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Serving those who served us: a case study of service learning
Article Type: Guest editorial From: American Journal of Business, Volume 29, Issue 3/4
Service to one's country has long been a respected calling with the USA for many young men and women. Over the years some individuals have served for a few years and others strive to make a career of the military. The training, educational opportunities, and leadership skills one gains while in the military are often touted by recruiters to be a selling point to young recruits as highly marketable skills inside and outside of the military. Though the time spent in the military can be both rewarding and challenging to the individual at some point in time all veterans look to leave the service and transition to outside employment.
For many veterans returning from war or leaving the service can be a time of great pride for themselves and their country (Feist-Price and Khanna, 2011). However, for many veterans the trauma they have experienced while in the service can make the process of outside readjustment a significant problem specifically with personal relationships, and attaining civilian employment (Feist-Price and Khanna, 2011). Often veterans will note when returning home they feel unnoticed, unappreciated, and claim the inability for others to truly understand what they have experienced (Feist-Price and Khanna, 2011).
The Global War on Terror (GWT) as deployed an estimated 2.1 million American in one capacity or another in military service (Church, 2009). Overseas tours are often extended, military personnel are being asked to serve multiple overseas tours and the chances of injury have increased substantially (Church, 2009). Out of the above referenced troops, an estimated 840,000 veterans are predicted to eventually apply for disability benefits of some sort (Stiglitz and Bilmes, 2008). A number of studies have demonstrated the veterans of the GWT experience higher rates of mental health problems upon their return home than veterans of previous wars (Burnett-Zeigler et al., 2011). There are three major types of injuries or trauma experienced by veterans of the GWT: physical injuries from blasts such as burns, amputations and orthopedic injuries; operational stress injuries and mental health injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injuries (Stiglitz and Bilmes, 2008). In total, 20 percent of those participating in the GWT have spinal cord or brain injuries and 18 percent experience serious wounds (Bilmes, 2007). Six percent of the troops have some type of amputations is higher than those sustained in the Vietnam War and the level of disability is higher for the current war than any prior war (Auerbach, 2006).
Currently there are more than six million veterans who have some sort of service-related disability and more than 700,000 are unemployed in any given month (Ruh et al., 2009). In addition many who are fortunate enough to find employment are considered to be under-employed as they are working part-time. According to a United States Department of Labor (2008) study over 200,000 veterans with service-related disabilities will enter the civilian job market as they leave the military in coming years and this number is thought to increase as the military downsizes. Many veterans have found it difficult to obtain civilian employment after completing their military service for a variety of reasons (Heaton and Krull, 2012; Ruh et al., 2009). The significant reduction in employment opportunities for veterans transitioning out of the military is in part attributed to the reduction in manufacturing and construction jobs, but the real problem lies with the numerous treatment gaps offered to veterans and the resulting snowball effect these gaps have on potential employment (Heaton and Krull, 2012). The unemployment rate among male veterans ages 18-24 was shown to be 22 percent in recent research (Heaton and Krull, 2012) and 17.4 percent in another study (American Community Survey, as cited in Heaton and Krull, 2012). Ultimately, the unemployment rate among veterans is routinely higher than the rest of the US populations.
Another issue associated with veterans leaving the military is the issue of homelessness. The reasons for an individual being homeless in the USA varies and it is important to recognize each of these groups, even veterans, have very unique needs. About one-third of the adult homeless population have served their country in the Armed Forces at some point in their careers (Feist-Price and Khanna, 2011). Research has shown an estimated 154,000 homeless veterans in the USA on any given day (US Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009) and some researchers have estimated this figure could potentially be as much as double given the challenges to gather valid data (Feist-Price and Khanna, 2011). In addition to those veterans already on the street there are many veterans at risk of being homeless because of their level of poverty and lack of support in their search for employment (US Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009).
There are a number of factors which contribute to veteran unemployment and subsequently to a growing national problem of veteran homelessness. Disabilities related to their military service is a tremendous cause and the lack of adequate social support only compounds this issue (Foster, 2008; Schnurr and Cozza, 2004). The most prevalent disability among veterans is the prominence of PTSD (O'Brien, 2011). This disability is often discriminated against as it is manifested in poor interpersonal skills and frequent job loss (Foster, 2008). “You send us over to fight for your freedoms, we come back and there's nothing here for us; nobody seems to see us, we’re kind of pushed to the background” (Greenwood, 2011, p. 8).
Each of the above referenced challenges has therefore compounded to create a tremendous economic hardship for veterans. Though veterans will often leave the military with an impressive set of skills, abilities, and personality traits that can be beneficial in the employment search; actually looking for employment can often be a challenging process (Ruh et al., 2009). The most important issue to troops returning from military service is the ability to find a job (Feist-Price and Khanna, 2011).
While veterans desire to return to a life of normalcy and economic self-sufficiency they often experience incredible economic pressure. These individuals consistently suffer higher unemployment rates than non-veterans of the same age, service connected disabilities and a dismal economy that further complicates matters (Feist-Price and Khanna, 2011, p. 31).
Veterans returning from service require a great deal of assistance with respect to the employment search (Hersberger, 2005). It is important to understand veterans require more than being given a simple list of available jobs as many employment assistance programs offer. According to Ratcliff and Shilito (1996) in order to ensure a veteran's success it is important to focus on a wide variety of job readiness skills including resume preparation, interviewing techniques, and job seeking strategies. “Research has shown that the key to successful transition to long-term employment is support services provided within a community context” (Feist-Price and Khanna, 2011, p. 38).
Service learning toward a solution
A pedagogical approach which is gaining popularity is service-learning, which looks to combine traditional academic study with a community service component (Ngai, 2006). Service-learning offers students a mechanism to connect their personal beliefs with academic study. Students are able to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-world situations. Service-learning has been shown to have strong impact on student's intellectual growth, personal development, and social commitment (Markus et al., 1993; Rhoads, 1998; Gray et al., 1996; Astin et al., 2000). Studies have demonstrated higher levels of academic achievement and increased efforts in school work among service-learning participants compared with nonparticipants (Gray et al., 1996). Astin et al. (2000) found significant improvement in writing skills, critical thinking, grades, and increases in leadership and self-confidence among students participating in service-learning. Bringle and Hatcher (1996) define service-learning as:
A course based, credit bearing education experience in which students participate in an organized service activity in such a way that meets identified community needs, and reflect on the service activity in such a way to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility (p. 222).
Service-learning programs are a mechanism to improve numerous social issues and aid the student in their education. Educational programs, such as the integration of service-learning, play an important role in the process of veterans transitioning from military service to the civilian workforce (Ruh et al., 2009). In empirical research service-learning was shown to have a transformational impact on student learning; embedding the learning on a much deeper level (Kiely, 2005). Service-learning is therefore offered in this paper as an effective mechanism to highlight a very practical solution to a very difficult problem; while also educating those participating in the service-learning experience.
During the fall semester of 2012 a group of students from Cleveland State University organized to establish a program within their community to assist veterans with their search for employment. They were made aware of the need from a Volunteers of America employee who knew of the challenges the VA Domiciliary (DOM) within the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center facility staff had regarding this issue. The veterans within the Domiciliary were treated for a variety of reasons over a matter of weeks or months at a time. The veterans who would be working with the students were looking to transition out of the facility, and part of the transition process was the ability to gain employment. Until the students became involved there was one DOM employee charged with assisting the veterans with this process and this was not at all sufficient to meet the needs of the patients. Therefore, many veterans had not received any assistance with the job search process, were subsequently released from the facility, many became homeless, and often they would return to the DOM to repeat their treatment.
So the Veterans Resume Project was founded and each month a contingent of human resource graduate and undergraduate students meet at the VA DOM facility on a Saturday morning for three hours. During the sessions the students work one-on-one with the veterans to assist them with job search requirements. Initially the goal of the initiative was to help them develop a solid resume in their employment search. Veterans arrive often with no resume at all and never having written one in their careers. Students spend numerous hours, often spanning several months, discussing the veteran's background, interviewing them, coaching them on how best to “craft” their skills and knowledge, teaching them writing, computer, and grammar skills, assisting with many aspects of the job search process, and ultimately striving to develop the vets self-confidence.
Prior to the first meeting at the DOM students will often share their reluctance for working so closely with the veterans. The students will often state, “I don’t know what I am doing? How can I help them when I have only talked about this in class?” Then after the first session students will note what an amazing experience it was for them and several students have stated, “I can do this. I had no idea I could!”
As was noted earlier, many veterans when leaving the service experience tremendous difficulty in the search for employment based on any number of disabilities associated with their time in the service. When the Veterans Resume Project began the project members assumed their task was simply to review existing resume and offer helpful feedback toward improvement. However, during the very first meeting it was apparent the veterans had many challenges in their quest for re-integration and the one-on-one mechanism with the students was extremely beneficial. The veterans often exhibit low self-confidence and do not see the merit of their service-related skills. Many of the veterans have poor to no computer skills and feel embarrassed by their lack of knowledge. Many of them have writing, spelling, and reading challenges which compounds their lack of self-esteem. Also, consistently the veterans have no knowledge of contemporary job search techniques and have never been on a formal interview. The students knew very quickly their job was extremely important and they had an opportunity to make a real change in their community.
Since the inception of the Veterans Resume Project a number of additional initiatives have begun as a result of the project. For example, in addition to developing a marketable resume the students also now work with the veterans on cover letters, navigating the digital employment application world, mock interview sessions, and general coaching opportunities.
This original initiative of the Veterans Resume Project has broadened as time has passed to include many of the additional challenges the students encountered. Students are now assigned to teams based on the needs of the veterans. One student team works in a classroom with veterans who have no resume at all and need to start from the beginning. These student have developed a series of worksheets designed to aid in the interview process so all the resume information will be written out prior to entering the computer lab. Another team works in the computer lab and works one-on-one with the veterans looking to develop a solid resume. During these sessions the students are asked to assess the computer proficiency of their vet and to teach them computer skills through the process. Students are told to “have the vets do their own typing” and often this can be a slow process. However, this is how the veterans will learn computer skills, gain self-confidence, and take ownership of their search for employment. A third team works with the veterans who have completed their resume to work on interview skills and to navigate online job boards.
Another important component of the program expansion has been an effort to recruit student veterans in the project. Student veterans understand the military language, can ask appropriate questions in the interview process, and gain immediate buy in from the DOM veterans.
Prior to joining the Veteran's Resume Project students undergo a training course designed to aid in their understanding of the veterans needs and challenges. This training course is designed and delivered by students who were part of the Veterans Resume Project from inception. According to Atkins (2011) it is important in regard to any outreach initiative to first gain a strong understanding of the needs of the veterans. Students are coached on the goals, challenges, protocols, and potential issues they may encounter.
The impact of this initiative on the veterans has been tremendous but, at this point the findings are purely anecdotal. During the two years of this program a total of 249 veterans have gone through the program and many have returned to tell the students they found permanent employment. The veterans have not simply developed a solid resume which can be used in the job search but, many have developed a cover letter, learned computer skills, gained confidence in their skills and abilities, learned how to interview, and learned about the contemporary virtual employment world. One veteran early on in the project came to a session with no computer skills at all and great fear of the computer. Before he left that day he stated, “Today I learned how to save.”
The impact on the students has also been quite remarkable and many have continued to be involved with the project even when they did not receive courses credit. The students have consistently noted the increase in their own self-efficacy with respect to their HR skills and how this would transfer in their professional lives. Currently, a longitudinal qualitative study is underway to empirically test the impact on both the students and the veterans.
Dr Tracy H. Porter, Department of Management, Monte Ahuja College of Business, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
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