Veterans Discover Online Jobhunting–and Vice Versa

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Something to chew on as Memorial Day approaches:

Did you know that close to 300,000 members of the military enter civilian life every year? And that many of them–despite their honorable service and sharp skills and the earnest promises of politicians–will struggle to find work?

I have a story up on Time.com titled “Finding Jobs for Vets Back Home.” It’s a story I’ve been tracking since last summer, when I first noticed that the unemployment figures for a particular set of veterans–those between 20 and 24–were abysmally high. In March, I traveled out to a job fair in Chicago sponsored by Military.com to meet some of these young, unemployed veterans.

Before I went, I interviewed Chris Michel, the founder of Military.com. Michel, a former Navy flight officer, founded it in the late ’90s after graduating from Harvard Business School. It now counts 8 million members–that’s one-third of the armed forces–and helps them “access their benefits, advance their careers, enjoy military discounts, and stay connected.”

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Chris Michel, founder and chairman of Military.com / Photo courtesy of Military.com

Michel (pronounced “Michael”) has an interesting career path. He earned his commission from the NROTC program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a navigator and mission commander, he hunted drug runners in South and Central America. After seven years in the service during which he rose to lieutenant commander, he left in 1997 to work in the Pentagon as aide to the Chief of the Naval Reserve.

“I found the process of looking for other work and knowing what I was qualified to do difficult, despite having done well in Navy,” says Michel. He knows he was lucky. “Not only was I an officer but when I got selected to be an aide, I got to interface with all these people who had civilian jobs.” One of those people urged him to consider Harvard Business School. “I was a poli-sci major; I didn’t know what I’d do at business school,” he says. “But he said, No, they love Navy guys.”

He came up with the idea for Military.com while working as a consultant shortly after graduation. “I’ve always been an Internet geek,” he says. Having gone through the service and transition himself, he knew millions of service members could be served by an Internet portal. Competition was fierce, as was the fight for financing. “Somehow, we survived,” he says.

Military.com offers all sorts of services, but its hundreds of thousands of job listings–not to mention its transition assistance–gave it value to Monster.com, which bought it in 2004. It continues to add jobseeking help, such as a network of 400,000 veterans who have signed on to assist other veterans in finding work. A section helps military spouses find work. Another helps servicemembers translate their military job skills to civilian language. “That’s one of the toughest things for vets,” says Tom Aiello, former Army captain and Kellogg MBA who is now vice president of Military.com.

You might ask where the government is in all this. Why isn’t Uncle Sam setting up Internet portals to help our veterans find jobs? The government does have its own site, but it’s not nearly as thorough or popular as Military.com.

“I think the government can do a whole lot more,” says Aiello. One way, he suggests, is by setting up a “world-class skills translator” that all the veteran-jobs web sites could access. “Yes, we have one, but to do it right we need funding,” he says.

Then again, maybe this kind of thing is best left to private enterprise. The White House would probably outsource such a job–without bids–to the likes of Halliburton. And somehow I doubt those millions would be spent on innovating great Internet-based jobseeking solutions.

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