From combat to corporate: Professor helps veterans make the leap

Divjot Singh moved to the United States when he was 16. He joined the Marine Corps at 18. By 19, he was in Iraq.

"I'm very thankful for what America's given me and my family," Singh said in a recent interview.

Divjot Singh served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine. After facing a daunting job hunt when he returned home, he now has a high-tech job in finance.
Divjot Singh

"After high school, I decided to pay that back."

He faced a new challenge when he returned from his last deployment in 2010, a challenge familiar to many veterans: Finding a job.

"I had people tell me I should apply at the local mall because they were looking for some guards, and that's what my background fit."

Three years later, Singh works in Manhattan, assisting the finance world with its technology needs.

"The life that I knew completely changed."

For the whirlwind turnaround, he thanks Art Langer, a Columbia professor who's developed a program to help veterans like Singh find, prepare for, and keep good-paying jobs.

Columbia Professor Art Langer heads Workforce Opportunity Services, a program which helps veterans find, and keep, good-paying jobs.
Alexander Trowbridge/CBS News

"We know that we have many colleges and universities that do very good education, and we have corporations that do very good business, and communities that are trying to help," said Langer.

"But there's nobody there to bring them all together."

That's where Langer's Workforce Opportunities Services comes in. The nonprofit partners with companies, which detail the skills they need, and with schools like Rutgers University, which train veterans in those skills through a specially designed certification program.

"We then go out to the various military establishments and we allow veterans to participate and try to get into the program who will best fit those particular needs," Langer said.

Lou Isip loaded bombs onto fighter jets as a Marine serving in Iraq. He now works at Prudential.
Lou Isip

Veterans like Lou Isip, a former Marine, who came to the program hungry to develop key workplace skills after a career loading bombs onto combat jets.

"Writing wasn't a big issue in the Marine Corps," joked Isip, who now works at Prudential. "No one was going to grade you on how well you wrote about, you know, loading bombs."

But there are other traits, said Langer, that make veterans uniquely suited to the corporate world. Traits that just need to be channeled and translated.

"They understand best practices and procedures and timeliness. They understand something about the way things occur inside of an organization and the way it's been run. And I think most important, they've dealt with difficult situations," said Langer.

"And they have honor. Which is another thing that I think is extremely important in some of the issues that we've had quite frankly with some of our large corporations out there in terms of what people do and how they behave."

After their training, the veterans go to work for Langer's nonprofit, consulting for partnering organizations.

"We then slowly but surely assist them in transitioning to a workplace position and eventually these veterans can be hired away by the supporting company that has put up the funds for us."

Veterans like Isip and Singh make that transition look easy. But that's not always the case, which can worry risk-averse corporations.

"Companies don't want to bring people in and then if it doesn't work out have to lay them off," said Langer.

Columbia Professor Art Langer speaks to veterans at Rutgers University, which partners with Workforce Opportunities Services to train veterans.
Alexander Trowbridge/CBS News

That hesitance on the part of companies is a major hurdle for veteran employment programs, one Workforce Opportunities Services attempts to overcome by fostering what Langer calls a "flexible relationship" with companies.

The veterans' part-time consulting work allows businesses to see them in action before making the hire. It also gives the veterans experience, a paycheck and a support system.

"We don't send the veterans over and wish them luck," said Langer.

"We have a very unique function called a client service manager which is an individual that works with our veterans and at the company all the time to assist in this transformation, not only for the veteran, but for the organization to learn how to work and make veterans more productive."

Workforce Opportunities Services has helped over 200 job-seeking veterans. And while it largely focuses on information technology in the business world, Langer says the model applies to other fields, and he's looking to expand.

Langer's own Cinderella story from a tough Bronx neighborhood to the Ivy Leagues, he said, fuels his passion for helping under-served communities like veterans returning home.

He's proud that his program provided a veteran like Divjot Singh with more than just employment.

"It gave him hope. And an opportunity," said Langer.

"And something else which I really think is important in today's world: That you can trust people. That there are organizations and people out there that really, really will do what they say they're going to do."

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    Alexander is a digital reporter for CBSNews.com. He previously worked as a multimedia reporter for POLITICO, where he covered the 2012 presidential campaign.

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