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Helping veterans find jobs is more than a passion for Karen Ross—it's a business.
Programs that aim to help veterans when they return from combat are under major scrutiny amid headlines about unscrupulous activities by some organizations.
Most programs with a mission are publicly funded. Yet there's one private company that doesn't want anything to do with federal or state money. That's because the CEO sees the opportunity to help veterans as a viable business model in itself.
"I am in this for the money, and it just so happens that it works for all parties involved," said Ross, the CEO of Sharp Decisions' VETS Program.
VETS, which stands for Vocation, Education and Training for Service members, is a for-profit program that began three years ago and was jump-started right out of Ross' wallet. Recognizing the need to adapt to an ever-changing technology environment, the program provides a multi-week technology training course in quality assurance, project management, business analysis, cloud security and cyber security.
VETS helps place veterans with companies that in turn pay Sharp Decisions for the training and referrals. The company also guarantees veterans a job, benefits and a salary during training for an information technology career. Those services are offered for free, and VETS vows never to touch a service member's post-September 11 GI Bill funding.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill program consists of multiple payments for individuals with at least 90 days of aggregate active duty service after Sept. 10, 2001 who are either still on active duty or were honorably discharged. Veterans can use their GI Bill benefits for college, housing or on-the-job training programs.
"There's a lot of fluff behind helping soldiers," said former sergeant and current VETS coordinator David Tejada. "That means veterans often find themselves having to use their benefits, or pay into the program."
Nick Lopez, a former service member and current trainer in the VETS program, ended up finishing his GI Bill stipend by 2013. When he was contacted by Sharp Decisions, he was waiting for the letdown of being rejected because he didn't have those funds available.
"I thought it was a gimmick," he said. But he was wrong.
So how does the company do it?
Three years ago, when unemployment was soaring among veterans, Ross decided to take a chance. She recognized that other companies were afraid of committing to veterans.
"Economically, the program is a fabulous business model," Ross said. "It's all about making it a win for everyone. A win for the client, a win for us, and a win for the veteran. We're using a resource that we already have. How could that be a lose?"
Few companies are doing something similar, she added, "because no one wants to put their butt on the line." In Ross' mind, the return was greater than the investment.
Sharp Decisions finds veterans from a range of sources, and focuses on tech-savvy ones that were sent to combat, and carried big responsibilities. Upon entering the program, veterans are committed to a six-week boot camp that provides the opportunity to hone existing skills in client-customized environment.
During the six weeks, the veterans are paid a salary and sometimes benefits, are given a laptop, a trainer for the class, materials and the location. All without a dime coming from the pockets of the veterans; the money comes straight from other aspects of Sharp Decisions.
After training, the veterans are then deployed in a squad of three or more to one of Sharp Decisions' clients, which then pay the firm. The clients are Experian, EmblemHealth, Harmonic and Freddie Mac.
These clients then get to work with the veterans for up to a year.
During the time with them, the clients pay Sharp Decisions hourly, or on a full-time salary basis. But the actual salary that goes to the veterans comes from other areas of Sharp Decisions' business. The terms between Sharp Decisions and the clients are negotiated upfront and agreed upon from the beginning depending on the position being filled. Sharp Decisions pays salaries that range from $35,000 to $80,000, and clients pay a premium.
Still, Ross considers Sharp Decisions as a small company. But she added that the responsibility to veterans is something that should be shared.
"I'll do my part and make an impact," she said. "But it's time for private companies to step up."