CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- This 4th of July, Americans will be saluting their country with parades, barbecues and fireworks. But in the current economic climate, there may be no greater patriotic duty than to help veterans make the transition into meaningful, rewarding careers.
Former service members face a terrible job market, and those who want to start their own businesses are going up against equally rough odds. The good news is that business leaders and nonprofit groups across the country have stepped up to offer career counseling, training and mentoring. The bad news is that the need for such services keeps growing.
Veterans looking to make the move into corporate America can take advantage of mentoring programs that pair them with professionals in their chosen field. Prominent mentoring groups include Veterans Across America
www.veteransacrossamerica.org and American Corporate Partners
Veterans who start their own businesses can also get a boost from Uncle Sam. The Small Business Administration makes expedited Patriot Express loans available to qualified veteran-owned businesses, and the president recently established a task force to increase the number of government contracts awarded to small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans. (Currently, about 1% of U.S. government contracts go to such businesses).
But what about veterans who want to sell beyond the federal government? A program at Oklahoma State University offers a model for turning veterans into successful entrepreneurs. The Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, launched last fall, brings together veterans who are either disabled or who distinguished themselves while in service for a year-long series of critiques, mentoring sessions and an intense 8-day bootcamp at OSU's campus in Stillwater, Okla.
"We try to push them away from being dependent on government contracts," says professor Michael Morris, director of the School of Entrepreneurship at OSU's Spears School of Business and the program's founder. "There's nothing wrong with that, but you're betting the farm: if you don't get the contract, you don't have a business."
Instead, Morris and the entrepreneurship experts he works with urge veterans to think beyond Uncle Sam. Concepts being developed by the current group of participants include everything from restaurants and a car wash to an exercise device designed for people in wheelchairs.
"We work them hard, and they rise to the occasion," says Morris. Despite the 12-hour days during the bootcamp sessions, "we almost have to push them back to the hotel."
As with other would-be entrepreneurs, veterans need moral support as much as practical business skills. "A big part of what we're doing is meant to be inspiring, not just educational," says Morris. "People have an idea, but they need to know they can do it. We want them to leave more motivated than when they came in."
The Oklahoma State program is based on a similar model Morris developed when he taught at Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management. Syracuse's Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) has since grown into a partnership with the business schools at Florida State University, Texas A&M, Purdue, UCLA, and the University of Connecticut.
Setting up such a program comes with its own challenges. They're offered free of charge to the veterans who are accepted, which means money must be raised from private sources to pay for airfare, hotels and meals. Both the online content and in-person meetings must be accessible to veterans with a wide range of disabilities, from paralysis to blindness to mental and emotional issues.
But the combination of short-term, intense training and long-term follow-up builds a sense of camaraderie that would be hard to achieve in a one-time, weekend seminar. At the Oklahoma State program, veterans are paired up with mentors from Rotary Clubs in their hometowns, giving them ties to the local business community. "In the middle of the bootcamp, it's exhausting," says Morris. "But it left me with the sense that I wanted to do more. The need is so much greater than our capacity to meet it."
In many ways, successful entrepreneurs are the embodiment of the American dream. Veterans who have served their country deserve a shot at achieving that dream for themselves. "It's empowering to create your own future and your own wealth," says Morris. "When you can do that with a veteran who paid the ultimate sacrifice, I can't think of anything more fulfilling."
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Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.