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Career tips from top contractors

Oct. 15, 2013 - 04:17PM   |  
Sara Behr, an Army veteran and company commander with the Minnesota National Guard, says her job as a communications specialist at defense contractor Alliant Techsystems helps her to support the men and women in the military.
Sara Behr, an Army veteran and company commander with the Minnesota National Guard, says her job as a communications specialist at defense contractor Alliant Techsystems helps her to support the men and women in the military. ()
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Capt. Sara Behr left the active Army in 2003, and while she has stayed in uniform as a company commander in the Minnesota ArmyNational Guard, she also wanted her day job to reflect her ongoing commitment to the mission.

“I wanted a job where I could continue to support the men and women who wear the uniform,” Behr said. She has found that fit as a communications specialist at defense contractor ATK. “Almost 15 percent of the people in our building identify themselves as veterans, so there is a sense of ... brotherhood. You deployed? I deployed! So you have this instant frame of reference.”

Behr is not alone. For many veterans, work in the defense sector offers a chance to continue in the spirit of service, a way to merge military experience and commitment into civilian life. For those seeking such an experience, top contractors say they expect to hire in a range of areas in the coming years.

General Electric

GE makes a lot of big equipment, from gas turbines to aircraft engines. With an ongoing labor shortage in the manufacturing sector, the company expects to need able hands, said Kris Urbauer, program manager of GE Veterans Initiatives.

These aren’t just assembly-line jobs.

“There have been real advancements in manufacturing. It has become much more technical in nature,” Urbauer said. “There is a lot of precise machining, a lot of computer programming. You need IT knowledge. You need computer skills.”

Career tip: “People really need to decide what they want to do. They really need to look at that a year or so before getting out.”

Exelis, Mission Systems Division

Employees of Mission Systems, one of the largest divisions of Exelis Systems Corp., work with military personnel to deliver base operations support, communications systems, logistics support and other fundamentals.

A lot of the work comes down to IT infrastructure.

“Part of our business is running end-to-end networks, anything from running the cable in the ground to running the help desk to running the top-line command and control mechanism,” said Frank Peloso, vice president for human resources.

“Folks coming out of the military are our primary recruiting source because they are already familiar with these networks, with this IT infrastructure,” he said. “When we run these contracts, we are really an extension of the military, sitting side by side with military members. So when they transition out, they know exactly the technology we are using, the types of roles we play.”

Career tip: Get your IT street cred. “They want to be developing themselves along the lines of newer technologies. There are IT certifications, technical qualifications, that a military member could amass when still on active duty. The more certifications you have, the more valuable you would be to an employer.”

Alliant Techsystems

About 10 percent of Alliant’s 14,000 employees are former military. Many are drawn by a company whose product line resonates with their cultural experience, said Chris Wolf, senior vice president for human resources. Beyond the aircraft structures and strategic missiles, members are attracted to the rifles and other ATK sport weaponry that fills Wal-Mart’s shelves.

“A lot of the folks returning from service are avid hunters and sportsmen, or at least have an interest in the shooting sports industry,” Wolf said.

As a high-tech manufacturer, ATK is looking for employees with strong engineering skills, technical aptitude and a mathematical background. The company typically needs a range of workers, from project management to hourly line manufacturers.

Career tip: Find a broad-based company. When a company’s product lines run the gamut from missiles to rifles, there should always be room of growth.

“There are going to be changes in any industry — parts of it are going to contract — so we are always looking at the areas where we can continue to expand and grow,” Wolf said. That gives employees a better chance of riding out economic ups and downs.


Battelle counts about 1,000 veterans in its defense contracting shop, mostly scientists and engineers, typically mid-career to senior level. They are software engineers, computer scientists and, increasingly, cybersecurity professionals.

“We do a lot of work in chemistry, biology, radiation and the nuclear arena,” said Chris Hill, director of human resources operations for Battelle’s National Security business. “So there are a lot of chemists, biologists, microbiologists — people who do a lot of classified work around biological threats, for example.”

Career tip: Keep your clearance intact. While relevant work experience counts, of course, Battelle also is on the lookout for veterans who have a security clearance. With a strong product line in threat analysis and intelligence gathering, “that is certainly a credential that is important to us.”

Honeywell International

Honeywell has been actively recruiting veterans, hiring 550 into its aerospace division in 2011 and 360 more in 2012. Former troops are taking jobs as production supervisors, technicians, logisticians and sourcing professionals.

“We definitely value the skills of logisticians as well as the guys who have worked on the government contracting and procurement side,” said Heath Patrick, vice president of Defense Aftermarket Americas for Honeywell. “We’re looking for veterans who have engineering experience, who have some kind of technical background to include aviation, aviation management and logistics.”

Some help maintain warfighters’ equipment or preposition ships, while others keep aircraft in flying shape.

Career tip: Go to what you know. Honeywell has found it an easier hire when veterans come to the door with an existing familiarity with its product. For example, take the Chinook helicopter, for which Honeywell builds the engines.

“A lot of veterans will spend their term in the service working on those aircraft. So it then becomes a natural transition to come into our business, to work on the product line or to work in one of our depots to maintain those aircraft.”

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