- By Kerry Hannon
Charlie Palumbo, 33, has had seven jobs in three states since leaving the Navy just over a decade ago. To say the least, she’s had a rocky path to finding work.
But in July, the Charlottesville, Va. mother of two got her “dream job” as the veterans outreach coordinator at the Virginia Employment Commission, assisting the panel in its efforts to hire veterans. For that, Palumbo credits her mentor, Mary G.R. Whitley, 55, a senior vice president at ICF International in Rockville, Md.
“She pushed me out, gave me confidence and focused me,” said Palumbo.
The Mentoring Group For Women Veterans
For nearly two years, Palumbo has tapped Whitley’s mentoring guidance through Joining Forces Mentoring Plus, a worthy group custom-tailored to women veterans, military spouses and caregivers of wounded warriors. Whitley's advice helped the former payroll-dispensing Navy clerk translate her military skills into the next step in her career.
I’m a huge advocate of career mentoring, but didn’t know about Joining Forces Mentoring Plus until I heard a presentation by Mary Ann Sack at the recent Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) 2013 Women’s Retirement Symposium in Washington, D.C.
(MORE: Why Women Need to Be Mentors or Find Them)
Sack is director of business development and programming at the Business and Professional Women's Foundation, the organization behind the mentoring program, which provides unlimited free online career development tools and resources to participants. Her passionate talk about the challenges that these types of women face finding work — and the assistance Joining Forces Mentoring Plus has provided — really caught my attention.
So with Veterans Day around the corner, I decided to learn more about this group, the serious need it’s addressing and how women can sign up to offer their assistance.
Career Challenges Female Vets Face
Here’s what I found out: The 7.5 percent unemployment rate for female veterans (as of September) exceeds the 6.3 percent jobless level for male vets. What’s more, 26 percent of the nearly 2 million military/veteran spouses were out of work in 2012.
“Many of the women we work with, who may or may not have graduated from high school, went into the military because it was a last option,” said Sack. As a result, they often lack a college diploma or the life framework that lets them fit back into the working world, she explained.
(MORE: Why You Should Mentor — and How to Do It)
In addition, women coming out of the armed forces typically don’t have a network of business professionals who can lead them to job opportunities.
During their military tours, women acquire important skills across a myriad of technical areas, Sack said, but “they struggle because they don’t have the kind of connecting relationships that enable them to examine their skills and what they might want to do with them.”
Another problem: translating military lingo to a resumé. Plus, when it comes to the body language of interviewing, female vets often come across as formal and stiff. Some need help figuring out what to wear to the job interview.
Moreover, military-trained women — like stereotypical male drivers — often have trouble asking for direction. “They’re coming from a world where asking for help is a sign of weakness,” Sack said. “And you also don't ask up. You ask across to get the answer. By contrast, in our working culture, it’s generally a positive thing to say, ‘I don't understand this, can you help me?’”
How Joining Forces Mentoring Plus Helps
Of course, Joining Forces Mentoring Plus isn’t the only organization trying to employ more veterans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor both run programs. And some private companies have launched initiatives. For example, Starbucks just announced a plan to hire at least 10,000 military veterans and active-duty spouses over the next five years.
But Joining Forces Mentoring Plus has a particularly impressive toolkit for women. The group does everything from tracking down ways to pay college tuition in order to learn new skills to identifying successful female mentors who’ll hone their career objectives and package their talents so they can find great jobs or start businesses.
The organization's goal: to build the Joining Forces Mentoring Plus community from its current 1,000 mentors and mentees to 5,000 over the next two years.
(MORE: Bob Woodruff’s Charity for Heroes)
How One Navy Vet Was Helped
After a friend told her about the group, Palumbo submitted her application online to be a mentee. Within a day, she received five names of potential mentors, ultimately selecting Whitley, a veteran and West Point grad.
For starters, Whitley helped Palumbo revamp her resumé to show potential employers how she has used her military experience since returning to the civilian workforce. “I didn't see that what I was doing during my Navy experience was customer service and project management.” Palumbo said. “Mary was able to help me see how that flowed through everything I had been doing.”
After that, Palumbo and Whitley talked about the types of jobs she was pursuing and whether they would be beneficial to establishing her career. Palumbo admitted she signed up for the Navy before graduating high school because she didn’t know what to do next, and that, in many ways, that’s exactly how she felt when leaving the military.
Next, Whitley helped her complete an application for a leadership-training program run by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and American University. Palumbo was one of 20 young leaders accepted.
That experience and a revised resumé helped land her new position. Since working with Whitley, Palumbo’s pay has jumped 40 percent.
Initially, the two talked by phone for an hour or more every two weeks. These days, it’s generally more like once a month. But Palumbo said she doesn't hesitate to reach out by email or phone when necessary to Whitley, “I am freaking out over this, can you help me?”
Palumbo says the mentoring has given her an entirely new way to approach work. “Now I look at what I’m doing each day as part of a career, not just a job that helps pay the bills," she said. "Mary helped me make that big shift in how I see myself.”
Ways Women Can Join Up
Women who’d like to help out at Joining Forces Mentoring Plus can do so in a variety of ways.
If you want to offer your expertise occasionally, you could become a subject-matter expert. For instance, you might lend your services offering tips on rewriting a resumé, negotiating a salary or starting a business.
If you want to mentor, you might be able to do so through your employer. The program has partnerships with more than 55 companies and organizations such as Citicorp, Intel and CVS Caremark. Otherwise, you can sign up on the Joining Forces Mentoring Plus website.
But if you’d like to be a one-on-one mentor, prepare to make a serious commitment. “We are not looking for someone who is just interested in a six-month gig,” said Sack. “We want to be forming relationships with these women that take them through their careers.”