Soldiers in demand

Virginia contractors angle for returning vets

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Print this page by Garry Kranz

Christopher Hiltbrand spent his four-year hitch in the U.S. Navy as a human resources specialist. The experience proved to be a steppingstone to a civilian career, particularly his upward climb to deputy human resources director at McLean-based Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).

“The military teaches you a discipline and structure that you can’t learn anywhere else. Whenever I talk to young people, I tell them there is no better way to gain confidence — real confidence based on doing real projects and real work,” the 38-year-old Hiltbrand says.

Hiltbrand and his recruiting team are especially busy these days.  SAIC has a strong demand for former soldiers. Officials with the defense contractor say they plan to hire 7,000 to 8,000 employees this year. Of that number, 1,500 will be military veterans.

Attracting top recruits, identifying key talent and providing training are among the skills Hiltbrand acquired in the Navy. “Those are the same types of things I do at SAIC,” he says.

SAIC, a 40,000-employee company whose services include systems integration and computer-engineering, would not disclose the number of vets to be hired in Virginia. But proximity to the nation’s capital and the presence of key military installations — a ready-made source of potential workers — prompted SAIC to move its operations to Virginia three years ago, after decades in San Diego.

“About 40 percent of our overall work force extends from the Washington, D.C., area down to Norfolk. Being in Virginia enables us to recruit from a talent pool that is deep and very nearby,” says Kara Yarnot, the company’s vice president of human resources.

SAIC’s search for new workers suggests that Virginia is bucking a national trend: higher-than-normal unemployment among returning soldiers. Other players in Virginia’s robust government-contracting sector says they, too, are hiring, including information-technology firm CACI International and aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Veterans Services has joined with private companies to launch Virginia Values Veterans, or V3, a state-funded initiative to connect job-seeking soldiers with employers.  “When it comes to veterans’ unemployment, America has misidentified the center of gravity,” says Joe Barto, president of consulting firm Training Modernization Group in Virginia Beach, whose company is spearheading the V3 program. 

“The federal government spends billions of dollars on job retraining for veterans, and while that is important, the real center of gravity is finding companies to hire them,” an effort that needs to happen on a state-by-state level, Barto says.

Precise data on unemployed veterans in Virginia is elusive. Across the U.S., however, 9.5 percent of vets can’t find jobs, according to June figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s down from 12 percent in March, but higher than the national jobless rate of 8.3 percent.

And as America’s war machine winds down, federal officials estimate that 1 million active-duty soldiers will enter the job market during the next five years.

End of the gravy train?
Despite anemic job growth in the U.S., Virginia’s defense sector has been booming. Nearly $57 billion in defense-related contracts have been awarded to Virginia companies since 2009, according to a report last year by Bloomberg Government, part of research firm Bloomberg Inc. Combined, those contracts account for 11 percent of all U.S. defense spending and 14 percent of Virginia’s gross domestic product. In addition, Bloomberg says, nearly 178,000 people are employed in Virginia’s defense sector, with total defense payrolls topping $18 billion. 

The defense work has helped Virginia weather the turbulent national economy.  Although U.S. unemployment remained stubbornly above 8 percent in June, Virginia’s jobless rate was 5.7 percent, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. 

But the gravy train is nearing an end.  Severe cuts in defense spending will be automatically triggered when the Budget Control Act passed by Congress takes effect Jan. 2.  A report by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University in Fairfax estimates Virginia will lose nearly 208,000 jobs as a result of the cuts.

In the meantime, companies are trying to win as many contracts as possible and recruit people to execute the work. In SAIC’s case, additional brainpower is needed to fulfill contracts with the Department of Defense, which is its primary customer and accounts for one-quarter of all revenue.  Veterans are being recruited with skills in intelligence analysis, logistics, maintenance and operations, linguistics, cyber security, aviation and health care, Yarnot says. “They have security clearances, which enables us to put them on billable work right away. Plus, they bring a lot of flexibility, decision-making and leadership experience.”

Following SAIC’s lead, Northrop Grumman Corp. left California for Virginia last year. Wooed by Virginia’s lower costs, regulatory climate and experienced work force, the company abandoned its Los Angeles roots and resettled in Fairfax County near Falls Church.

Northrop Grumman already had a presence in Virginia but needed to move for strategic reasons, says Kia Silver Hodge, the company’s manager of diversity recruitment programs. Northrop Grumman now employs 8,000 people in the state. “We relocated to Virginia primarily to be near our government customers,” Hodge says. There is a lot of talent in the region and lots of opportunities for veterans to transition into a role similar to what they did in the military.”

Northrop Grumman is looking continually for experienced veterans to help innovate, design, engineer and test the systems that operate unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAVs or drones.  “Systems for [UAVs] are a big area of focus for us now,” Hodge says. (See related story on page 68.)

Spreading the word
People with military training are in demand, but Hodge says spreading the word is hard work. The company uses a variety of outreach efforts to connect with veterans. Those efforts include participating in a veteran-focused job fair sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce in August. Hodge says Northrop Grumman will provide training workshops to help soldiers get ready for the job search.

Earlier this year, Northrop Grumman tapped the Virginia Employment Commission to help identify disabled veterans for jobs. Employment counselors at VEC’s Woodbridge office prescreen candidates against job requirements and pass along the names to Northrop Grumman’s recruiting managers for formal interviews.

So far, Hodge says, Northrop Grumman recruiters met with more than 100 of the VEC-screened candidates, including about 20 deemed to be qualified for specific job openings. Company hiring managers are reviewing the candidates’ credentials to determine who will receive job offers.

In addition, Northrop Grumman’s “Network of Champions” program, launched in 2009, includes about 100 companies that have committed to helping wounded veterans find a career, Hodge says.  At Arlington-based CACI International, veterans make up about 25 percent of its 14,000 employees, says Larry Clifton, the senior vice president of recruiting. CACI has multiple U.S locations, including a large presence in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. 

During the fiscal year that ended in June, CACI hired more than 800 vets, including about 200 who were wounded or disabled vets. Hiring top-notch people is only half the equation, Clifton says.

Providing employees with career advancement is a key part of CACI’s recruitment and retention strategy, especially its Employee Mobility Program (EMP). Clifton says CACI finds about 40 percent of all new hires through the EMP, far outstripping other recruiting sources. “The EMP is also important because it enables our employees to move around to various opportunities within the company. Our goal is for them to have a career with us.”

Still, it’s not just large contracting firms that should be seeking out vets, Barto says. Many 20-something military members have little experience navigating the job search. “To those entering the work force for the first time, it’s like playing basketball in a dark gym,” Barto says.

Mobilizing state policymakers and dozens of Virginia employers, Barto’s company helped launch the V3 initiative this year to address that very problem.  His company is developing a certification program and competency assessment for hiring managers to attract and retain vets. Companies pursuing the V3 certification agree to hire a certain number of vets for at least $25,000 (plus benefits), and provide training to help them transition to civilian jobs.

Companies in retailing, manufacturing, financial services and other sectors have expressed interest in receiving accreditation through V3, he says. “Helping vets find work isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s a great thing for Virginia’s economy.” 

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