Despite a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy, Kevin Brylski wasn't sure how his experience would translate to his job as a sales manager for CDW, a Chicago-based provider of technology services and products.
"I had just spent 20 years of my life fighting wars or preparing to fight wars. I had been on teams before, but I had never been a member of a sales team," says the 41-year-old native of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Fortunately for Brylski, CDW's hiring managers did not consider that to be a handicap. Quite the opposite: CDW hired Brylski as a district sales manager of CDW's Navy/Marine Corps Military Health Systems business in 2011, just days after he learned of the job. His ability to take charge, and think on his feet and put the mission first—in this case, serving CDW's corporate clients—proved decisive, says Melissa McMahon, CDW's senior director of talent acquisition.
Military veterans such as Brylski comprise an increasingly important talent pool, McMahon says. The company employs 6,900 people in the U.S. and Canada.
"Veterans have skill sets that are very transferable for us, especially unwavering commitment and the ability to work in a fast-paced, results-driven environment," McMahon says. "The vets we've been fortunate to hire have a drive and a team spirit that we foster and highly value."
CDW participates in the U.S. Army's Partnership for Youth Services, or PaYS, a joint endeavor between the Army and hundreds of leading companies. Participating companies agree to provide job interviews to all qualified soldiers upon completion of their service.
Despite CDW's "feel good" story, soldiers returning from overseas face dreadful job prospects. The federal government estimates that 250,000 active-duty veterans will enter the labor market as U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan this year. During the next five years, 1 million Armed Forces personnel will re-enter civilian life.
For a decade, those soldiers fought a war against terrorism, spending days on high alert and snatching a few hours of restless sleep.
Now, returning vets must gird for a different kind of battle: competing for jobs in an economy that isn't producing them in large numbers.
The unemployment rate among Gulf War-era II veterans—those who have served on active duty at any time since September 2001—is 12 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among male veterans 18 to 24, it is a staggering 29 percent.
The grim news prompted Congress last year to pass the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, which provides tax credits to companies that hire out-of-work veterans. But even the tax breaks aren't proving much of an incentive so far.
Hiring managers often don't understand how military occupations carry over to civilian jobs, says Gregg Ganschaw, the founder of professional training and coaching firm Path.Finding Group, based in St. Louis.
Ganschaw's company and several other organizations will participate this fall in a workshop, titled Return With Purpose, to help vets recognize the valued skills they possess and gain purpose and confidence in the job hunt.
Military job seekers who are used to working in teams often don't know how to sell their skills as individuals, Ganschaw says. Plus, many "have never interviewed for a position and don't know how to negotiate salary and benefits with civilian employers."
At the same time, employers may be reluctant to hire veterans out of concern over mental health issues or the lack of a traditional résumé.
"The majority of employers are currently looking for experienced midcareer workers with Bachelor's or Master's degrees, but few vets have this level of work experience and academic qualifications, Ganschaw says.
In fact, only 39 percent of companies believe people with military experience have the skills to transition to a civilian career, according to the Veterans Talent Index, a survey in May of 900 employers by Monster Worldwide Inc.
Not everything is gloomy: Monster's report also found that 74 percent of companies hired at least one veteran during the past year, with nearly all saying the veteran's work experience "was about the same or much better than nonveteran workers."
Also on the bright side, Monster's report indicates that 60 percent of companies recognize the special skills that vets bring to the table.
Count CDW among the companies that appreciate vets.
The company stepped up recruitment of veterans in recent years. Eighty-three ex-military were hired in 2011, a 46 percent jump from the 57 it hired in 2010, McMahon says.
Recruiters at CDW are measured each quarter on how well they attract veteran candidates. Talent-acquisition professionals, meanwhile, are expected to demonstrate year-over-year improvement on placement of soldiers, McMahon says.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Sean Orquiola, 31, joined CDW in 2003. Originally hired as an account manager, Orquiola was one month into a three-month-long training program when he received deployment orders to Iraq.
"In the blink of an eye, I went from a relaxed, laid-back environment to being in the desert wearing full combat gear," Orquiola says.
While serving in Iraq, Orquiola's job placed him in the middle of intense firefights. He led a squad of eight Marines, whose job was to take charge of injured enemy prisoners and arrange for their transport by helicopter to military hospitals.
But Orquiola says he is lucky. Not only did he survive, but he knew his job at CDW would be waiting when he returned to the states.
After being officially discharged from the Marines in 2005, Orquiola says he was anxious to resume his civilian job. He was promoted in 2006 and now manages a team of 500 account managers. "As a Marine, the No. 1 task is to accomplish the mission. Finish the job: It's the same message I give my team here."
Brylski also taps a management philosophy he learned in the military as he supervises a team of 25 sales reps. The job lets him flex the leadership muscles he developed while in the Navy.
"I learned that you can't lead everybody with an iron fist or with kid gloves. There are two pillars of leadership: trust and showing you care. If you demonstrate that, people will run through walls for you," Brylski says.
Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor. Comment below or email email@example.com.