What do you get when you combine a former defense contractor with a Web technology whiz? A new social network for veterans — or at least that’s what its founders hope the site Veteran Central will become.
Many soldiers face a harsh reality upon their return from abroad. Veterans of recent wars are more likely to be jobless than the general population — those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan had an unemployment rate of 11.6 percent in August 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with the national average of 8.3 percent.
But after researching post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury issues with the Pentagon, Paul McDonald realized veterans face even bigger problems than a lack of jobs.
“I realized that there were three of important veteran issues that weren’t really being dealt with by any kind of Web site,” said McDonald, who has a PhD in neuroscience.
To him, that meant social reintegration for veterans who are re-entering civilian society, a centralized portal for mental-health resources and a jobs board with dependable listings.
To create this new veteran-services Web clearinghouse, McDonald teamed with his friend Jonathon Lunardi, a former product manager at the education company Blackboard, who brought the IT skills to the operation.
A few months later, Veteran Central was born.
With its job listings component, Veteran Central aims to solve a problem McDonald and Lunardi see in the veteran-job-board ecosystem: Most of the listings are geared toward white-collar professionals, leaving a gap for less-educated workers.
“The Booz Allens are going to put a job on any site and it will do well, but the local mechanic is going to go on Craigslist,” Lunardi said. “We’re depending on people to put jobs on our job board so that the local guy can find a job in his community.”
Lunardi and McDonald don’t charge for companies to post, and a team of interns looks over each posting to ensure it’s relevant for military skills.
Beyond job listings, the site also features resources to guide veterans on the path to collecting benefits and managing other transitional issues. Podcasts, videos and articles by veteran contributors aim to direct returning soldiers to free resources they can tap. (Under the program “Give An Hour,” for example, psychologists donate free mental health services for veterans and their families.)
Over time, Lunardi and McDonald say they hope the site will become driven by veterans who continually contribute resources and jobs, thus forming a type of “social support network.”
“This is a community-driven tool,” McDonald said. “We get away from the laundry list of links that you might find elsewhere.”
The community feel is what attracted Michael Garee, a Vietnam veteran who has published several articles on the site about VA benefits.
Because the site allows veterans to create profiles and form groups, Garee says it has the potential to become “a Facebook for the veteran community.”
But Lunardi and McDonald join a marketplace that is, for better or worse, already very crowded. There are scores of other veteran sites, many created by government and nonprofit groups, that aim to do much the same thing that Veteran Central does — connect veterans with resources and jobs.
“Just off the top of my head, there’s Warrior Gateway , Military One Source and the National Resource Directory ,” said Lisa Rosser, a veteran employment consultant. (Not to mention old standbys like Military.com, the Department of Veterans Affairs or MilitaryHire.com). “There’s no shortage of these, and they continue to pop up. It can be overwhelming for the military member and for the employer.”
Rosser recommends that veteran sites “be a niche, rather than a be-all, end-all,” for returning soldiers.
But she also said that having a human point of contact — a number to call or an HR person to review a resume — would be the real way to add value.
That’s one area where Veteran Central aims to distinguish itself: An online chat feature allows visitors to ask resume, health and other questions.
The freedom to add features like the chat and the Facebook integration was one reason Lunardi and McDonald were reluctant to simply work with the government to improve an existing site — or to build a site that aggregates existing government portals.
McDonald, who formerly worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, said he was frustrated by the federal contracting pipeline and by agencies’ occasionally behind-the-times approach to Web technology.
“Instead of fighting from the inside, we’re trying to create a user-generated community,” McDonald said. “The top-down government solution rarely works. My way will take longer, but if we get a good groundswell, it will be more impactful at a tangible level.”