Entrepreneurship eases veterans’ move to post-military life
I joined the Marine Corps after college because I wanted to gain new skills, challenge myself and learn how to fly — and to thank my country for all of the freedom and opportunity afforded here. I left active-duty military eight years later knowing I could manage 100 other Marines, work countless hours and get an aircraft up and running no matter how short we were on parts. I first worked as an airline pilot — a next step that made sense because of my military flight experience. But when I decided to move on, many potential employers pigeonholed me as a pilot, even though my Marine Corps career-engrained leadership skills could have translated to dozens of other industries.
In the transition to civilian life, many veterans struggle, like I did, to explain their resumes to non-military hiring managers. We aren’t necessarily shut out of work — our unemployment rate, like that of the rest of the country, has shrunk considerably since the recession. But the disconnect between what we’re capable of and what employers see on job applications does have consequences: One-third of employed veterans say they’re underemployed or stuck in low-paying jobs—circumstances that could profoundly affect their health and well-being, outlook on life and poverty levels.
To help remedy this situation, let’s provide our former military members the tools they need to translate their valuable skills, independent spirit and strong work ethic into entrepreneurship, so they can become successful small business owners.
That was the path I took when I bought an insurance agency after a few years working in construction. Small business is a good fit for many of us. On average, we’re more entrepreneurial than the general public — 45 percent more likely, in fact, to be self-employed compared to others of similar backgrounds and circumstances, according to a study by the Small Business Administration (SBA). In 2012, veterans owned or co-owned 2.5 million businesses — about nine percent of all U.S. businesses.
To help more veterans set up shop, our nation must do two things: First, we must boost entrepreneurship among veterans who have lower rates of self-employment and small business ownership. Second, we should lower the barriers to small business ownership for everyone — whether or not they’ve served.
The Veterans Administration and the SBA have already recognized that certain groups of veterans — in particular women, service-disabled and younger vets — are less likely to start small businesses. About nine percent of veterans are women, but women made up only about 4.4 percent of veteran business owners in 2012. That same year, about 14 percent of vets were service disabled, but only about nine percent of veterans who are business owners had a disability connected to their service. And so far, only 4.5 percent of the more than 3.6 million people who have served in the U.S. military since September 11, 2001 have launched a company, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Government-supported programs that promote entrepreneurship among these groups include Syracuse University’s V-Wise, which prepares female veterans to launch businesses through a combination of online and in-person training. The EBV program, also offered by Syracuse, along with a consortium of other universities, provides similar training to service-disabled veterans. Also, federal legislation requires the government to set aside at least 3 percent of its contracts for small businesses owned by veterans disabled in the line of duty.
The SBA also promotes entrepreneurship as a transition strategy for returning service members. Its Boots to Business program — which introduces service members to entrepreneurship through a two-day course at military bases, followed by an eight-week online course — has been found to bump up participants’ interest and confidence in starting businesses for themselves.
The hurdles anyone has to face in starting a business are high. Those who aspire to own a small business must learn to comply with the regulations of their fields, save money for start-up costs, budget for overhead costs like supplies and an array of insurance fees, navigate the tricky waters of borrowing capital and find investors.
None of that just shows up on day one.
New business owners are taking on a big risk — it’s sink or swim, just like joining the armed forces. No one else is responsible for the bottom line. But the intangibles, like being responsible for your own earnings and day-to-day responsibilities and not having a boss to tell you what to do and when to do it, add up to a much-improved quality of life and, for me, high satisfaction with my job.
According to an Allstate survey, 90 percent of business owners say the benefits of owning a business outweigh the challenges. By making it easier and less costly to start a business, eliminating unnecessary red-tape and leveling the playing field for anyone who wants to get a business off the ground, we can benefit millions of Americans, including many who have served.
Because of the expectations the military places on them, veterans have a tireless work ethic. From my experience, we’re quick learners who are dependable and adaptable, and who know how to rise to a challenge. For all those reasons, we should put our trust in veterans to boost our economy — by ensuring they have the tools they need to launch a business and grow it into a long-term success.
George Mautz owns an Allstate insurance agency in Warrenton, Virginia. He served as an active duty Marine from 1991 to 1999 and spent three-and-a-half years in the Reserves.