As working from home becomes more common, there's one group that's joining the growing remote workforce: veterans.
Like so many other remote workers, veterans are drawn to the flexibility of working from home. Remote work also offers opportunities to veterans with unique challenges reintegrating with civilian life, such as injury, disability or simply adjusting to corporate culture.
FlexJobs, for instance, partnered with the Department of Defense as an official Military Spouse Employment Partner, which means they've committed to recruiting and hiring military spouses. The company also jointed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Hiring our Heroes campaign, which highlights the numerous issues military spouses face, such as frequent relocation.
"There's no better job-seeker demographic. These are folks who know what it means to be part of a team," said Mika Cross, vice president of employer engagement at FlexJobs, who is herself a veteran. Cross emphasized that companies these days are looking for "soft skills" such as flexibility, adaptability and loyalty — all critical skills that veterans can bring to organizations.
There are no figures available showing how many veterans are working remotely compared to a few years ago. But veterans do tend to stay in government positions after their time in service, in part because government agencies are more accommodating to telework, said Cross. Roughly 1 in 3 federal workers are veterans compared to 1 in 5 workers in private industries.
Making the switch from the military to 9-to-5 corporate life doesn't come naturally. For some veterans it can be a challenge. That was the situation for Robert Nugent, a former intelligence analyst and lead truck gunner in the Army who was deployed to Iraq three times.
"I was unemployed for almost a year and a half and needed something that would let me ease back into the work environment while I was getting used to being in the civilian workforce. When I separated from the Army in 2009, I was not really ready for the civilian way of life," Nugent said.
When he first left the military, he doubled down on classes while working full-time as a "distraction," he said. After getting a masters in information technology, he found work as an IT project manager and then a scrum master, but in both instances was let go soon after being hired. "It really made me think and realized it wasn't just about cutbacks. There was something that had been festering in me that I couldn't explain," he said.
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What he had been ignoring for years was PTSD. After going through therapy, medications and a short stay in a VA mental health hospital, he started volunteering and finally got to the point where he said he felt he could work again. Worried about a panic attack or being overwhelmed in an office environment, he decided to find work that he could do from home. He found it through Support.com.
"It gave me a way to work without all the distractions of other people and all the triggers I was having issues with in an in-the-office environment," he said.
Nugent is far from the only one. UpWork's annual Freelancing in America survey found that 46% of freelancers say they freelance because they're unable to work for a traditional employer due to personal circumstances. About 20% of freelancers wouldn't be able to work non-freelance jobs due to health issues. The flexibility of freelancing lets them still earn a regular income. And for those with PTSD specifically, working from home as opposed to at an office might be a more comfortable choice.
"Freelancing provides opportunities for veterans who come home and find that the traditional labor market might no longer work for them," said Stephane Kasriel, chief executive of UpWork.
Companies such as UpWork or Support.com, which has more than 1,500 customer service agents who work from home, can employ people who might otherwise have a hard time finding full-time work because they have disabilities, are a caregiver to someone or living in a remote location.
Freelancing also gives workers flexibility — not only in their daily schedule but in the kind of work they choose. That was one trait that appealed to Shari Cruz, a veteran and military spouse who has shifted from part-time to full-time work on Upwork.
Cruz, who was discharged from the Marine Corps after a hip injury, used the remainder of her GI Bill to earn a masters degree in educational leadership. But when it came time to finding a full-time job, there were several hurdles. She was newly married with a newborn, and her husband, whom she met while in the military, was (and still is) an active-duty service member, which means frequent moves.
Cruz applied to and considered several entry-level positions, but none made sense given the salaries and the amount she would need to spend on daycare. Then she came across Upwork and found jobs that not only were a better professional fit for her skill set but also allowed her to work from home.
When her children were younger, she took maybe two contracts at a time working a few hours a week, but as they grew and started school, she started taking on a bigger workload. She also likes the ability to hone in on skills that she's interested in. For example, she took training classes in project management, then discovered that she prefers working more with graphic design and other types of work. She's been able to develop her career while living in Texas, North Carolina and Hawaii.
Freelancing can be isolating, but the military has a vast, built-in sense of community with things like co-working spaces. Benefits such as health insurance are another challenge for freelancers, and that too is covered by the military for veterans and military spouses.
"Being in the military is a very unique walk of life and so is freelancing, and I really, truly feel that some of the potential downsides of freelancing are supplemented by the military and military spouses," said Cruz.