Nobody likes to talk about the 800-pound gorilla in the room during a job interview, and in the case of retired Marine Capt. Jake Dobberke, that “gorilla” took the form of a pair of prosthetic legs.
A roadside bomb in Afghanistan had ripped off both of his legs below the knee, broken his left elbow, torn his left knee, and left him with a mild concussion in October 2011.
So when it came time to job hunt after 11 long months of rehabilitation, Dobberke decided to attack any awkwardness with interviewers by employing the tenacious mindset of a U.S. Marine: He addressed his injury head-on.
“A lot of people during my interviews didn't ask the questions until I started talking about what I could and couldn't do,” he says. “Eventually, the conversation is going to go there if it's a wounded warrior interviewing for a job. Companies want to know if you have special considerations. They want to know how they can be supportive and what to provide.”
Today, Dobberke is production manager at LeJeune Steel Co. of Minneapolis, a subsidiary of APi Companies. He oversees 70 employees and gets around the steel operation despite his injuries. He's also working on his Master of Business Administration at the University of Minnesota, with an expected 2016 graduation date.
Dobberke found the transition into leadership in the civilian workplace easy because of his officer background. “The human aspect of leadership comes up constantly as an officer in the Marines,” he says. “You gain a lot of skills working with people and solving problems. This position is more familiar to a position I would have as a company grade officer, as a captain in charge of a company.”
Dobberke and job-hunting experts agree that not only can wounded officers find a job, but they also can find one that is fulfilling with great career prospects. It's just a matter of patience and following a systematic plan, one that, as Dobberke found, emphasizes open communication with recruiters and employers to build trust and acceptance.
The road to employment
It wasn't an overnight process for Dobberke; all told, his journey to employment took 14 months. That might seem daunting, particularly if you focus on the unemployment rate of 9.9 percent among post-9/11 veterans, nearly three percentage points higher than the jobless rate overall, as reported in November 2013 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Among Gulf War II-era veterans, 28 percent reported a service-connected disability in August 2012, compared with 14 percent of all veterans, the BLS says.
Emotions can run high among those new to the job search, says Jennifer Silva, executive vice president of Economic Empowerment at Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). The organization serves warriors who have physical or emotional wounds from post-9/11 service.
“Sometimes there are high expectations,” Silva says. “There's a lot of veteran-friendly press out there that sometimes makes the warriors feel out of the gate that they're going to get a job easily. There's a little bit of that. But then there is also some fear. This is an unknown workplace. There can be fear with memory issues and maybe feeling like you're not part of an amazing mission anymore. It's a big transition for the veteran.”
Veterans immediately should shore up support, Silva says. For example, Dobberke partnered with recruiting firm Bradley-Morris Inc. to aid his search, and other recruiting firms (Orion, Cameron-Brooks, and Lucas Group, to name a few) specialize in linking veterans with civilian employers.
Veterans who register for help with the WWP can expect “a high-touch approach,” Silva says. During FY 2013, the WWP placed 1,000 wounded veterans in jobs, and the goal is to place double that in FY 2014. The organization has 19 programs, including “Warriors to Work.” “If the warrior we're serving needs other assistance, we provide them with the other programs,” Silva explains.
In addition, the WWP has 15 regional specialists who get to know each veteran's needs. “We don't have one model that fits all,” Silva says. “We have some wounded warriors [who] are more ready for the job hunt than others. We get to know them and realize where they are. If they're ready to go, we work with them in lockstep. We want to honor and empower them.”
Then, cast a wide net. Think outside the box in terms of how your military skills apply to various industries. “Organizations have many types of business units,” Silva says. “CSX (railroad) handles logistics in the train industry and is a partner of ours. They also have accounting, HR [human resources], railroad police. Every job seeker needs to think of many aspects of the business, not just, 'I don't want to work with trains.' ”
Dobberke kept an open mind when searching. “When looking at industries, the steel industry isn't something that jumped out at me,” he says. “The reason I joined this company was for the leadership opportunities. That's what I like to do. I like to manage, lead, work with other people, lead others to a common goal.”
Realize “good old-fashioned face-to-face networking is key,” says former two-term Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy. Murphy is a decorated Iraq War veteran and an MSNBC contributor and now works as a partner at law firm Fox Rothschild in Philadelphia.
When he was a U.S. representative, Murphy hired a wounded veteran as a legislative assistant. “In that case, we went to the same high school different years,” he says. “To me, this was all about doing a good job of being a battle buddy. When you get back to your home of record, make sure you get leverage through the social ties you have. Also get involved with community-oriented veterans' programs, like Team Red, White & Blue or The Mission Continues. They help returning veterans network with folks who have made the transition.” (Read: The Team Red, White & Blue interview in Military Officer.)
Stephen Norred is managing partner at Dallas recruiting firm Kaye Bassman International Corp. and is also a 22-year Navy veteran. During each job interview, wounded officers should be aware of existing perceptions and misperceptions about their conditions, he says. In particular, many of the unknowns surrounding post-traumatic stress weigh heavily on recruiters' minds.
“Brand yourself as qualified by articulating your overall mental health,” Norred says. “During the interview, you can discuss where you did your tours, how they have or have not affected you, and how it affects you as an overall candidate. Be ready to talk about it, to the point that the interviewer is comfortable with it. Make others comfortable with your disability and allow them to know you're comfortable with your disability. You must articulate this in an interview.”
Mike Echols, Ph.D., executive vice president at Bellevue University's Human Capital Lab in Nebraska recently has been working one-on-one with an Iraq veteran-turned-financial-sales consultant who struggles with PTSD.
In this veteran's case, airline terminals are threatening because of noise and commotion, Echols says. If an episode hits during a business meeting, the veteran excuses himself to go to the restroom to calm down. His supervisor is aware of the situation and just explains to those in the meeting their colleague has to step out and will be right back.
“You're looking for a strong, positive relationship, and being candid is positive for the veteran and the employer to help deal with the reality,” Echols says.
Dobberke also has communicated his physical limitations to his employer.
“The company and employees are supportive of me and know I'm a wounded warrior,” he says. “Based on my medical needs, they know I need to rest regularly and sit down. Standing on prosthetics, I get sore throughout the day. Walking around is better, but standing in one place and talking for an hour is not something I can do. When I am talking with someone, I will suggest we sit down.”