At ease. Entrepreneurs aim to smooth transition for veterans

Aug 25, 2013
At ease. Entrepreneurs aim to smooth transition for veterans

When Michele Unangst expanded her business, which she originally created to match stay-at-home moms with telecommuting jobs, she knew exactly who her new clients would be and where to find them - veterans in Hampton Roads.

Unangst, the Arizona founder of "Get My Mom a Job," this month launched an offshoot for former military members. She chose Virginia Beach as the site of a home office for "Get My Vet a Job."

"I wanted to open it in a military community," she said of the venture, which provides a database of remote work opportunities with companies such as Apple, U-Haul, Humana and Kaplan University.

The work includes everything from customer service to technical support to telephonic nursing and online teaching. Nearly all are W2 employee positions.

Like many savvy entrepreneurs, Unangst recognizes that catering to veterans not only supports the troops but also taps a growing market of potential customers with specific needs.

To salute their service, many of these companies try to keep fees affordable. For example, "Get My Vet a Job" products and services range in price from $9.95 for standard job listings to $44.95 for the personalized "Ultimate Job Connection Package," which includes a customized resume, cover letters and one-on-one mentoring.

By comparison, competitors might charge $75 to $100 for a basic resume.

"If somebody is unemployed, there is no way they can afford $100 for a resume," Unangst said. "I wanted to make it more affordable."

In 2011, veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 were twice as likely to be unemployed as their nonveteran counterparts, according to "Returning Home from Iraq and Afghanistan," a 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine. The institute also found that 44 percent of post-9/11 vets deal with issues including depression, PTSD, substance abuse and traumatic brain injury.

Veterans are increasingly hiring lawyers to get compensated for those disabilities, said Virginia Beach attorney Nancy L. Foti, who has dedicated her practice to helping them with such claims, as well as housing and education benefits.

"A lot of things have changed through the years," said Foti, a principal with Goodman Allen & Filetti, a Richmond-based firm that also has locations in Norfolk and Charlottesville. "I think people are more aware of the benefits and the availability of help that's out there."

Foti has specialized in veterans' issues since she graduated from law school in 2000, first clerking for the Hon. Ronald M. Holdaway at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and then joining the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C. She entered private practice in 2004.

Since then, she has watched as more attorneys follow the same path. Many of them were motivated by the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Act of 2006, which allowed veterans to hire an attorney much earlier in the claims process. Their legal fees are usually paid through a reimbursement arrangement with the Department of Veterans Affairs. So if the veteran wins a disability claim that dates back to Operation Desert Storm, his or her attorney receives 20 percent of the veteran's retroactive award from 1991 to present.

"I think more people are going to need it," Foti said of the legal services she provides. "More vets from Iraq are going to be filing more claims."

And they'll be looking for jobs, too. In the last 12 years, roughly 2.2 million soldiers, sailors and others in uniform have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest sustained conflicts since Vietnam. Meanwhile, the number of retirees is likely to increase as federal budget cuts cause the military to limit promotions and encourage early retirement.

Get My Vet a Job's work-at-home positions are ideal for veterans returning from the battlefield, said John Trujillo, founder of Warrior Transition, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., where Trujillo is a longtime Pentagon employee.

Many veterans - especially those with PTSD - "have issues sitting in a cubicle," he said. Telecommuting gives them a chance to readjust to civilian employment and environments.

Unangst agreed.

"Transitioning to civilian life for many of the men and women of the Armed Forces can be as challenging as anything they faced in defense of our country," she wrote on her website, "To that end, many men and women struggle to find employment."

But don't expect to find her at the local office, which is furnished with a receptionist and little else. Much like the telecommuting jobs sought by her clients, Unangst's operations are 99 percent online.

Unangst herself remains based in Arizona, though she looks forward to visiting Hampton Roads for business functions and other events. For her, the Beach office provides some extra legitimacy and a visible presence not far from the world's largest naval station.

"When you keep it completely virtual, even though everything else we do is telecommute, you don't become part of the community," she said.

Did you know...

As government agencies and nonprofit groups struggle to support U.S. veterans amid budget cuts and backlogged cases, small businesses might help fill the gap.

Private enterprises can provide low-cost products or services directly to veterans. Applicable industries include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Mental health counseling
  • Law
  • Employment agencies
  • Real estate services

Businesses can also indirectly cater to veterans by contracting services or manufacturing products for organizations that serve vets. A few possibilities include:

  • Marketing, advertising and public relations
  • Ergonomic furniture and/or office supplies
  • Exercise mats, bands, and other rehab tools
  • Sports equipment

Veterans traditionally rely on help from the Transition Assistance Program, Wounded Warrior Project and other such programs. But the Department of Veterans Affairs has historically been overwhelmed with claims. And though sequestration has thus far spared VA benefits, there's no guarantee they won't be on the chopping block in 2014, judging from President Obama's Aug. 10 speech at the Disabled American Veterans convention in Orlando.

"I want to tell you going forward," he said, "the best way to protect the VA care you have earned is to get rid of this sequester altogether."