Photo of Army Capt. William Lichvar by Compass Photographers.

Photo of Army Capt. William Lichvar by Compass Photographers.

The U.S. now has more than 21.8 million veterans, roughly 537,000 of whom are unemployed. Helping identify opportunities for veterans – and giving them the skills to gain civilian employment – is a critical focus, according to Rachel Van Cleave, Dean of the Golden Gate University School of Law.

The Third Annual Veterans Law Conference, hosted by Golden Gate in San Francisco, brought together veterans who attended as speakers and guests, sharing advice and their own experience getting jobs. The gathering has grown each year, building on Golden Gate’s commitment to helping veterans, which was undertaken by Van Cleave following the death of her law school classmate, J. Christopher Stevens, in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi in 2012.

“This is a very necessary conversation,” said Marylyn Harris, founder of the Women Veterans Business Center in Houston, who served as a nurse in the U.S. Army for 11 years, including a deployment in Operation Desert Storm. “We need to help vets understand how we can continue our service to America through embracing business.”

Harris founded WVBC by following her passion to help vets in Houston. While it has no military base, the area has 300,000 veterans, 30,000 of whom are women. While attending an entrepreneurship bootcamp in Florida, Harris had to write a business plan, and she decided to focus on the growing number of women veterans. The center today has more than 200 members who attend networking events and business bootcamps. The center offers access to the hundreds of resources and opportunities available to veterans, including disabled veterans.

Among the resources are the Veteran Entrepreneurship Act, which established a 3 percent goal for veterans in federal procurement, which is now in place throughout the federal government and even in some cities and corporations; and the Veterans Benefit Act of 2003, which allowed sole-source contracts, which is another powerful tool for veterans with proven skills.

“If you’re a veteran, you already have so many transferable skills that would help you be successful in business,” said Harris. Although she holds two master’s degrees, including an MBA, runs two businesses and is raising two children, Harris is a full-time doctoral student. “You don’t have time to wait. It’s a great time to start a business.”

Currently, more than 9 percent of U.S. businesses – nearly 4 million - are owned by veterans, with revenues exceeding $1.2 trillion. There are now more than 400,000 businesses owned by women veterans – a huge increase over the past decade. And the largest number of veteran-owned businesses are in California – making Golden Gate an ideal host for helping veterans.

The leading industry for veterans is construction, followed by professional services. “We do everything in the military,” Harris said, encouraging veterans to fully appreciate their ability to work in vast supply chains and operate internationally. And never forget, most customers will “appreciate your service and patronize your business when they know you’re a veteran.”

She also encouraged veterans to study the Veteran Jobs Mission, which has helped 292,645 vets get jobs; the Fifth Third Bank Veterans program, which provides job coaching; the Disney Veterans Institute; Patriot Boot Camp presented by Techstars; and Entrepreneurshp Bootcamp for Veterans with Disablities, or EBV.

“There are no, no, no limits to what you can do,” said Harris. “Now is the time to step out on faith and go and start talking to people. If you take that first step, you will find a like-minded veteran who is willing to give you a hand and help you start and grow your business.”

And while there are tremendous resources and opportunities for veterans, there are very real struggles for veterans to find a job or the path forward once they leave the military. Whether a vet is depressed and can use a pet from Pet Aid for Warriors, or needs to know the ropes to navigate the testing to win a state job, there are people and groups that want to help.

Captain Jeffrey Chaix of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Work for Warriors has helped place 4,500 veterans and service members into good jobs by partnering with 250 businesses throughout the state of California – including Amazon, Google and Starbucks. A key to improving job prospects is translating military speak – experience with an M1165 or a particular type of fighter jet, for example - into what that means for civilian employment.

“If you’re a company commander, we transition that title to what it would be on the civilian side, if you list the trucks you drive in the military, we help you convey what that means to a civilian employer,” says Chaix.

Marcus Williams had that experience when he retired from the Navy in 2008, after 20 years. He recently joined Kaiser Permanente as a military recruitment leader. “In large corporations, the education piece is missing in understanding who a veteran is,” says Williams. “We need to know the difference between a captain in the Air Force, the Army, the Navy. There are quite different responsibilities. But if a recruiter sees that on a resume, they won’t know what it means.”

“The biggest thing is education. Veterans have to translate their skills into something recognizable for the general population,” he says. “I had all kinds of titles, however no one else in civilian communities would know what that is. When it was translated to the masses, they had a better idea of who I was and what I can do in an organization.”

It’s also important to educate employers of the values that veterans bring to an organization beyond doing the right thing. Some employers may fear a veteran will bring post-traumatic stress disorder to a workplace, but as Williams said, “we all have PTSD in some way.” Again, the answer is education and addressing the issue.

Some companies are also working to be able to extend preference in hiring to veterans, including Verizon, though there are legal hurdles. One route to ‘preference’ – which allows an employer to take into account military service - is to be able to extend a preference for disability.

A veteran attending the conference received his MBA from Golden Gate and expressed what he sees as the reality of getting a job in tech-centric San Francisco. “San Francisco looks like a big frat house,” he said. “When it comes to fitting into the culture of organizations out there, I’m 43 and served the Marine Corps for 15 years. I don’t fit the culture.”

One of Golden Gate Law School’s missions is to help veterans who want to become lawyers. And veterans bring many skills that suit the legal profession.

“Very often we don’t know what our own strengths are,” said employment lawyer Mary Wright. “Military listen as if their life depends on it. You’re taught to take in information and process it in ways that civilians are not. You’d be amazed how many lawyers don’t listen to their clients and hear their client’s expectations. That’s a big plus for people in the military because they’re required to listen.”

Kevin Dunleavy, the chief assistant district attorney of Alameda County, pointed out that as prosecutors, they are a public service, “and the ultimate public service are those that have served in the military. From a prosecutor perspective if we have someone who served in military that’s an automatic for someone we want to explore more.” The DA needs people who follow the rules and who can work with police officers, who are their primary witnesses. Many veterans have gone to law school, worked at the Alameda County DA and proven themselves excellent prosecutors, he said.

Capt. William Lichvar, a U.S. Army JAG, was deployed to Afghanistan as an operational law attorney, and is now a trial defense attorney at Ft. Carson, Col. He sees the characteristics of responsibility and leadership as shared traits of veterans and lawyers. “One thing that’s amazed me is the level of responsibility, whether 18-year old men and women operating million-dollar machinery to being an attorney.

“My dad was flying reconnaissance in the Eastern theater of the Pacific when he was 22 or 23 years old,” said Wright. “And I look at my 24-year old and ask what’s in his five-year plan. That’s something the military does. It creates acceptance of an ability to do something greater than yourself.”

From a practical perspective, Nicolle Schippers, a veteran who’s now in-house at ARAG Legal Insurance, also observed that military members are humble, and sometimes downplay their accomplishments or abilities. “As someone who interviews, don’t do that. Find someone who can make you comfortable speaking corporate speak, so you don’t downplay your abilities.”

Photo of Lida Citroën by Compass Photographers.
Photo of Lida Citroën by Compass Photographers.

Dunleavy also stressed the importance of having a good moral compass and being able to make good decisions. In his years of interviewing law students, he finds military experience very attractive compared to a student who’s gone straight from college to law school.

“We are courtroom lawyers. We try cases. It’s your opportunity during the interview to not put it on the interviewer but put it on you as the interviewee. A successful interview is the interviewer doing 15 percent of the talking and interviewee talking 85 percent of the time. Commitment to public service, willingness to serve a company, that translates well.”

The JAG Corps has a natural preference for veterans, said Lichvar. “Our main job is to advise commanders who are trying to fight and win America’s wars,” says Lichvar. “There may be no better people to do that who understand the process and can speak to a commander.”

Dunleavy also complimented Golden Gate on its focus on providing legal education to veterans. “My hat’s off to GGU,” he said. “The fact that GGU has made it a big priority to really concentrate on those students with prior military service is rare. You are on the right track.”

Schippers also suggested GGU’s legal education for veterans as a model for other law schools.

Whatever path a veteran chooses, branding expert Lida Citroën advised spending some time thinking on how to transition your ‘brand’ as a military member to the private world. After 20 years in marketing and branding for corporations, she decided to use her skills to help military members after a halftime tribute show at a Denver Broncos game focused on the military. “A soldier said ‘I don’t know how to sell myself, or talk to civilian employers,’” she recalls. And a lightbulb went off.

Though she had never served in the military, she spent six months knocking on doors, going to the VA, and the first person to open the door was General Peter Pace, a former U.S. Marine Corps General who served as the 16th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He founded the Wall Street Warfighters Foundation to help veterans and disabled vets get jobs on Wall Street.

“You have a challenge talking about yourself,” she said. “As a civilian, I’m really comfortable telling you what makes me great. But for someone who’s served in uniform, I’ve learned that’s a conflict. If you talk about yourself and take credit for your success in uniform it feels like you’re taking credit for those who served alongside you. It’s an obstacle and barrier to gaining entry in civilian world.

“If you use ‘we’ the hiring manager doesn’t understand,” she said.

There are other challenges for military members enlisting on the civilian side. Giving orders, for example. While coaching a Colonel now working for a big corporation, Citroën found that he needed to adjust when no one stood up when he entered the room, or immediately followed his directives. Citroën advised him on the corporate side, it’s not always about the most direct path to get from point A to point B.

Personal branding is how we create a relationship with our audience, she explained. “Who are you, not what are you. When you take that uniform off you lose a lot of that. The uniform is your story, who you are.” It conveys what you’ve fought for and committed to.

Military members have the values and have proven it. The trick is to be credible conveying those valued in the corporate setting.

“You have one chance on this merry-go-round. Live the best life you can. If anyone deserves it, it is you men and woman who put the uniform on so we can enjoy the liberties you’ve fought for.”