Filling the STEM Void: Why Veterans are the Answer

The United States is home to more than 21 million veterans, with more returning from active duty every day. A significant challenge facing these veterans is securing and retaining employment. At the same time, it is projected that by 2018, 2.4 million science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs will go unfilled. Some may see these as two unlinked issues, but for me they are tied together, with one problem creating an opportunity to solve the other.

STEM fields, such as IT, are full of opportunity for veterans to pursue meaningful careers that also align with skills they learned in the military. STEM fields also provide great opportunity for veterans to choose an occupational pathway that aligns with market needs. In fact, these careers often have more job opportunities even during economic downturns. The low unemployment rate within STEM, particularly IT (2.3 percent), often translates into higher salaries, as employers compete for candidates with the right skills and work experience.

Through research funded by the National Science Foundation, I and Dr. Eileen Trauth, an emeritus professor at Penn State University, surveyed military personnel to examine factors that determine this group’s willingness to choose IT careers. Understanding these factors is critical to assess how veterans can meet this growing workforce need.

When cross-examining military experience and IT careers, the research showed a strong connection between the two. This includes both hard and soft skills needed for such jobs. For example, several participants revealed they had significant IT experience while serving in the military, along with other soft or transferable skills such as leadership, team work, attention to detail and problem solving. Not surprisingly, veterans who participated showed a strong connection between their military experiences and being in the IT profession, and in particular, the cyber-security field.

While military training provides veterans with the work experience and soft skills that are in high demand by employers, the research also showed several barriers veterans face as they re-enter the workforce, including the lack of a formal degree, stereotypes about veterans and STEM, and difficulty in positioning/marketing their IT skills developed through military training and education to business organizations.

For employers looking to hire veterans here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Most veterans have some kind of disability; be sensitive to their needs.
  2. Transitioning from military to civilian work environments is challenging; consider creating a mentoring program or buddy system that can aid their socialization process.
  3. Have some veteran presence in your HR team – veterans can help recruit a veteran better than a civilian.

While veterans are clearly in a unique position to help fill the STEM talent gap in the United States, understanding the opportunities that exist for them in these fields is only the first step. Businesses, communities, universities and colleges, and even veterans themselves, need to take steps to overcome the barriers that may hold veterans back from pursing gainful employment in these fields.

 Acknowledgements

This research is being funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (HRD #1245195). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

K.D. Joshi is a professor in the WSU Carson College of Business’ Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship. Joshi’s research interests focus on knowledge management, design science, healthcare IT, crowdsourcing, and information technology (IT) workforce issues.


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