Conference connects military veterans, employers


September 9, 2016
By Jake Sandlin

During her Navy career, Laurie Lee served as an explosive-ordnance disposal diver and trained dolphins, whales and sea lions for the Navy’s mammal program.

“Those skills are not something that transition well into civilian life,” Lee said Thursday while speaking to the inaugural Veterans Employment Conference for Human Resources Professionals, sponsored by ARVets.

The nonprofit organization helps military veterans connect to benefits and programs to improve the quality of life for image of veterans parademilitary personnel, veterans and their families. That includes assisting veterans and employers to transition former military personnel into civilian jobs.

Lee, now an ARVets board member, said she had to figure out on her own how to transition her four years of naval experience to a career outside of the military. ARVets didn’t form until 2011.

Though highly trained through her military career and at the top of her dive and explosive-ordnance disposal classes — and among the first women to undergo that training — a lack of a college degree disqualified her for some management positions, Lee said, as she tried to find work in the private sector.

“I had no help,” said Lee, a Little Rock native. “I have this great resume … but how do I transition that into getting a regular job?”

The conference at the Clinton Presidential Center aimed to help employers not only connect with veterans but better understand attributes such as leadership, teamwork and motivation that veterans can bring to companies and how their technical skills can best translate into other jobs.

“If you don’t know that they’re there, you can’t help them,” Nicole Hart, ARVets’ chief executive officer, said of veterans needing assistance.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson addressed the conference Thursday morning, highlighting the kind of modern, technical know-how and analytic abilities veterans can bring to employment.

All of the technological skills learned through the military “are applicable to the private sector and applicable to the technological environment we want to create in this state,” Hutchinson said. Military training also offers the kind of discipline and character building that carries over into jobs, he said.

Arkansas has an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, but for the 250,000 veterans statewide, the unemployment rate is 6.4 percent, Hutchinson said. Nationally, the unemployment rate for veterans was 4.3 percent as of August, Hart said.

“That is a disconnect,” Hutchinson said. “The skills are there to be transferred into the private sector.”

Military titles and job descriptions also can be confusing to private employers who can’t relate to what such skills entail, Hutchinson said.

How such skills used in the military can relate to a private sector job needs clearer definition and a better understanding by private employers, Hart agreed.

“We want to try to figure out how to change some of this,” she said.

Lee said she learned to use her leadership and management skills and the discipline to achieve goals from her military experience to begin a career in public relations and community organizing. Then, in 2014, Lee founded Trace Strategies, a consulting firm based in Little Rock with political and corporate clients nationwide.

“It took me two decades to figure it out,” she said. “I had to figure out what I would do with the rest of my life.”

Her advice for other military personnel and veterans trying to make that transition is to get assistance.

“The best way is by seeking out groups like this,” Lee said of ARVets. “It’s important to have help to segue into the private sector. Just sitting down with somebody who understands what’s available in the state.”

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