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WORKFORCE DIVERSITY Veterans Bring Key Skill Assets

to the Civilian Workforce By Clif Boutelle, Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Inc. Public Relations


ith nearly 200,000 men and women transitioning out of the military each

year, employers have a rich source of talent to tap that can greatly aid their organiza- tions. Also, employers should not overlook the skills disabled veterans can bring to the workforce table, says Nathan Ainspan, an industrial psychologist based in Arlington, VA. He and colleague Walter Penk edited the recently published Returning Wars’ Wounded, Injured and Ill: A Reference Handbook, that provides useful information and resources for disabled veterans reinte- grating into civilian life.

After months in the armed forces, much of it in combat zones, military personnel sometimes find their return to the workforce somewhat of a culture shock, says Fred Mael, an industrial organizational psycholo- gist with Mael Consulting and Coaching in Baltimore, MD. He recently completed a study of military officers transitioning to the civilian workforce and is a longtime re- searcher of military issues. Much of what he has learned applies to both officers and en- listed personnel leaving the service and re- turning to the civilian sector. Because most officers are college gradu-

ates, they may find an easier path to finding jobs. National Guard members can usually return to their former positions. By contrast, enlisted soldiers who volunteered out of high school may have more difficulty in finding employment, especially during the current economic downturn. Nevertheless, employers are finding that all veterans of all ranks have marketable technical and leader- ship skills. People with a military background also possess numerous attributes, including loy- alty, leadership ability, respect, integrity, duty, reliability, and working as team mem- bers, that employers value in their employ- ees. Yet many veterans don’t see those qual- ities in the civilian workforce, said Mael. Rather what they often encounter is a work- force that devalues teamwork and commit- ment and coworkers who concentrate on themselves rather than the enterprise as a


whole. “Veterans find that as somewhat of a shock,” said Mael. Another adjustment is that personnel in the military are with their fellow soldiers 24/7 and though they do have down-time, they are never far from their work and often are on alert. That is not the case in the civil- ian workforce where everyone heads to dif- ferent places and lives at the end of the day. Former military personnel often miss that closeness and cannot see recreating it in the civilian work environment. Mael suggested that returning veterans need to develop more balance between their work and nonwork lives and find other outlets to express their higher values of teamwork and altruism. “Become involved in volunteer work or some activity apart from the workplace,” he advised.

Ainspan’s book is one of hope for the thousands of veterans who have physical and psychological ailments from their de- ployments in Iraq or Afghanistan. He said a Department of Defense study shows 40,000 military personnel have suffered physical injuries since the war began. In addition, some 300,000 are at risk from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and another 320,000 have experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI) incident, according to a Rand Corp. survey.

Ainspan, who authored a chapter de-

scribing how veterans with disabilities can find work, said that employment is now con- sidered a key component of a disabled sol- dier’s recovery. Research has shown how employment can provide positive reinforce- ment to counter the negative feelings of “learned helplessness,” which is a condition where a person considers everything to be futile even if he or she has the ability to change the harmful circumstance. “Employment can help a veteran reframe negative thoughts by demonstrating compe- tence, providing meaning to life and social support,” he said. “And thanks to assistive technology and changes in attitudes, people with disabilities can work in more types of jobs than was thought possible in the past.”


The good news, says Ainspan, is that thou- sands of servicemen and women with all types of disabilities have found well-paying jobs they enjoy with employers who appre- ciate their work. “Every day thousands of people with disabilities go to work and earn their paychecks.”

Disabled veterans have the same valued attributes as their nondisabled counterparts, though they may be physically limited in the kinds of jobs they can perform and may re- quire some kind of customized employment, according to Ainspan. Nevertheless, veter- ans still fight battles against the stigmas managers and employers have about dis- abilities and military service itself. “They think veterans are too regimented and rigid,” said Ainspan, who maintains the accusation is overexaggerated and that he has found veterans to be quite flexible and able to adapt to a variety of work situations. However, he added, it is encouraging that many employers have a better understand- ing of how to accommodate employees with disabilities and have increased the number and types of opportunities for people previ- ously seen as “disabled,” including many who were considered “unemployable.” In fact, a number of companies have started in- cluding people with disabilities in their di- versity strategies. Also, there are probably more resources for all veterans, including those with disabilities, leaving military ser- vice than for any wartime period ever, said Ainspan. For example, every military base has a Transition Assistance Program to help veterans find jobs and which includes work- shops for military members and their spous- es who are leaving the military. A number of companies are actively recruiting service members and veterans for a variety of jobs. The Department of Defense, the Depart-

ment of Veteran’s Affairs and a large num- ber of nonprofit groups, such as the Non- Commissioned Officer’s Association (www. provide assistance to help vet- erans assimilate back into civilian life and into the workplace as well as to recover from injuries.


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