Veterans Back-to-Work Boot Camp

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U.S. military veterans now have a helping hand transitioning to civilian jobs, thanks to a new groundbreaking program initiated by the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Veterans Back-to-Work Boot Camp supports local veterans with education and mentorship as they join the local work force.

The eight-week program began last September, sponsored by Rivers Casino, Jewel/Osco and AT&T, provided 20 honorably discharged veterans with the tools they need to succeed in the work force.

“We are so grateful for the men and women of the armed forces,” said Andrea Biwer, Chamber executive director. “We know these veterans acquired many skills during their service, but for too many, connecting the right opportunity to their skill sets is very difficult. Our hope is that the Boot Camp helps to support their transition into civilian jobs.”

The program inspired, supported and prioritized career readiness. Workshops focused on topics such as success stories from fellow veterans, career exploration, interview skills, social media, resume writing and company tours.

When the program concluded, the Chamber hosted a small job fair to help participating veterans use their new skills to find employment. In fact, Biwer noted, there was a waiting list of companies hoping to attend the recruiting event.

Since then, more than 10 participants have found employment, and plans are already underway
for a second Boot Camp this year. The Chamber opened the application process in May, and to date already has a number of confirmed sponsors: Rivers Casino, Jewel/Osco, Solutions Networking Inc., Wintrust Mortgage, VFW Post 2992, Home Helpers of Northeastern Illinois and more

“The program exceeded our expectations,” Biwer said. “We had
great content and wonderful veteran mentors from the business community who volunteered their time to help make this Boot Camp come to life. We really enjoyed investing in our community by giving back to veterans for their service in this way.”

Local employer participation was key in making the Boot Camp a success, she noted, from providing mentors to veteran participants, to interviewing and hiring graduates. Marne Deithorn, Marine veteran and now human resources director at Rivers Casino, and Sam Griffith, an Army veteran who is currently director of operations of LSG Sky Chefs, both mentored veterans.

“It was such an honor to be a part of the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce Veteran’s Back-to-Work Boot Camp,” Deithorn said. “As a veteran myself, I can remember the feeling of uncertainty, and somewhat fear, of not knowing what I was going to do after the military, that overcame me as I transitioned out. As a mentor I wanted to be able to relieve or diminish that feeling for the veterans in the program.

“I wanted to ensure they understood there are so many veterans out here that have gone through what they are going through in their transitions and we all care. We are here to help them by telling our stories, sharing our mistakes, as well as our successes, and assisting them in their transitions. There is an endless network available to them.”

As the weeks progressed, “it was an amazing feeling to see them grow in their confidence and realization that they already had the tools,” Deithorn said. “They just had to reapply them in the civilian world. I am so proud of the dedication and commitment this group of 20 showed throughout the program. Being able to connect with them and watching them succeed even after the program has ended fills my heart,” she added.

Griffith agreed. “I was cautiously skeptical, at first. But our veterans were appreciative and interested so I really feel we enriched their lives, whether they were highly educated or introverts who were having a hard time transitioning.”

Most importantly, Griffith said, the program taught these veterans the importance of networking to find the right fit and the right job. Griffith’s LSG Sky Chefs in Des Plaines hired two participating veterans to take supervisory positions in operations.

Chamber board member Robert Parkinson, career services manager at Search Inc., was one of the first participating employers to hire a veteran from the Boot Camp.

Search Inc. is a nonprofit organization in Des Plaines that provides services to people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and its small business enterprise, Planet Access Co., offers a train-to-work program for people with disabilities. The new veteran hire will transport Search clients to and from Planet Access and supervise their work while on the job.

“He is an asset and a great fit for what we do here, and my hope is that the time he spends with us here at Search will be valuable to him as well,” Parkinson said. “Hiring the right person for the job is always important. And when that right person is a veteran, it makes the hire that much more special.”

Participating in the program also benefited the Daily Herald Media Group in finding the right person for a very technical job. “It really was a great example of how networking can make a difference,” said Heather Ritter, Daily Herald VP/director of human resources.

Ritter gave a presentation to boot camp participants on “Building Your Brand,” and later contacted Biwer when a job opened in the company’s printing facility.

Per Biwer’s recommendation, Peter Kiepura, a boot camp participant, fit the bill for the press operator position and was hired.

“It’s a hard position to fill too, so I was thrilled,” Ritter said.

“The Boot Camp was a life-changing event for me and my family,” Kiepura said. “I found a new career path that is a good fit for my skills.”

While Kiepura is thankful for the program’s career guidance and education, he said the best part of participating with fellow veterans was the camaraderie. “I appreciated learning with and talking to my fellow ‘battle buddies’ who made the same sacrifices I have on and off the battlefield.”

Other participating veterans have also sung the program’s praises. Nicholas Canete saw similarities between the Boot Camp and his experience in the U.S. Navy.

“The military trains you to be able to adapt to any environment, whether that be the mountains, desert, jungle or ocean; you’re prepared to meet the challenges that you’ll face in arduous environments.”

The Boot Camp prepared him to be adaptable in a dynamic job market. “By networking with other veterans working in different industries and receiving tangible resources for the job search, the program guided me to finding meaningful employment. I completed the program with more confidence and felt ‘trained’ to smartly engage in my career search,” he added.

Canete sought career opportunities his senior year at North Park University, but he said it was the Boot Camp program that gave him the skills to succeed in the job market. After completing the program, he interviewed with participating companies and received multiple job offers, finding the right fit and opportunity with LSG Sky Chefs.

“The journey from U.S. Navy sailor to a college student, to now beginning a career, has been a memorable one,” Canete said. “I’m very grateful for the time and monetary investment of your team and sponsor companies that went into creating the Boot Camp. This relatively new program has already changed lives.”

Laura Johnstone, another veteran and Boot Camp graduate, also is thankful for the life-changing opportunity.

“I successfully found employment with Jewel,” she said. “My husband told me yesterday he thinks this was ‘the best thing’ I ever did. He is also feeling a sense of relief knowing that we have a larger income coming in. We desperately needed it because together we have four children.

“This program really helps veterans and their families get back on their feet. I am so blessed,” she said.