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Veterans in Tech: The Next Mission

January 25, 2018

As Americans, it’s important that we honor the incredible service of individuals who have served in the military. With more than 20 million living veterans in the United States, there’s plenty to celebrate. And though these remarkable men and women no longer wear the uniform, they are finding new ways to serve others as civilians.

“You see a lot of our student veterans gravitate toward tech areas, toward healthcare where they can serve people in a different way, the not-for-profit business sector where they can continue to help people, and politics where they can serve the American public in a different way,” said Dr. Rory Cooper, founder and director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The underlying theme seems to be finding an organization that has a mission they believe in and support and being able to serve others.”

Photo: Human Engineering Research Laboratories

Photo: Human Engineering Research Laboratories

For years, employers have seen the value in hiring veterans. In fact, corporations report veterans among their top three recruiting targets. Hiring Our Heroes reports that employers across industries say employees who have served in the military show more discipline, commitment and leadership.

“The military is a unique org in the way that everybody has to be a leader. Everybody is given responsibility for somebody below them,” said Dr. Cooper.

Now, with STEM fields rapidly expanding and immense job growth occurring, the tech industry is finding veterans to be a natural fit for their workplaces.

Dr. Cooper shared, “The military is now a highly technical profession…infantry persons themselves deal a lot with the technology, from coordinating drone strikes and complex communications to the technology that they use for navigation vehicles and aircraft systems.”

However, the transition can be challenging. Dr. Cooper and his team heard from veterans who struggled with the transition to college and career. They were often mature students who were more likely to have families and expenses that the average 18-year old student does not, and faced challenges jumping into academia after years in uniform.

Recognizing the need for more support to allow veterans to capitalize on their experience and talents, in 2012 Dr. Cooper launched Experiential Learning for Veterans in Assistive Technology and Engineering (ELeVATE), a three-phased program to re-integrate veterans.

The idea is if there’s kind of a basic training to become a soldier, airmen, coast guard, that there could be a similar program to help transition to college,” said Dr. Cooper.

Photo: Human Engineering Research Laboratories

Photo: Human Engineering Research Laboratories

Participants in the program begin with a ten-week paid research experience, during which time they complete a team project and receive support in applying to two- and four-year degree programs and preparing their resume. Once accepted and enrolled, the program provides mentorships, study groups and other support.

Originally funded by the National Science Foundation, the program is now supported through various foundations and through an annual fundraising campaign.

“We just kicked off the third campaign this past weekend so we’re looking to raise $25,000. We’re building awareness amongst individuals who perhaps have no direct tie in to the veteran community, but they’re seeing the value and benefit of the program and the success stories we highlight are resonating with them,” shared Randy Williams, coordinator of ELeVATE.

And they have a lot of success stories to choose from. Of the 30 veterans to begin the program so far, 29 have finished—one member was called back to active duty.

One reason for the overwhelming completion rate? ELeVATE shows veterans what they are capable of doing.

“A lot of times veterans don’t realize what their skillset means to the civilian market. They do so much on a daily basis, that sometimes they almost take it for granted,” offered Williams.

“(The EleVATE program} will help drive them and reaffirm their ability to tackle the challenges of these STEM fields…they come out and think ‘I may not be up for what’s asked of a chemistry or engineering program,’ but when they think about it…they were asked to do very complex tasks.”

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Photo: Human Engineering Research Laboratories

Dr. Cooper added, We have a wonderful machine shop and electronic shop. A lot of them gravitate to ward projects using that equipment and gives them an opportunity to recognize the skills that they have. They’re very mission driven from their time in the military… we do a lot of work on tech for people with disabilities and it allows them to use their technical aptitude and continue to serve other people.”

Now in its fifth year, employers come to ELeVATE to seek out their participants. Dr. Cooper recommends that companies have someone in their HR department who specializes in hiring veterans.

“They tend to look different than a traditional resume and it’s difficult for somebody without military knowledge or background to understand the level of responsibility that even young people in the military are given. It’s totally disproportionate to what you’d see in academia or industry.”

He also encourages firms to have veterans’ affinity groups that can improve the workplace culture and help veterans navigate the corporate culture.

Across the country, the ELeVATE model is being adopted by other universities. Visit the ELeVATE website to learn more about the application process and program experience and their fundraising page to support the mission.