Help for injured vets goes beyond the hospital

Guest column

With Memorial Day on our minds, it is fitting to look at how technology is benefiting our warfighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. All veterans - but wounded troops in particular - face a multitude of physical, emotional and professional challenges when returning to civilian life, not the least of which could be unemployment.

New applications are proving to be integral to many veteran rehabilitation programs. For example, there are tools that let troops participate in virtual job training programs and tools to help disabled veterans. But there is still much to be done, in light of the continued challenges veterans face as they re-enter the workforce.

Tools of the trade

Warfighters who cannot return to military duty after an injury often need to learn a new skill to compete in the civilian job market. The Defense Department recognizes that and has launched a number of initiatives designed to provide job opportunities through technology training and mentoring during rehabilitation and recovery.

Yet, the Wall Street Journal recently reported on a study conducted by the Veterans Affairs Department that found an alarming 18 percent unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were discharged in the past three years, nearly three times the national unemployment rate. Employed veterans, especially young veterans ages 20-24, often earn salaries that are well below the national average.

The report also found that some of the educational assistance programs that VA offers seem to have a marginal impact on a veteran's job placement success rate.

Those statistics are troublesome, and industry can and should help.

For example, the technology industry can provide tools that make job training programs more economical, efficient and ? most importantly ? accessible to veterans. Such tools are facilitating virtual training programs that would have been cost-prohibitive to do with the warfighters in person.

On-demand collaboration is one way to make a difference. For example, Cisco Systems Inc. is working with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to provide its WebEx collaboration service for veterans who want to participate in virtual training programs for information technology job. The center uses a WebEx online classroom to connect veterans with IT trainers across the country. Because the program is virtual, they can continue their training and certification after hospital discharge, dramatically increasing the completion rate for the program.

Another innovative way rehabilitation programs can use technology is through simulation-based learning that uses 3-D technologies. For example, 3-D software provider EON Reality is part of a consortium that trains disabled veterans in 3-D technologies, such as computer-aided design and advanced visualization, skills that are in high demand in the technology workforce.

As you might guess, the program uses 3-D technologies in its coursework, a technique dubbed simulation-based learning. It allows students to see, touch and interact with lifelike objects, significantly enhancing their learning environment. Tools like simulation-based learning are particularly effective for disabled veterans with motor skills impairments.

Technology is also crucial in helping disabled veterans become productive employees. Many software companies support wounded soldiers with assistive technology products that incorporate accessibility features into their applications, making computers easier to use. From interactive pen displays and stylus-to-screen inputs to voice recognition software and magnification software, these assistive technology tools can make the difference between a career and an unemployment check for disabled veterans.

The IT career path

On-demand collaboration, simulation-based learning and assistive technologies are just a few of the tools that can be employed to increase the accessibility, effectiveness and efficiency of job training programs. But the technology industry can provide more than just the tools. We can also provide job opportunities, and many companies are already doing this.

Micron Technology is one of many companies that actively recruit veterans. At Micron, they comprise 16 percent of the company's 23,000 employees.

Last year, the Computer Technology Industry Association launched the Creating Futures program, which is designed to match veterans, people with disabilities and at-risk youth with employers in the IT industry. Creating Futures identifies employers' needs, provides online training for veterans and assists with career placement.

Yet overall, the IT industry is not as active in recruiting veterans as the transportation and telecommunications industries are. Small programs like Creating Futures are breaking new ground by building bridges between veterans and IT that haven't existed in the past.

The technology industry stands to benefit immensely from a more robust relationship with tech-savvy veterans seeking employment. Employers are increasingly recognizing the value of military experience, and the IT industry is no different.

This is a talent pool of highly motivated and dedicated individuals with rich life experiences, a strong work ethic and leadership skills. Given the high-tech nature of the military, many veterans already have considerable experience with technology, but they are unsure how to apply their skills to a career in the private sector.

The challenge we face is to provide U.S. veterans with the training and access needed to launch a successful post-military career in information technology.

Doug Dennerline (ddennerl@cisco.com) is a senior vice president in Cisco's collaborative software group and heads the Cisco WebEx organization.

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