At a time when many companies complain of a shortage of skilled technology talent in the United States and an increasing desire to source IT services domestically, one IT professional services and consulting firm is tapping into what it sees as an overlooked supply of qualified professionals: the military.
Four years ago, Karen Ross, CEO of New York-based Sharp Solutions, launched the company’s VETS program -- short for Vocation, Education and Training for Service members -- prompted by a desire to address both high unemployment rates for U.S. military veterans transitioning into the private workforce and the need for reliable tech talent. “I realized these veterans were our most valuable, untapped resource -- a vast talent pool with technology skills and expertise translatable to the corporate sector,” Ross says.
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However, as Ross notes, “Many American companies have declared ambitious goals for hiring veterans, and although commendable in theory, have fallen short.” So Sharp Decisions decided to take a new tack to onboarding veterans, training them in a IT services boot camp and deploying them as a cohort, just as they were deployed in their military missions.
“Upon successfully completing their ‘boot camp,’ we deploy the veterans in platoons or cohorts and provide mentorship throughout the process,” says Ross. It’s a much more hands-on approach than the typical consulting or outsourcing arrangement, she says, which “allows [veterans] to adjust to the corporate world with a support system they are familiar with.”
Initially, the VETS program targeted quality assurance roles, but it has since expanded to include devops, project management, business analysis, network assessments, application development, and cybersecurity training. VETS program clients, which include Experian and Freddie Mac, are largely financial services and healthcare companies and notably not government agencies or government-related industries.
Harmonic, a San Jose, Calif.-based video delivery infrastructure company, used Sharp Decisions’ VETS program when it needed QA specialists to complement its existing systems integration test team ahead of a key product release. Harmonic brought a squad of six VETS to perform a year of software test work.
“We were looking for talent that was professional, precise, and efficient,” says Chris Pattinson, Harmonic’s vice president of global software quality. “The VETS program allowed us to bring a squad of technical talent onboard supported by a team lead. Moreover, VETS offers a technical training boot camp that improves its members IT skillset.”
Their technical precision and pragmatic approach was a good match for the work and the company, Pattinson says. The VETS team was able to develop and perform automated testing within the client’s existing custom automation framework while successfully integrating with Harmonic’s existing QA team. There was some initial turnover on the first squad, according to Pattinson, but Sharp Decisions very quickly provided new personnel. Harmonic has since contracted with the VETS program to augment its devops team.
“We provide many benefits for a veteran joining our VETS program. We hire them as salaried employees and offer full benefits. We never touch their GI Bill, and we’re providing them with extensive training and opportunities in the technology sector,” Ross says.
While the VETS program now accounts for 20 percent of the workforce at Sharp Decisions, it got off to a rocky start.
“I hired the first squad under the assumption our clients would jump at this opportunity,” Ross says. She was wrong. The first group of 15 hires sat on the bench for five months. “Most of the barriers were false narratives pertaining to transitioning military and their disabilities,” she explains. Potential customer worried that veterans might have disabilities that would impact their behavior or performance. Sharp Decisions continued to employ the group until opportunities arrived. “I gave my word for continued employment after training, and my word is gold,” Ross says. “It took time, money, and patience, but the payoff is phenomenal on many fronts.”
One problem that has emerged over time is that many clients, after working with professionals for their twelve-month commitments, are so satisfied with their performance that they offer the veterans full-time roles.
“As an organization, your greatest assets become your clients’ assets and we must continuously refill our pipeline with trained veterans,” says Ross. Sharp Decisions has always been working to expand its available talent to include more technical professionals and those with more years of experience. They are also seeking to engage more military spouses in the program as well.
Ross says she is seeing interest in the VETS program increasing, as concerns over future visa restrictions threaten to constrict the available talent pool for American companies and the costs of offshore and nearshore options continue to rise. “Our costs are competitive,” Ross says, “but it really is a situation where the benefits outweigh the costs. Our services are immediate, local, and accountable, giving companies the tactical advantage of time with deadlines and deliverables being met.”
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