Teresa Hicks' career in the Navy stretches back 24 years, with assignments on land and sea, and deployments around the world as both an enlisted sailor and an officer.
Fresh out of the military, Hicks now is navigating a sea of a different sort: the civilian job market. And that has meant translating the military jobs she once held, such as "damage controlman," into titles such as "shipboard firefighter," that private employers can more readily understand.
Today's job market is challenging, but particularly so for veterans whose experience isn't always clear to the companies that might hire them, Hicks said. The single mother, who lives in Pasadena, retired this year as a lieutenant after a final assignment training midshipmen at the Naval Academy.
"As veterans, we've done certain jobs and a diversity of jobs," she said. "Having to align what we did in the military with the civilian sector is the most challenging avenue out there."
Finding ways to translate military skills into civilian ones was just one issue addressed at a recent workshop given by the newly launched Veterans Staffing Network. Program staffers also have helped Hicks polish her resume, sent job leads her way — and assured her that she's not alone.
The veterans network, run by Easter Seals in Maryland, Virginia and D.C., with startup funding from Capital One Bank, aims to help veterans, disabled veterans and their spouses as they make the transition to civilian life and start new careers.
For Easter Seals, the program is a new twist on a now-discontinued U.S. Department of Labor program through which the nonprofit helped place about 300 veterans in jobs.
"We have vets with wonderful leadership capacity" who are used to promoting themselves in military terms, said Ryan Riley, vice president of development and marketing for Easter Seals. "The reality is that employers need that and they value that. But they need it in a different way and call it something different."
Now put that challenge in the context of a highly competitive job market, where longtime employees are delaying retirement and recent college graduates are having their own troubles landing jobs.
"Veterans come home, and they're sort of lost," Riley said. "They're not sure how to translate their experience for civilian jobs. Finding a job right now takes an education."
The challenges are visible in the unemployment numbers.
The unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty at any time since September 2001 reached nearly 10 percent last year — nearly two percentage points higher than the national jobless rate, according to Department of Labor statistics.
The outlook was even bleaker for veterans ages 18 to 24, who faced a 20 percent jobless rate last year.
The rates remain high despite employers' willingness to hire veterans. Some 65 percent of companies surveyed by Career Builder said they would hire a veteran over another equally qualified candidate. Nearly a third of the employers polled said they are actively recruiting veterans.
The staffing network aims to connect such businesses with potential workers. Riley said the network is aiming particularly at small companies that don't have dedicated recruiters.
"The reality is that the large impact of veteran employment is going to be made by employers with fewer than 75 employees, because they're hiring more frequently," he said. "Those are the folks that need the assistance. It's going to be done one veteran at a time, one employer at a time."
For Capital One, the staffing network is one of several company initiatives for veterans, all with a goal of "expanding opportunity and helping the community we do business with," said Adam Ostrach, Maryland market president for Capital One.
The workforce development idea grew out of a group that oversees the budget for Capital One Foundation's philanthropic projects. Several members visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, where they saw outplacement specialists overwhelmed with the task of helping veterans.
"A person may have been trained as a sniper and may have a tremendous ability to work under stress and be highly efficient in the workforce," Ostrach said. "But there was no one to help him … transition into the workforce."
Military spouses needed help, too. Ostrach describes the mother of a wounded veteran who quit her job and moved from another state to Maryland to take care of her son.
The staffing network, in planning stages for months, kicked off in June with the help of a $425,000 contribution from Capital One's foundation. The effort builds on the bank's three-year, $4.5 million commitment to Hiring Our Heroes, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce program that provides job fairs and workforce training for veterans and military spouses.
That program aims to encourage businesses to hire some 500,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of next year.
United Way is also kicking in funding for the staffing network, Riley said. Easter Seals, a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities and special needs and veterans, runs the program from its Silver Spring office.
Among the services it offers:
•An Internet-based training program for employers that outlines the benefits veterans can bring to a business.
•Little Warriors Early Education and Child Care program, which offers free day care for children of wounded veterans.
•Classroom and Internet training for caregivers of wounded veterans that covers benefits and support,, pain management and nutrition.
•Quarterly workshops for employers, business owners and human resources representatives.
For Marine Corps veteran Rolando Zambrano of Middle River, having an Easter Seals connection made all the difference.
Zambrano, a 22-year-old whose four years in the corps included a deployment to Afghanistan, spent months looking for work after leaving the military last summer.
In the Marines, he was a heavy equipment operator and dispatcher, maintaining cranes, forklifts, bulldozers and other equipment.
But when he started applying for civilian construction-related jobs, he hit a wall. He filed for unemployment.
"What I really wanted to do was something to do with construction, something like I did in the Marine Corps. but a lot of those places require a bachelor's degree," he said. "I had been applying to so many places, and employers weren't being as responsive as I thought they'd be."
While attending a veterans' health screening, he met an Easter Seals representative who referred him to a training program in the security services field. That led to a full-time job with a security company. He now works as a loss prevention agent in Safeway supermarkets, mostly in Montgomery County.