Spokane Journal of Business

Veterans who seek civilian work should look to STEM

Transition can be difficult, but IT appeals to many

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The state of Washington is home to more than 600,000 veterans, with almost 50,000 of them living in the Spokane area alone, and more are returning from active duty every day. A significant challenge facing these veterans is securing and retaining employment.  

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are several reasons why veterans have a difficult time finding jobs after leaving the military, including: translating military skills to civilian skills, negative stereotypes about veterans, concerns about being recalled, and acclimation to the civilian workplace. On top of that, veterans with disabilities often find the re-entry challenges particularly difficult to overcome. Despite these challenges, it’s important that employers work to integrate veterans into our workplaces. 

While some veterans are immediately ready to take on the reintegration, others may want—or even find it necessary—to boost their education before entering the workforce. 

Institutions of higher education serve an important role in this by helping veterans reintegrate into civilian life and long-term careers. At Washington State University, more than 800 veterans are using education benefits to earn degrees in a variety of fields, including political science, business, engineering, math, and life sciences. While many military veterans have experience in these areas, particularly the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, the transition to the academic lifestyle can prove to be yet another challenge. 

Through National Science Foundation-funded research at the WSU Carson College of Business, in collaboration with Dr. Eileen Trauth at Penn State University, we have explored the factors that help or impede military personnel/veterans with disabilities’ interest in becoming an information technology professional. After conducting a survey of 297 disabled personnel/vets, the study was able to draw some preliminary insights about the group’s IT career choices.

Overall, military experiences, acquired disabilities, confidences in IT skills, and perceptions about IT professions collectively shape their interest in such careers. Not surprisingly, veterans who participated showed a strong connection between their military experiences and being in the IT profession, and in particular the cyber-security field.

The STEM fields and the IT sector can provide an opportunity for veterans to pursue meaningful careers that align with skills learned in the military. When cross-examining military experience and IT careers, our research showed a strong connection between military experience and the IT profession. 

That includes both hard and soft skills. For example, several participants revealed that they had significant IT experience while serving in the military, along with soft or transferable skills such as leadership, team work, attention to detail, and problem solving. Interestingly, veterans who strongly connected with their military identities also had greater confidence in their abilities to engage in IT work. 

However, research also showed veterans perceive several barriers that hinder them from entering the IT field. One barrier is related to affordable education. Specifically, veterans noted they didn’t know how they would finance their education. This may be an indicator that there is a lack of awareness about sources of education funding for veterans, including the Post 9/11 GI Bill, Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, Workforce Investment Act, and the Yellow Ribbon Program. Other programs, like CompTIA’s Troops to Tech Program, are designed to help veterans who have an interest in IT obtain proper education, certification, and job-placement resources to be successful in the growing IT industry.   

In addition to education, several disabled veterans who strongly identified with their acquired disabilities lost confidence in soft or transferable skills critical for IT careers. The study also identified negative stereotypes about the IT profession as a barrier. Several participants cited common stereotypes, including lack of job opportunities, lack of variety in work, not working with other people, and sitting in front of a computer all day as reasons they couldn’t see themselves in an IT career. 

Despite some of these barriers, the IT field can provide great opportunities for veterans to choose an occupational pathway that aligns with market needs. In fact, IT fields often have more job opportunities even during economic downturns. A low unemployment rate within the IT occupation often translates into higher salaries, as employers compete for IT graduates with the right skills and work experience. While military training provides veterans with the work experience and soft skills that are in high demand by the employers, further education, especially a formal IT degree, often is necessary to enter IT careers. As veterans attend colleges and universities, there’s often a period of transition into the academic lifestyle.   

Programs offered through the WSU Office of Veterans Affairs provide the opportunity for veterans to participate in activities and classes that help them transition into the academic community, identify career paths, and locate potential employers. 

Job-placement programs offered through the VA are particularly helpful for students for a variety of reasons, including close relationships with local companies and the ability to translate skills learned in the military into civilian terminology. For example, the Office of Veterans Affairs at WSU maintains close relationships with companies and agencies such as Boeing Co., Microsoft Corp., Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, and the Bureau of Land Management, which are interested in hiring veterans. 

While research can provide insights about the forces that facilitate or impede reintegrating veterans into the workforce, implementing strong veterans’ programs on college campuses nationwide and attracting more service members to the IT field are important to help veterans transition to civilian life. 

Business owners and community members can facilitate this process by supporting campus veteran programs and hiring qualified veterans to fill IT positions.

K.D. Joshi is a professor in the WSU Carson College of Business’ Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship. Joshi’s research interests focus on knowledge management, innovation, crowdsourcing, and information technology workforce issues.

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