An Untapped Resource: Veterans and the Outdoor Workforce

The Skip Yowell Future Leaders tackle barriers faced by veterans seeking employment in the outdoor industry.

By Jill Sanford January 3, 2018

Photos courtesy of Jake Wheeler

From where former U.S. Navy Seal Ryan Evans stood, he could see and hear other military veterans whooping and hollering as they threw rocks into a puddle at the entrance of Santa Elena canyon. It was in early December in Big Bend National Park, where the Rio Grande snakes it’s way between Texas and Mexico. The 10 vets were in the middle of a two day rafting trip down the Grande.

“We had pulled into camp, day one on the river,” Evans says, explaining the scene, “And very organically, little scouting parties just started forming. A lot of the guys ended up crawling out to this high overlook of the river and just spontaneously started exploring our environment.” 

The simplicity of the moment was remarkable not just in that this hodge-podge group of seasoned warriors and military personnel were able to revert to an innocent sense of play, but also because this group had known each other for just over 24 hours.    

“Experiences like that require trust,” says Evans. “It’s vital in a team, and good teams trust each other. It can be difficult to build those experiences in a workplace environment, yet in the outdoors [trust] forms truly and quickly. That will map back into our experiences in the outdoor industry.” 

Photo courtesy of Jake Wheeler

Identifying A Need

Evans and the other veterans weren’t on the river solely for a joyride. They had been brought together as part of an inaugural event meant to address the challenges veterans face in entering the civilian workforce, particularly when seeking careers in the outdoor industry, and the benefits for businesses in hiring trained and skilled military veterans.    

The outdoor industry is responsible for 7.6 million American jobs, but it’s unknown how many veterans are included in that number. Thanks to a group of up-and-coming leaders from Outdoor Industry Association’s Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy, the outdoor industry is collectively turning its attention to this issue. 

The outdoor industry is responsible for 7.6 million American jobs, but it’s unknown how many veterans are included in that number. Thanks to a group of up-and-coming leaders, the outdoor industry is collectively turning its attention to this issue.

Photo courtesy of Jake Wheeler

“When someone volunteers to serve [their country], they are putting a civilian career on hold,” says Kevin Rosenberg, Navy veteran, lead guide, and founder of Gear to Go Outfitters. He was one of the industry leaders invited on the trip to advise other veterans. “No matter how you feel about the military, someone needs to be ready and able to defend the country, and veterans are deserving of our support and respect. There needs to be some system in place that honors their sacrifice and service by helping them catch up to their civilian peers.” 

Recognizing this need, a team from the Outdoor Industry Association’s Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy (SYFLA) tackled this problem head on earlier this year. Their capstone project resulted in a collaboration with the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors, a program that offers outdoor trips for veterans to foster physical and mental health and ease the transition back to civilian life. Arc’Teryx, Farm to Feet, Gear to GoTherm-a-Rest, PetzlSmartwool, Black Diamond, Osprey, Marmot, and Sterling Rope were among the sponsors of the 2017 River Leaders trip and their contributions will support this initiative going forward.  

“As the outdoor industry focuses on diversifying the workforce, we felt it was important to also include the veteran perspective in this conversation,” says SYFLA participant Jake Wheeler, sales executive at RootsRated. Other team members included Katie Hawkins, Robert Thomas, and Erin Weimer 

Addressing The Issues

The SYFLA project culminated in the creation of the River Leaders program, which the organizers hope grows into an annual event. This rafting trip in Big Bend National Park brought together 10 qualified military veterans seeking careers in the outdoor industry and 10 leaders from the outdoor industry, many of whom were veterans themselves.  

Photos courtesy of Jake Wheeler

“The objective was to connect veterans with outdoor industry professionals and create a network that can support each other,” says Cat Suen, a LEAF (Law Enforcement and Armed Services) dealer service rep for Arc’Teryx and one of the industry professionals who came on the trip. “There might be a certain bias against veterans during the application process that I wasn’t aware of before. There’s this whole community that is untapped as a resource by the outdoor industry, and they have so much to offer. This trip was really eye opening.”  

While floating between the 1,500-foot walls of the Santa Elena Canyon and sitting around a fire under the light of an early December super moon, the military veterans and seasoned outdoor industry professionals talked about how to better convey their skillsets to civilian employers and land their dream jobs. The group also tackled how the industry can better relate to veterans interested in joining its workforce.   

The participants floated (no pun intended) ideas such as outdoor industry-sanctioned job fairs on military bases, where industry recruiters would get a better sense of what soon-to-be veterans can offer and soldiers would get exposure to the many outdoor-related opportunities in the civilian world they might not realize exist. Similarly, much like they do with college students approaching graduation, outdoor industry brands and retailers could reach out directly to enlistees approaching their discharge dates.  

Photo courtesy of Jake Wheeler

On the flip side, the group acknowledged that veterans can do a better job of conveying how their experiences in the military relate to any given civilian job description. They spent time sharing ideas about how to communicate those experiences to prospective employers. Finally, they noted the value of mentorship from both sides. Veterans already working in the industry should make themselves visible and available to job-hunters, and job-hunters should seek career guidance and mentorship from vets who have gone before them. 

“There really are quite a few veterans in the outdoor industry, but I think there could certainly be a lot more,” says the outdoor industry’s most passionate and elevated voice for veterans’ affairs, Stacy Bare, the former director for Sierra Club Outdoors who recently left to join The Phoenix. “Veterans bring a diverse experience, new thoughts, hard work, and diversity to the workforce—as well as values of service and loyalty. The outdoor industry is looking for a great workforce, veterans can be it.” 

Diversity, Leadership, Problem Solving—The Whole Package

As the $887 billion outdoor recreation economy continues its steady growth into even more of an economic powerhouse, veterans are uniquely poised to bring diversity, leadership, problem solving skills, and an intimate understanding of gear to the industry.

“There’s a natural connection to the outdoors because even [vets] who are coming from desk jobs have all gone through basic training” in the military, says Jeff Davis, a Lieutenant Colonel coming to the outdoor industry from a 20 year career in the Air Force. “A lot of veterans are outdoor people who don’t even know that they can pursue a career that aligns with their interests.”

Photo courtesy of Jake Wheeler

Davis articulated a sentiment echoed by all of veterans on the trip, many of whom came seeking more clarity on what kinds of outdoor industry jobs are available and where to seek these positions out.

“I don’t want help just because I am a veteran, because it has become a cliché, or because it’s the ‘right thing to do.’ I want the outdoor industry to do more outreach to veterans because we are a valuable asset and can add an immediate value to a company,” said Davis.

“I want the outdoor industry to do more outreach to veterans because we are a valuable asset and can add an immediate value to a company.” Jeff Davis, U.S. Air Force veteran.

Often, veterans like Davis and Evans, two individuals on the trip with compelling and obvious leadership skills, can feel underappreciated for the assets and experience they bring to the table.   

“I had an interview with an HR hiring manager and she asked me if I had any experience with Excel pivot tables—that was disappointing,” says Evans, who recently left a position at the North Face to find another outdoor industry position more in line with his leadership experience. “Outdoor brands can be a lot more appealing to veterans if they show that they value the intangibles we bring. On paper, we might not map neatly into the job description, but veterans like myself who are transitioning mid-career have all the prerequisites when it comes to creating a good team.  

Photo courtesy of Jake Wheeler

Evans is not the only veteran on the trip who spoke of adversary and frustration in finding their niche in the outdoor industry.  

“I have several things going against me,” says Ana Beatriz Cholo, a Navy vet who is transitioning from a 20-year career as a journalist into the outdoor industry. “I’m not willing to accept a lower-level position with low pay. I’m also a single mom, which means I can’t pick up and move too far away.” 

Despite these struggles, Cholo landed a job in the outdoor industry right around the time she was unpacking her bags after the Big Bend river trip. She’ll be starting at the Santa Monica Mountains Fund in mid-February.  

From Fighting Wars to Fighting Stigmas At Home

Veterans are a diverse group and want to be treated as such. With different backgrounds and experiences in the military, one commonality many find when reentering the civilian workforce is a stigma about mental health.  

“The perception of Post Traumatic Syndrome in the veteran community has become the biggest bar to employment for veterans seeking careers in the outdoor industry,” says Rosenberg. “First of all, not every veteran has PTS, and second, a ton of civilians do have it.” 

David Petri, another veteran who has found success in the industry as the VP of Marketing with Farm to Feet, another sponsoring brand of the trip, agrees.  

“The one thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that veterans bring a diverse set of skills learned early on in their careers, including leadership, team building, and project management.”  

Photo courtesy of Jake Wheeler

 

The fact that veterans are good for the outdoor industry and vice versa bore out as both parties on the trip bonded over a mutual passion for adventure and natural places. The conversations were fluid but powerful, much like the Rio Grande winding its way through the limestone walls and boulder gardens of the national park.    

 “I’ve seen this conversation happen in other industries, but this is a really unique environment to facilitate [the discussion],” says Elizabeth O’Herrin, referring to the immersive and intimate nature of the river trip. O’Herrin is the director of programs and scholarships at the Pat Tillman Foundation, an organization that offers academic scholarships to veterans and their spouses. O’Herrin was invited along on the trip to shed light on the bigger picture beyond the outdoor industry. “People are able to really open up, share more personal experiences, and ask more intimate questions around the campfire or in a raft because there is a sense of security here.”  

Arc’Teryx, Farm to Feet, Gear to Go, Cascade Designs, Petzl, Smartwool, Black Diamond, Osprey, Marmot, and Sterling Rope were among the sponsors of the 2017 River Leaders trip and have already signed on to support this initiative going forward.  

“At Gear to Go, I let it be known in the industry that we are a veteran-owned company,” says Rosenberg. “Right now, the company is 100-percent veterans. Not that I wouldn’t hire someone who isn’t a veteran, but I strive to hire people I trust, and the people who fit this requirement are almost always veterans.” 

Photo courtesy of Jake Wheeler

Unfortunately for veterans seeking civilian careers within the outdoor industry, not all brands are as proactive about hiring ex-military as Gear to Go.  

 “I am willing to be an industry insider for any veteran interested in the company, says Tanya Weiss, Smartwool’s International Coordinator, another industry leader who participated in the trip, and the spouse of a veteran. “There should be more services for veterans applying to outdoor industry jobs.” 

The SYFLA group that coordinated the trip in conjunction with Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors is hopeful that the 2018 SYFLA cohort will pick up this project and carry the mantle. Stasia Walker, the director of the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Program said: “River Leaders is the start to a much needed initiative since veterans often are overlooked for outdoor industry positions. It is my hope that future SYFLA classes will take baton and continue the work until we create actual institutional change. The 2018 class of young leaders moved the cause forward, it will be up to new future leaders to continue this effort, and I can only hope they will feel empowered and motivated to do so.” 


Robert Vessels, the Sierra Club’s senior campaign representative for Military Outdoors, is looking forward to future collaborations with the River Leaders program. 

“We want to ride the momentum of this trip and get a second cohort of River Leaders scheduled for 2018—hopefully prior to December, so we aren’t relying heavily on fourth quarter donations,” said Vessels. “We will organize the trip logistics and facilitate the conversations, but the longevity of the program will depend on how much effort the outdoor industry is willing to put into bringing veterans into their workforce.” 

While the 10 aspiring veterans who participated in this inaugural River Leaders event are now plugged into a strong network of industry professionals, there are thousands more potential veteran employees out there who haven’t yet benefited from this program. Ultimately, the goal is to go beyond networking events like the river trips or a trade show happy hour and culminate in a yet-to-be-determined pipeline that accelerates and guides veterans transitioning from their military service to meaningful careers in the outdoor industry.  

“While there are a few things that need to be formalized and more entry points created, I don’t think we should discount how energized so much of the industry is to hire more veterans,” says Bare. “Help us figure out what comes next.” 

To learn more about this SYFLA project or get involved as an individual or sponsor in the 2018 River Leaders program, contact fla.river.leaders@gmail.com