- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2015

When Emir Zapanta left the Army after serving 10 years as a cook, he had a Purple Heart from a mortar attack in Iraq, experience feeding 3,600 hungry troops — but few job prospects that could use those skills.

In dealing with the Veterans Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment office, Mr. Zapanta said, he received little direct interaction with counselors other than emails and never heard back when he sent out resumes.

“In the Army, they give you a goal, an objective. And then when they tell me that, I know how to meet that,” Mr. Zapanta told The Washington Times. “It’s kind of like, I’m lost in the sea and don’t have any direction.”

Mr. Zapanta graduated last week from a training program offered by SAP National Security Services (SAP NS2) that helps veterans transition to civilian life. That includes finding jobs with big names such as Northrop Grumman, NASA and the Agriculture Department.

Because of his affiliation with the training program, Mr. Zapanta said, he is prepared for interviews, has phone calls returned regularly and is optimistic that he will get a job he loves doing cybersecurity or data management for the federal government.

“I haven’t felt like this in a long time, really excited for a job as I look for a job because they really gave me some opportunity,” he said.

Mark Testoni, chief executive officer of SAP NS2, based in Rockville, Maryland, said enlisted troops who deployed returned home with great skill sets but lacked college degrees or training that made it difficult for them to find work.

SAP NS2 is involved with cybersecurity issues and runs mobile software solutions, cloud computing and data centers for the U.S. government and defense contractors, among others.

Unable to find the kinds of candidates he was looking to hire, Mr. Testoni set out to train some from within the company.

Inspired by a similar program in Dubai that gave disaffected youths technological skills, Mr. Testoni, who retired from the Air Force in 1997, launched the first training class called SAP NS2 Serves in March 2014. The group that graduated last week is the third to complete the 11-week course.

“The young men and women that were overdeployed, often the ones who were over there getting shot at if they don’t have a college degree, their resume has a tendency not to make it very far,” Mr. Testoni said. “We said, ‘Let’s take those great skills that they get in the military — focus on mission, teamwork, not going to be denied, an attitude that has helped this country prevail — let’s now take that and layer some really sought-after technical skills on top that [to] make them more attractive.’”

The competitive program sometimes receives as many as 500 resumes for 20 open spots, Mr. Testoni said. Because of the high demand, he said, more private companies should offer similar training programs to give back to the national security community.

The first week of the course offers veterans a chance to improve their communications skills with resume tips, interviewing skills, advice on how to speak and present themselves professionally, and other help that Mr. Zapanta said translates directly to confidence in job interviews.

Unemployment among veterans has improved over the past year but remains a large problem. Among those who served after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the unemployment rate in 2014 was 7.2 percent, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Despite a 1.8 percent improvement over the previous year, that is higher than a 6.1 percent average unemployment rate among the general population in 2014.

As part of the effort to end unemployment among veterans, the VA offers an employment “toolkit” online that includes a job database, a schedule of job fairs, resources for those interested in starting small businesses and a link to a thesaurus that helps veterans describe their military experiences in ways civilians can understand on resumes.

Lawmakers are working to help veterans as well. The House passed a bill last week that would provide the Veterans Affairs secretary with more power to give preference to companies that employ veterans when awarding contracts.

A recent civic health index report from the veterans group Got Your Six found that those who have served are more likely to vote and have positive effects on their communities and neighbors. Still, the perception of veterans as “broken heroes” persists because of post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related issues.

Mr. Testoni said any employee can bring problems — mental health or otherwise — to their jobs, but veterans often are able to manage issues and bring invaluable contributions to companies.

“Why would you not take somebody who has all these other great skill sets?” he said.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. launched a push to hire 100,000 veterans in 2013 to bring those skills to the company. For Memorial Day this year, the company is committing to hire 250,000 veterans by 2020. Any veteran who was honorably discharged since Memorial Day 2013 and meets other basic hiring criteria has a position at the company, according to the website.

Comcast launched an initiative last week to hire 10,000 reservists, veterans and military spouses or domestic partners by 2017.

Mr. Testoni said 100 percent of graduates from his company’s program have job offers within 60 days, and the lowest starting salary so far has been $55,000 a year. Many are making more than $60,000.

Computer Sciences Corp. hired four graduates from the program in early 2014 and said their military experience “has proven invaluable to their teams,” according to a company newsletter. These success stories help boost the legacy of the program, paving the way for other participants to land jobs after graduation, Mr. Testoni said.

Mr. Zapanta has been on several job interviews and is waiting to hear back in the next few weeks from the companies. For him, it’s about more than a paycheck or a job; it’s a chance to set a good example for his four children to succeed.

“I really want to be a role model for my kids, that this injury doesn’t stop me,” he said. “That way, when it’s their turn to go to college, they don’t have any excuse.”

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