LAKELAND, Fla. — When Susannah Wesley-Ahlschwede’s childhood friend, Justin Thomas, called her asking for help with his resume, she jumped at the chance to help the former marine.
Thomas, a decorated veteran with ample experience, was having a hard time finding work in the private sector. After taking a look at his resume, Wesley-Ahlschwede, 33, realized why he wasn’t getting the recognition he deserved.
“It might as well have been in Portuguese,” she joked about his resume.
Thomas didn’t know how to communicate his military services and accomplishments into words a civilian employer could understand. So Wesley-Ahlschwede, a Lakeland native and Lake Gibson High School graduate, fine-tuned Thomas’ resume with some business-friendly language. Soon after, Thomas, who originally couldn’t get a call back from Starbucks, began receiving interview requests and ended up getting a job as a teacher.
The success inspired Wesley-Ahlschwede, who works in public relations, to start Battlefield to Boardroom, a nonprofit that helps transitioning veterans translate military leadership skills to the business world.
“So far, we have helped place 32 veterans this year,” Wesley-Ahlschwede said of the nonprofit, which launched in May. In all, the organization has helped 74 veterans, some before it was an official nonprofit.
Veterans who have served in the military since September 2001, have an unemployment rate of 5.8 percent, which is higher than the general population, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means at least 150,000 veterans are unable to find work once they leave the military.
“We believe the number is much higher, however, because that does not include the vets who have stopped searching,” said Andrew Ahlschwede, 32, executive director of Battlefield to Boardroom and Susannah’s husband. He’s also a Lake Gibson graduate.
To help job-seeking vets break into the work force, Battlefield to Boardroom offers resume development, cover-letter development, interview preparation, customized networking plans, Linkedin profile development and mentorships from industry experts that last for the first year of the veteran’s career. All of these services are free of charge.
Although Ahlschwede said there are several other businesses or programs out there that help veterans in this way, many of them do not offer the services for free.
“We also offer a personalized touch,” he said. “We aren’t here to just churn out a large number, we want to connect them with the top business coaches in their field.”
Gary Eaker, who worked as a practical nurse in the U.S. Army stationed in Alaska, was struggling after leaving the service. Many people assumed he worked in a position that was below that of a nurse, but essentially, he was the chief executive officer of a military hospital on base. Eaker did not know how to translate his position into something a private-sector employer could understand.
This is the number one reason why veterans have a hard time finding work, according to a study conducted by the Center for a New American Security.
So Battlefield to Boardroom worked on his resume, and five hours later he got a call.
“We did interview prep with him, and he did really well,” Ahlschwede said. “He eventually got the job.”
Now, Eaker works as a practice manager at Tanana Valley Clinic in Fairbanks, Alaska. Eaker said he feels amazed by what Battlefield to Boardroom did for him and continues to do for others.
Once Wesley-Ahlschwede saw the need to assist veterans transitioning into civilian work life, she wanted to reach out to some childhood friends who knew about the experience first hand. Two board members, Adam Winchester and Eric Jones, both served in the military and graduated from Lake Gibson as well.
Winchester, 29, a veteran who served in the U.S. Army for 10 years, said it was a reality check when he was discharged from the service.
“From day one (in the military) they puffed us up and told us we would be highly sought after,” he said. “I got out, and people wouldn’t even entertain an interview or resume.”
Winchester said because he didn’t have the knowledge set to translate the skills he learned in the military, employers couldn’t see his value.
When Wesley-Ahlschwede reached out to Winchester and asked for his help with the nonprofit, he knew he wanted to reach out and help others.
“This is so good because it’s really needed,” he said. “I have known so many guys who thought they were going to get out and get great jobs but could’t because their resumes weren’t strong enough.”
During a transition workshop, Winchester said he was told to write down his job duties and skills he performed as a sergeant. Once he was done, he showed it to a teacher in the workshop, who told him it looked good. But when he turned it for a potential job, it was overlooked because it didn’t translate to the employer.
“To me, it made sense, but it wasn’t worded in a way they wanted,” he said. “Joining this nonprofit to help those who are making the same mistakes has renewed my sense of purpose.”
Jones, 33, served eight years in the Navy after graduating from Lake Gibson and left in 2010.
Unlike many veterans after being discharged, Jones was able to find work immediately in defense contracting. This did not require him to know the civilian terms that would impress employers in the private sector.
“I was really fortunate,” Jones said. “I had my work in the military directly translated to my work now.”
But Jones has known many veterans who served with him who have not been as lucky.
“They have struggled to find meaningful employment,” he said.
Battlefield to Boardroom isn’t just trying to help veterans find careers, but also to show companies the value of time served in the military.
Veterans aren’t looking for jobs but careers, and many companies are hesitant to hire people who haven’t completed a four-year degree, Jones said. “Young men and women who have served have learned skills that are directly applicable to the private sector,” Jones said. “They have developed skills to be organized, can manage multiple tasks at the same time and can meet deadlines well ahead of time and exceed expectations…. Those first four years in the military is just like going to college, and we want to enable companies to understand that.”
Another critical aspect of the nonprofit is the ability to offer mentorships to veterans once they have been employed. Ahlschwede said although the vet may be thriving at his or her new career, he or she may need some guidance along the way.
The goal is to pair up professionals in the field with a veteran, who will meet with the vet once a month for a year. Wesley-Ahlschwede said the mentor program is a long-term goal for the nonprofit, which will “roll out” in 2017.
“A lot of professionals have raised their hands to help,” she said.
“Mentorships are critical,” Jones said. “Vets are goal driven and motivated people, so if there is someone to help them keep their eye on the goal, they will succeed.”
Anyone can get involved in the nonprofit, Wesley-Ahlschwede said, by going to battlefieldtoboardroom.us.
Wesley-Ahlschwede said it’s been rewarding helping and getting to know the heroes who have given so much of themselves for the country.
“I feel very personally invested in their futures,” she said.