A quarter of a million U.S. military members return home each year to a higher rate of unemployment than the rest of the workforce. Government agencies and private sector groups have been working to change that with programs for veterans seeking to start their own businesses rather than work for someone else.
The latest federal effort, Operation Boots to Business, will launch as a training program for marines nearing the end of their service and those recently discharged. Mike Haynie, director of Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, helped design the program and was at the launch at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia on July 12. “We already had folks in the room with business ideas,” he says. The institute will operate Boots to Business at four Marine bases this year, and it may be expanded to other branches of the military in 2013. Funded from existing programs to help service members transition to civilian careers, it will offer several stages, including eight weeks of online training to teach veterans the elements of business ownership.
Recent efforts by businesses have similar goals. Next week the TechStars accelerator is sponsoring a Patriot Boot Camp for about 75 veterans who want to start technology companies. In August, Google (GOOG) is hosting a daylong event (PDF) in San Diego for veteran small business owners. (Both efforts are supported by Haynie’s group.)
Veterans who served during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a group of about 2.6 million people, are suffering disproportionately from the poor job market. The unemployment rate for this generation of vets was 12.1 percent last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure appears to have declined this year, to 9.5 percent in June, but unemployment among recent veterans remains higher than the population as a whole.
Returning service members often have more difficulty finding jobs because of a “cultural divide,” says Randy Plunkett, the director of community and government outreach for Military.com, an online community owned by Monster Worldwide (MWW). “The great divide is the gap of translating their language and their military skills into terminology that a civilian recruiter or employer can understand.”
President Barack Obama called for two joint-task forces last year to help solve veteran unemployment. The Boots to Business initiative is one of the results. “Entrepreneurship and small business ownership are key opportunities for service members as they transition into civilian life,” says Karen Mills, chief of the U.S. Small Business Administration. The SBA anticipates that 1,600 marines in the pilot program will complete the online course.
Haynie says Boots to Business is meant to supplement other opportunities such as completing college or graduate degrees or taking traditional jobs. “We’re not encouraging this over pursuing traditional employment opportunities,” he says. “But now, we’re offering different tracks. We’re introducing for the first time business ownership as a potential vocation for transitioning service members in a way that’s focused.”
Taylor McLemore, co-founder of social gaming company Prediculous, is organizing TechStars’ Patriot Boot Camp and says the three-day program will help open up the entrepreneurial technology community to veterans, using TechStars’ network and resources. “Veterans are returning home with a great set of skills,” he says. “They’re an underutilized resource that we as a country have a responsibility to support. A big part of providing these programs is providing more control over [veterans’] own work and business lives.”