National Volunteer Week

You might be surprised to know that veterans make up 35 percent of Hire Heroes USA’s pool of active volunteers. It’s a remarkable number, especially since veterans comprise only about six percent of the U.S. population. If you drill a bit deeper into the stats on our amazing team of 750 volunteers, you will also find that – of the 266 who did serve in the military – only a tiny fraction of them are also alumni of our employment services.

Nikki Foster is no stranger to being part of an elite squad. For her, volunteering was a natural extension of her military service.

During an almost 15-year career in the US Air Force, she served mainly as an instructor pilot for the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender, a military version of the civilian DC-10 that was configured mainly to conduct aerial refueling missions. It also had the ability to haul several tons of military cargo and transport personnel on those very same missions.  

Today, Nikki is in the Junior Officer Leadership Program (JOLP) at GE Aviation, where she’s working in the Commercial Engine Operations and Services Business for General Electric Engines. Her contract, right now, is with Delta Airlines to service their fleet of Boeing 777s, and her experience flying those big KC-10s provides her a distinct advantage in the role.

“When Delta tells me about their problems, or issues they’ve had, I can empathize with my customer, because I operated large, heavy aircraft in combat and globally,” she says. “I’ve done missions that have taken me from New Jersey directly to Guam, and then to air refueling inflight – and others that have taken me from California directly to the Middle East with air refueling inflight. I think very few people in the engineering world can relate to the customer that way.”

She adds, “Coming in as a mid-career professional and having been an Air Force pilot – there’s a different value that I bring to the company with my background. I think GE sees that. That’s why they hire good people and there are others in the program like me.”

From Client to Volunteer

When Nikki first registered for Hire Heroes USA services, she was getting ready to attend the Service Academy Career Conferences, an exclusive resource for graduates of the nation’s service academies, and needed assistance with resumes and interview preparation. It was about a year later, before starting her job at GE, that she began thinking about the nonprofit again, asking herself, “I wonder if there’s more that I can do?” Her answer was yes.

She now assists fellow veterans – both men and women, enlisted and officers – providing insight and advice on career paths, and helping some find the right market for themselves. “You’ll see folks be a little bit more uncertain and needing this coaching more, because there’s less of a safety net when they leave the military.”

The best part of volunteering?

“I can give back. I miss that part of my service because, when you transition from being a Major and being responsible for over 160 airmen, to being in a cubicle and being responsible for just yourself, there’s a bit of a gap, personally. So, for me, it kind of fulfilled a need to mentor and give back – so we both benefit.”

Changing Mindsets

It is through her role in the Hire pillar of GE’s Veterans Network that she assists even more, by informing Hire Heroes USA’s Employment Opportunities team about career events GE is holding in the community. Just last year, that resulted in the hire of a Marine Corps Aviation Mechanic, who is now an additive field service engineer.

Nikki Foster GE IMG_0505“To me, this is also a way for me to learn and build my skill set. When I left the service, I was really focused on flying airplanes and managing operations,” she says. “Now, I’m in the civilian sector, and one of the ways Hire Heroes USA is still helping me is that I’m building HR skills I didn’t have before. I know how to read a resume now and say, ‘You need to go to Hire Heroes USA and have them fix it.” Alternately, it can also mean helping a job candidate refocus on a different aspect of their experience – or, even, to stop underselling their value to an employer. “Those things are more of a nuance,” she notes, “but those are skills that I’m acquiring that the nonprofit is helping me with as a coach.”

Nikki shares that, long ago, she was given the advice that –  if you’re working with a nonprofit – you can really add value to the hiring circuit. She believes she is already doing that – by working to broaden mindsets at GE. “I try to get them to see it from a ‘What are we trying to do here? What are our goals?” More specifically, she thinks more attention needs to be focused on the former enlisted personnel who are getting hired.

“What do you do about that enlisted person? A lot of them are doing the work. Our plant in Durham, North Carolina, is nearly 50 percent veterans.” She says that’s because a lot of them are from the enlisted ranks in the military and the plant is non-union, so they hire each other. “They work together as a symbiotic relationship. They help each other out. It’s fascinating to see and they hire all the time. We just need to tell those stories more.”    

The Challenge

An hour-long conversation with Nikki can provide a fascinating journey through a wide range of topics, each of them able to yield a lengthy and thoughtful discussion on their own, like: why veterans shouldn’t limit their scope to just federal employment; what it will take to get more girls into STEM and more women into engineering; her work as an Admissions Liaison Officer; what it was like to deploy to Afghanistan with a toddler at home; and, why she’s now running for public office in Ohio.

Throughout it all, we kept coming back to the same thing, namely what veterans can do for their fellow veterans.

“It’s the nature of paying it forward,” she says, “and I’ve said it to others who use Hire Heroes USA’s services, too: ‘Hey, are you going to step up and help the next guy out? We see the challenge. I’m glad you’re good, but are you taking care of your brothers behind you?’”

She concluded with this: “I would challenge every veteran that when they’re situated and settled – they should give back. This is your calling. What are you waiting for?”


Written by:

Kathleen Saal, Hire Heroes USA Marketing & Communications Manager