Local nonprofit ‘translates’ veterans’ experience into job success



When James Wyche left the military last December, he brought along some impressive credentials:


Twenty years in the U.S. navy as a hospital corpsman, handling everything up to minor surgery. Two advanced degrees — an MBA and a master’s in health care management — acquired during multiple tours in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East.


And perhaps the biggest plus for potential civilian employers: a soldier’s sense of discipline and commitment.


But best not to come off too much like a soldier, he learned during practice job interviews with Hire Heroes USA. The Alpharetta-based organization enhances veterans’ chances of finding civilian jobs by translating their military experience into what employers look for.


“If people see you’re too uptight, especially coming from the military, they might be a little afraid of you,” Wyche, 42, recalled being told by an executive recruiter who was volunteering with the group. Now a practice administrator with Grady Health System, a job he found himself, Wyche nonetheless credits Hire Heroes USA with sharpening his resume and focus.


“The best help I got was the practice interview,” said Wyche, who lives in Marietta with his wife and children. “Even in the military, they don’t do that for you.”


As Georgians honor veterans on Veterans Day, the need for groups such as Hire Heroes USA is critical year-round. The jobless rate for all veterans was 7 percent in 2012 (7.9 percent in Georgia) and an eyepopping 9.9 percent for Gulf War-era II veterans (those who’ve served after September 2001).


Last week, AT&T announced it was doubling its goal of hiring military veterans and family members to 10,000 over the next five years. Likewise, a group of 123 companies — including IBM, Amazon, and Kroger — that had originally set a goal of hiring 100,000 veterans by 2020 said it was doubling its pledge. Three years after it began, the “100,000 Jobs Pledge” has already reached 92,000 veterans hired.


The not-for-profit Hire Heroes USA was founded by MedAssets CEO John Bardis — the son and grandson of veterans. It attacks unemployment among veterans by applying military precision-like focus to a particularly stubborn obstacle: the gap that often exists between veterans’ hard-won experience and qualifications and what’s understood about that by the people hiring for civilian jobs.


“It’s almost like speaking a foreign language and trying to find your way in the English-speaking world,” Bardis said of veterans trying to adjust to the ways of the non-military workplace.


With a highly personalized approach that concentrates on what its chief operating officer Nathan Smith calls the “front end piece” of the employment situation, Hire Heroes USA aims to ensure that veterans and their potential employers wind up speaking the same language.


That means writing resumes to strip them of military jargon and acronyms, improving interviewing sills among ex-soldiers unaccustomed to marketing themselves, and networking with a growing roster of business world allies.


“We translate into ‘civilian,'” said Don Bagnasco, a father of two veterans who became a Hire Heroes USA team leader after working in the business world for 25 years.


It’s working. This year, Hire Heroes USA added offices in San Diego and Plano, Texas, bringing to four its number of locations in high-density military areas. (The others are Alpharetta and Colorado Springs, Colo.) It now has 20 employees, up from six when Bagnasco arrived three years ago, and Smith says they’re averaging 50 completed resumes per week this year compared to 30 last year. While Hire Heroes USA doesn’t specifically do job recruitment, this year so far, 12 veterans have found employment through its job board where more and more companies are paying a nominal fee to list positions.


Meanwhile, its services for veterans and their spouses — all provided free of charge — are attracting positive attention and funding from organizations ranging from the USO to the less buttoned-down wrestlers of the WWE.


I’m impressed with the one-on-one attention they give to our troops,” said Ed Shock, vice president of the USO’s Warrior and Family Care Programs, which partners with Hire Heroes USA on career days and “transition” workshops at military installations around the country (including Fort Benning later this week).


A chance encounter between Bardis and a wounded serviceman in Washington, D.C., in 2005 helped plant the seed for what would become Hire Heroes USA. Bardis moved to take by his subsequent conversations with Justin Callahan.


“He was afraid for his future,” Bardis said of the 21-year-old Army sergeant who’d lost part of his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan. “It wasn’t about his physical pain. It was ‘Where do I fit now? What am I going to do next?'”


While Hire Heroes USA’s services are open to all veterans (online registration cuts off at 70-100 new clients per week — up from 44 last year — to ensure fast staff response), 95 percent of its clients fall into that Gulf War-era II category.


So do a lot of its volunteers and staff — starting at the very top, where both Smith and Brian Stann, the CEO of Hire Heroes USA, are decorated ex-Marines who were deployed twice to Iraq.


“I’m impressed with the people they bring in who are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Shock went on. “The folks going through these workshops feel they can relate to them and what they’re telling them.”


If such firsthand knowledge guides what Hire Heroes USA does — “Our people can help a (civilian) hiring manager understand that what a tank driver in Iraq does is much more than drive a tank,” Smith explained — they also understand the work goes deeper than lines on a resume.


Each week, Bagnasco makes follow-up phone calls to 40-50 veterans who’ve been through that “front-end” process, checking to see if they’ve found work and letting them know that the organization’s still there for them. “You’ve got to keep them feeling good about what their value is.”


Like Jessica Robertson. The 25-year-old DeKalb County resident registered with Hire Heroes USA while winding down her four-year active-duty career in the Marines, which included 10 months in Iraq. Afterward, she tried unsuccessfully to find jobs relevant to her experience in radio communications, then studied to become a medical assistant (a field she ultimately decided wasn’t right for her).


For two years, Robertson said, Bagnasco called approximately every six months to check in with her.


“Every single time, he’d ask, ‘Are you happy?,'” Robertson related. “It was ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ And then the last time, I said, ‘No, I’m not happy.'”


They discussed her skills and interests, and with Bagnasco’s help, Robertson found a sales job at Norcross Gun Club and Range three months ago.


Still, she’s not yet done with Hire Heroes USA.


“I just found a veteran, he’s a great guy and he doesn’t know what he’s going to do now,” Robertson said. “I’m giving him the contact information.”