One of the problems military veterans have long faced is matching their skills learned in the armed forces to the needs of civilian employers, an issue Congress continues to grapple with in the fiscal 2019 spending bills.
Many military jobs translate perfectly into the civilian sector — repairing an Abrams tank is much like repairing any heavy piece of machinery, for example — but many combat and leadership skills do not, on the surface, directly transfer.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program is at the forefront of helping veterans find the right job after military service. The program’s counselors help assess capabilities of veterans and help men and women veterans find the right job.
But the VR&E program, as it is known, is often short of counselors and funding. Federal law requires that there be one counselor for every 125 veterans seeking full-time work. But the program never quite reaches that ratio.
VR&E would have to have added 266 new full-time counselors to meet that requirement, but the Veterans Benefits Administration only added 61 full-time workers for 2018, and slashed the budget for estimated overtime for counselors from nearly a million dollars to $500,000 through 2019, leaving more veterans unassisted, according to the American Legion.
But now a startup company that uses artificial intelligence may be able to make up some of this gap in matching veterans to the right civilian jobs.
SkillMil, a San Francisco-based startup, was founded by a former Navy submarine commander, Noel Gonzalez in 2016, during his time at the Stanford Research Institute. Gonzalez’s company has designed software, driven by artificial intelligence algorithms, that translates the byzantine array of military job codes into an assessment relevant to civilian employers.
And then SkillMil seeks to link veterans to civilian jobs that will fit their skills.
The software is still in the stage of testing and fixing bugs, but SkillMil has already retained six companies with more than 2500 veterans waiting for help, Gonzalez said.
Last year, using SkillMil’s beta version of the software, the company matched 40 percent of a test group to jobs, with an 80 percent satisfaction rate, and lower job turnover than usual, Gonzalez said.
Normally, during the first 18 months after veterans leave the military, they have high job turnover and go through three or four companies before they find the right fit and stable employment, Gonzalez said. He traces that to the VA’s dependence on counselors and the relative inaccuracy of human matching.
This was a subject that Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, talked about at an artificial intelligence summit recently in Washington. Kratsios acknowledged that artificial intelligence raises fears of job losses as machines take over the more routine kinds of work that humans now do.
But, he said, artificial intelligence “is not only about displacing workforce, but also about ensuring the right pipeline for more skilled workers, including the matching and training of veterans’ skill sets,” Kratsios said.
Congress takes a look
Congress has long been interested in new ways to get veterans into full-time stable employment. In the Senate's version of the 2019 appropriations bill, senators call for the Energy secretary, in consultation with the Defense secretary, to determine which military bases should partner with community colleges, universities and the private sector “to train veterans and members of the Armed Forces transitioning to civilian life to enter the cybersecurity, energy, and artificial intelligence workforces.”
Gonzalez said that his experience so far with SkillMil shows that veterans can be placed, not in minimum wage jobs, but in good paying jobs in modern economic sectors such as cybersecurity, supply-chain logistics, aviation, and energy.
Artificial intelligence should be able to show the way to more automatic profiling and matching of veterans to appropriate jobs, Gonzalez says.
SkillMil has started working with Amazon.com on its Delivery Service Partner program, which encourages veteran entrepreneurs to launch their own truck delivery companies, comprised of between 20 to 40 vans, to help streamline the flow of Amazon’s deliveries in what the company call’s its critical last mile — before it reaches a customer’s doorstep.
“The ultimate goal of the partnership is to make sure SkillMil becomes the de facto veteran’s job matching with Amazon,” Gonzalez said. Amazon has set up a $1 million fund to help veterans with startup costs of these local delivery services.
Joe Sharpe, the veteran’s employment director at the American Legion, said big tech companies, such as Amazon, are increasingly using targeted employment programs aimed at military veterans.
The most recent Department of Labor statistics show that the unemployment rate for calendar year 2017 for veterans serving in the military since September 2001, stood at 4.5 percent, and was slightly higher than the overall national unemployment rate for 2017 of 3.9 percent.
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