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Bridging the skills gap one vet at a time

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When Army veteran Torrie McLaughlin graduates next May from Robert Morris University with a master's degree in competitive intelligence and big-data analytics and a concentration in enterprise systems, there's a full-time job waiting for her at PNC.

PNC and other companies are doing their part to bridge the chasm between the number of skilled computer graduates and the number of computing jobs that will need to be filled by 2020 -- which some put at 1 million -- by offering specialized training to veterans.

During McLaughlin's eight years in the Army, she served in various roles that required intelligence gathering and professional development and training. But she never thought about being a computer programmer before signing up for her first programming class in 2013, where she learned to code with Cobol.

Through IBM's Academic Initiative program, which works with universities to prepare students for technology jobs, McLaughlin went on to advanced Cobol and eventually got an internship at PNC.

"When we get out of the military, we have no idea how our abilities relate to civilian culture," McLaughlin said. "I was in the military for eight years, but some are in for 20 years.… You don't know how your skills translate."

The IBM program made a world of difference in McLaughlin's choice of career.

"I never considered myself a computer geek," she said. "Even now I look at what I'm doing and I still can't believe I'm doing it. I code. I make computer programs. I never would have imagined I could do this."

McLaughlin said IT and data-oriented fields are ideal for veterans because their military training focuses on detail and rigor, which allows them to quickly pick up computer science and programming.

"Service men and women coming out of the military have already gone through that training -- having critical thinking skills, the ability to follow a step-by-step process and having the dedication that it takes to figure it out on your own," she added.

Connecting vets with the right tools

Veteran-specific programs offer many of the same sorts of training and opportunities, often geared to a specific certification.

The IBM program McLaughlin participated in seeks to prepare people of all backgrounds for careers in big data, enterprise architecture and other fast-growing IT fields, but IBM has other programs for veterans.

The company's Veterans Employment Accelerator program gives qualified veterans free certification training for IBM's i2 Analyst's Notebook software. After veterans are certified, the company and its partners help them find jobs as data analysts.

"Data is the next natural resource, and industry experts predict that businesses will need to hire nearly 200,000 data analysts by the year 2018," wrote Diane Melley, vice president for global citizenship initiatives at IBM, in a blog post. "With qualified candidates in short supply and many experienced military veterans seeking to align their skills with civilian markets, IBM saw a natural opportunity to help."

A pilot version of the program launched last month and graduated 90 percent of participants with an i2 certification. IBM and its nonprofit partners -- Corporate America Supports You and the Military Spouse Corporate Career Network -- are expanding the program next year and will host a series of five-day training sessions at locations nationwide.

After participants pass the i2 certification exam, IBM and its corporate partners -- JPMorgan Chase, Boeing, Citigroup and USAA -- have agreed to put them at the head of the line for employment consideration.

Easing the workforce transition

IBM isn't the only company to recognize that veterans offer a pool of potential IT professionals.

The Northern Virginia Technology Council launched its Veterans Employment Initiative in August 2013. It offers an online community, job board and tools designed to help service members transition into the civilian workforce.

Those tools include a military skills translator to match military skills to civilian jobs, a searchable database of jobs at NVTC member companies and educational resources. Since the program's launch, more than 300 companies have posted job openings, and there is a database of 970,000 veterans that employers can search through.

"It's not easy, and there are people who are more technologically inclined than others, but this job field is big on critical thinking skills," McLaughlin said. "Veterans have the ability to look at things and see small details, like making sure all the periods are in the right place in a line of code."

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

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