Leaving the military and transitioning to civilian life can be a tricky proposition, especially when it comes to finding gainful employment. Veterans face a host of impediments, including access to earned education benefits, preconceived notions on the part of would-be employers and a lack of training in a specific civilian career field or job.
Yet workforce development is the key to the region’s economic future. It seems these two issues could be addressed with one proverbial stone.
Luckily, Northeast Ohio is home to some great post-secondary education institutions well-equipped with advisers and counselors who specialize in helping veterans. While every four-year college in the area offers veterans services, local community colleges have stepped up when it comes to taking an active role.
At Lakeland Community College, the Student Veterans of America Chapter was named one of the top five chapters in the nation — out of more than 1,500 chapters nationwide — earlier this year. It marks the second time the Lakeland chapter has been a finalist.
“The Lakeland Student Veterans of America (SVA) is standing strong in its mission to empower student veterans for academic support and professional ,career development,” says Jessica Ales, SVA chapter president. Ales is also a veteran and a graduate of Lakeland and is now continuing her education at Lakeland’s Holden University Center.
“The SVA includes officer positions available for students to develop their leadership skills, plan programs and fundraisers, and build community among the membership,” explains Christina Corsi, assistant dean of students at Lakeland. “Our student veterans have such vast experiences to build upon and share with other students.”
While returning veterans are contributing to their own retraining and adjustment back to civilian life, they still face challenges.
“Some of the biggest issues veterans face when seeking retraining are preconceived ideas,” says Rhonda Osagie Erese, veterans program coordinator at Lakeland. “For example, with job training, a veteran may expect to be trained until they are proficient and have exemplified almost mastery competence and can replicate consistent results — as is the case in the military. The civilian world allows for variances and nuances in approaches, techniques and outcomes. This can be very distressing and frustrating to the veteran who is operating from a mastery and consistency seeking paradigm.
“Another issue veterans face when seeking retraining is trying to find a skill set or program that is either comparable or equally fulfilling. Some military jobs simply do not have a civilian equivalent. Job fulfillment is an important aspect of life, for most, and if your military career ended sooner than expected and the military job does not exist in the civilian world, feelings of displacement, misplacement and inadequacy can arise. This can create or exacerbate mental health issues.”
“Transition is one of the things we emphasize most,” adds Marjorie Morrison, collegewide director of veterans and military connected services at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), and previous director of the college’s Upward Bound programs. “We want our students to be able to compete. We want them to move into the workforce. We want them to get a degree using their military benefits.”
Tri-C earned its 12th consecutive Military-Friendly School designation this year in recognition of its commitment to serving veterans and active military students, as well as their families. While more than 8,800 schools were eligible for the award, only 27 in Ohio received the Military-Friendly designation. For the fourth consecutive year, Tri-C was named a Military-Friendly Spouse School.
But even with help of forward-thinking institutions, a veteran can have a problem spotting good career opportunities, says Rhonda Butler, director of career services at Lakeland.
“It is my opinion that the biggest problem facing veterans when they seek retraining is their difficulty translating their enlisted occupation to a career and/or occupation that exists in the civilian workplace,” she says.
Other times, veterans are impatient about finding an appropriate job.
“Veterans have a sense of obligation and service,” adds Morrison. “They are often anxious to get a job to support their family, but it might not be in their best interest long term. If they can spend a few more months getting a certification or degree, it would likely be for a higher paying job and a more stable position.”
One of the biggest challenges facing veterans attending Lorain County Community College (LCCC) is underemployment, says Marisa Vernon White, Ph.D., vice president of enrollment management and student services.
“We know veterans, as well as our general student population, are experiencing mental health challenges, financial strains and juggling multiple roles while attending college, as well as caring for others with illness/COVID-19 impact,” White says. “Veterans have highly trained and applicable skills coming from military experience, but these experiences are not easily understood by civilians and may lead to challenges in securing employment that matches their level of competency and skill.”
This is one of the reasons LCCC works hard to understand military experience and map it to give credit where possible, thus honoring students’ military contributions and service and helping them accelerate in academic and career pathways after service.
Finding Funds & Support
Obviously, it takes a lot of homework just to know all of the financial support that is available.
“There are a host of special internships available to veterans who major in certain programs or through many government entities such as the U.S. Department of Finance and Accounting Services (DFAS) and NASA Glen Research Center,” says Butler. “There are also local companies such as Astro Manufacturing & Design Co., that have specific candidate recruitment campaigns targeting veterans.”
At LCCC, veterans are offered concierge services regarding military-affiliated educational benefits from the point of entry at the college, all the way through the completion of a program or degree, says White. There is also help for new military-affiliated students to understand the scope of their benefits and any potential gaps in funding.
We have “generous, veteran-specific scholarships and emergency aid funds (from private donors and local military-affiliated organizations) to cover gaps in education costs and/or address emergencies while enrolled,” adds White.
Perhaps even more importantly, many schools assist veterans with the unseen educational costs. For instance, LCCC has a Veterans’ Book Borrowing program, a partnership with the LCCC Bookstore. Books that cannot be bought back are kept as academic resources for veteran students and are accessible in the veterans services office.
Veteran students at LCCC can also take advantage of its expansive holistic student support services. These include access to food assistance through LCCC’s Commodore Cupboard, which is hosted in partnership with Second Harvest; access to services provided by the ARC (Advocacy and Resource Center), which includes legal assistance, food, housing assistance, domestic violence support, drug/ alcohol recovery support programs through the CARE Center on campus and coordinated referrals to local community agencies and programs.
There is even proactive engagement from faculty members to identify courses that are directly aligned to Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) opportunities.
Like other community colleges in the area, LCCC’s veterans services office is primarily staffed with individuals who were in the military themselves. They provide personal examples of how to make these transitions successfully.
“LCCC’s ARC recognizes some military-affiliated students may benefit from connecting with someone with service experience,” says White. “The ARC has recently implemented a new portfolio of mental health support services students can use to identify support services that align with their identities and mental health needs, as well as an app subscription that is free to students and promotes self-guided mental health/transition support.”
Veteran students using military education benefits often balance their academic progress with access to important resources for basic needs, such as housing, living expenses and costs of attendance, adds White. This requires them to navigate both the college system and the requirements of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, from which their education benefits are facilitated. In addition, many individuals during and after the pandemic are also accessing medical benefits, food assistance and other forms of support — each of which has specific requirements and nuances.
While it may seem that local community colleges are going to the extreme when it comes to helping veterans, the business community must realize that because of their service, they are different than the average student. Yet, they are a valuable resource in building the region’s future workforce.
Vets Stepping into New Roles
While local community colleges offer myriad programs to help returning veterans re-enter the workforce, veterans themselves often feel displaced. Over time, many not only find new civilian careers, but also become business leaders in their own right. Here, they offer some valuable insights on available programs.
“When you transition out of the military, you feel like an outcast,” says Marine Corps veteran and Lakeland student Nick Slattery. “You’re four years older than the average student, and you have real-life experience. The veterans program gives you a place where you really belong.”
“As a nontraditional student, I found the Lakeland Veteran Center very inviting and a break from the rush of college,” says Navy veteran Lovii Marie Hicks. “After meeting other veterans young and old, you establish a camaraderie of sorts, and that is where the magic happens. The Veteran Center helped me to engage with like-minded people who were on the same path.”
Experience and patience are key to any professional success story. Air Force veteran Steve Bevan offers some advice for other veterans thinking of starting their own business.
His biggest challenge?
“For me, it was getting a job utilizing my Air Force training as a hydraulic tech,” says Bevan. “My wife was an RN already, working and raising her two daughters. She was already in the Army Reserves before I met her, so she did her weekend thing and yearly active duty.”
“When I decided to join the military, I was already a divorced 39-year-old working professional and mother of two daughters ages 15 and 18,” says Bevan’s wife, Elizabeth “Liz” Simonson. “The oldest was away at college and the younger one still in high school. I loved my hospital nursing job as an intensive and coronary care nurse, but felt I was becoming stagnant. I looked into the Army Reserves as a way to enhance my experience and not feel so ‘in a rut.’”
Four months after swearing in, Elizabeth found herself deployed with a combat support hospital in Arabia during Operation Desert Storm, living in a 16-person tent in the desert.
“We were located about 30 miles from the Iraq/Kuwait border,” Elizabeth recalls. “This experience not only tested my professional and leadership abilities , but it also showed me what I never thought I was emotionally, physically and socially capable of.
“Returning from active duty was challenging, as I had to resume a ‘normal’ life of living privately in my own space and being responsible for things like paying bills, deciding what to eat, what to wear, what to do and a myriad of other decisions that had been made for me for eight months while deployed,” she adds. “I found myself frantically grabbing for my gas mask whenever a siren sounded and my heartbeat increasing at the least bit of a loud bang or noise.”
Today, Bevan and his wife own a company called Gold Star Awards in Elyria, which they purchased 24-plus years ago after they both left the military.
“We were going in blind and didn’t really check it out before giving them a down payment and signing a contract to pay them monthly payments for the next five years,” Bevan recalls. “They were in Vermilion, and we were in Elyria. We started with virtually no customers, some old equipment and a bunch of obsolete parts for trophies.
“We eventually bought our business property in downtown Elyria and started to build our business one client at a time while we both worked full time,” Bevan adds. “Over the next 24-plus years, we put lots and lots of money back into it without taking a dime for ourselves. Now, it pays for itself, and we have someone running the day to day things.”
So what advice would they give a veteran getting out of the service?
“Use the training you received in the military and have a plan,” Bevan says. “Go to school and get the paperwork you need to get a good job.
Don DiDomenico, president of Elyria Metal Spinning Co., parlayed his military experience into a second career before leading a company business.
“When I got discharged from the military in 1990, I went back to school using the GI Bill and educated myself in Applied Health Science at Northeastern University, securing a job as a full-time working paramedic,” says DiDomenico. “After three years of working for a hospital based system, I was hired by the town of Abington as a professional firefighter/paramedic with the fire department.”
DiDomenico retired in early 2013, returning to his native Ohio to take over the family business founded by his grandfather. With his father struggling with Alzheimer’s, the company needed someone to oversee the business. So DiDomenico, representing the third generation of family ownership, stepped in. When his father passed away a year later, his mother handed over the business to DiDomenico, but he, in turn, bought the buildings and property from her.
Today, even with supply chain challenges caused by COVID-19, Elyria Metal Spinning continues to grow.