Serving those who served

Hire a Hero uses social networking to help veterans

A nonprofit Web site is using net-centric techniques to help those leaving active military service with a different kind of fight — landing a good job.

The Armed Forces Support Foundation’s Hire a Hero program (http://www.hireahero.org ) is trying to help members of the military returning to civilian life use the power of social networking to find jobs in addition to connecting them directly with employers who want to hire veterans, said Rob Barr, program director at Hire a Hero.

Barr previously worked with Dan Caufield, former executive director at the foundation, to launch Helmets to Hard Hats, a program to help veterans find jobs in the construction industry, that is now federally funded. Caufield approached him last year about launching the Hire a Hero effort to expand the outreach to returning veterans.

“Someone coming out of the military sometimes has lost all their connections to the [civilian] world,” said Barr. “They don’t have the connections that someone not coming out of their situation might have. So we decided we needed to do some sort of networking.”

Barr said his goal is a site that combines features of sites such as MySpace — which provide a way for people to network — and employment sites such as Craig’s List, “so when [veterans] get back, they can quickly build a network.”

The site relies on the fraternal nature of the military, using service connections to link a candidate to people with similar backgrounds who already have jobs in the private sector and employers explicitly seeking veterans for open positions.

The first version of the site is active and has had some success. Barr said the project doesn’t have complete numbers, but Hire a Hero has conducted some surveys that show one in three veterans using the site has found a job through it — as compared to a rate of about one in 10 for other job search sites.

Barr is driving development of a more sophisticated version this year, helping teach former service members how to build networks, even force-feeding them connections, he said. “For example, if I was in the Air Force and I was in engineering, the site would show people who were in the Air Force who have an engineering job for them to connect with, as well as other Air Force veterans seeking engineering jobs and the employers who are actively seeking engineers.”

The site would then let the user expand the scope to look for people from other service branches working in the area of interest. Part of the development will focus on follow-up with veterans to help determine what difficulties they’ve had in finding a job.

“With the new site, we’re going to be getting detailed data, using e-mail campaigns, for example, to ask, ‘We’ve noticed you haven’t connected with anyone? Why?’” he said. “And hopefully by next year, we can use that information and go to the government and show them what needs to be done for veterans coming out” to help them get jobs.

Caufield, a Gulf War veteran and founder of High Quality Group, a consulting company, provided $500,000 to fund the site last year, turning the project over to Barr and taking a seat on the board of directors for the foundation. Salesforce.com has provided the program with free access to its content management system.

Major League Baseball collected donations for the program at last year’s All Star Game and is planning to provide further promotional assistance this year.

But that hasn’t been enough to fund everything Barr wants to do with the site. “We didn’t do much of anything in fund-raising last year, which is horrible,” he said.

“We tried and tried and tried, but not a lot of people wanted to donate to our cause. So what we’re doing is charging a one-time $100 fee to employers to post job listings to our site, and that’s how we’re staying alive right now.”

The goal is to get a federal grant. The Hire A Hero Act, currently working its way through Congress, would provide a grant program for organizations doing the type of work Barr’s project is doing. The bill most likely won’t come up for a vote before this summer, Barr said, “and if it passes, we’ll see money sometime next year.”

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