you what to eat, where to go what to do. They tell you when to do it, they tell you how to do it. And then you just do it,” Barnes said. “Many business owners say ‘I can’t have someone like that in my company, I need somebody who will be creative and work on their own.’ That is definitely a misconception.”

The workshop ended on the fifth day with mock interviews for the veterans. However, Barnes said there’s a sixth module – the actual interview and job placement. He plans to stay in touch with all the student veterans until they land their ideal position.

Additional USF veterans’ employment 5-day session are scheduled throughout the fall semester.