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Military veterans heed hiring call Corporate America realizes that they have the right stuff

Former Marine Lamar Norris underestimated how far his 10 years in the military would take him in corporate America. "Except for a stint at Krispy Kreme (as a teenager), I never worked in civilian life," said the 28-year-old decorated Desert Storm veteran. During much of his military stint, he flew and maintained helicopters and other aircraft.

"I didn't think companies were looking for what I had."

Norris was wrong.

He landed three job offers when he got out of the military last November. He's now a manager at Photocircuits Corp., one of the largest circuit board makers in North America. He oversees two departments that make sure the circuit boards meet quality and customer standards. Norris is one of 12 to 18 military veterans at the company's Peachtree City facility.

"These people hit the street running," said Frank Smookler, Photocircuit' s general manager in Peachtree City.

Most job candidates stack up equally when it comes to the technical side of the job, Smookler said, but the military vets often have the managerial edge. "They've managed hundreds of people. They have tremendous budgets (to manage) and similar maintenance-type issues that we face in industry." More companies like Photocircuit are enlisting the services of veterans to fill jobs, especially in the high-demand fields of high tech and the skilled trades. In this worker-starved economy, the military, with its leading-edge technology and spit-and-polish management style, may be the best boot camp around for finding ready-made workers. Many of the technical skills vets pick up in the military transfer easily to corporate America, experts say. Also, while learning the art of war, they also learn discipline, teamwork, managing people and delegating tasks.

"The main thing employers complain about is lack of skills and work ethic," said Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. Thurmond's department helped more than 61,000 vets in Georgia find jobs and training in the last year. "These people, obviously because of their military background, bring very valuable talents to the workforce, " he said.

The department has what amounts to a full-service placement center for veterans, the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP. With the labor shortage expected to last another eight years, companies are looking at vets and other groups of people who traditionally have not been part of the workforce, says Jeffrey Humphreys, director of economic forecasting at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia. The chances of finding a steady stream of military men and women are particularly good in Georgia, home to nine major military bases and more than 660,000 veterans.

Ironically, the military --- once seen as a patriotic paragon -- - is having a tough time holding on to people. With the exception of the Marine Corps., the smallest branch of the Armed Forces, all of the services are having difficulty meeting their needs for 200,000 new recruits a year.

Downsizing earlier this decade decimated much of its ranks, complicating Armed Forces recruiters' efforts to find people. Increasing on-the- job pressures, along with hardships on family, has prompted many active- duty military to leave the service voluntarily. "They're stretching a smaller force thin, and that's impacting their home life," said Navy veteran Shaun Bradley, president of Bradley- Morris, a Kennesaw company that specializes in finding jobs for former military people. "More (military) people are married today than 20 years ago."

The robust economy and promise of better-paying corporate jobs have lured many vets to corporate life. That was the case for Michael Sanchez and Chuck Watkins.

After 20 years and countless overseas assignments building telecommunications systems, "I had reached a point in my military career where I was looking for something different," said Sanchez, who retires in August as an Air Force senior master sergeant. "The economy's good. I've got my schooling . . . so I decided to make the jump."

During his 20 years of service, Sanchez, 38, earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautics. He had enough accumulated leave time to allow him to begin a job before his official retirement date. He is now a maintenance supervisor at Centennial Farms, which makes and processes milk, juices and other beverages for Kroger stores in Georgia. Sanchez joined Centennial about a month ago, after getting help with resume-writing and interview skills through the TAP program. The adjustment to corporate life has been minimal so far, he said.

"Maintenance is maintenance," said Sanchez, a Desert Storm veteran. "The computer skills I learned in the Air Force match exactly what the company does. With the leadership and management skills I learned over the years, I can motivate the guys. The military style of leadership involves knowing what makes people tick." Nine years in the Navy helped Watkins develop a no-nonsense management style that he's now using as production team leader of 50 people at Fitel Lucent, a fiber optic cable manufacturer in Carrollton.

He has been at the company about six weeks. He left the military because he said his wife and kids were tired of moving. "I'm very blunt and to the point," the former nuclear electronics technician said of his management style. "People who haven't been in the military aren't used to working with ex-military, but they' re getting used to it."

Many veterans also tend to be "reasonably well-heeled," Humphreys said, because retirees have pensions, and the civilian job is not their sole source of income. "Military personnel often retire at a young age and begin second careers," he said. "They may be more inclined to take part-time or flexible work or the unpopular shifts."

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